JERUSALEM — Wooden combs left in the Israelite fortress of Masada after a siege by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago show the ancients suffered from one of today's more pesky afflictions--they had lice.
"All indications point to head lice being a big problem," said Kostas Mumcuoglu, an Israeli parasitologist who studied hundreds of lice and lice eggs found clinging to the ancient combs and hair.
"These people were forced to live in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions. They obviously had lots of lice," he said.
The 960 Jewish Zealots who took refuge at Masada, an imposing rock fortress on a mountain ridge overlooking the Dead Sea, faced starvation during a seven-year siege by the Romans. They committed mass suicide in AD 73 rather than surrender.
Found in Caves
Many of the 24 combs and clumps of hair Mumcuoglu studied were discovered buried with bits of clothes at Masada and date to AD 68. Others were found in the caves at Qumran where the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls were uncovered, as well as in other caves in the Judean and Negev deserts.
According to the Old Testament, even Moses and his followers were afflicted with lice. A teeming swarm of the creatures was among the nine plagues God sent to free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, according to Exodus 8:16.
Mumcuoglu said the combs, which look much like contemporary ones, were used by the ancient Israelites primarily to pick lice out of their scalps rather than for reasons of vanity.
"They were made of a hard wood and were much more effective than the plastic and metal combs people use to remove lice today," he said.
Mumcuoglu, a researcher at Hebrew University, said the fact that many of the lice eggs stuck to the combs were still unhatched showed how well they worked.
'Almost Impossible to Remove'
"Before they hatch, lice eggs may as well be glued to the head. They're almost impossible to remove," he said.
Although it is not unheard of to uncover lice in ancient remains, Mumcuoglu said the Israeli discovery is the first case of lice being discovered still clinging to ancient combs.
He said lice have been discovered inside Egyptian mummies and within mummified pre-Columbian remains discovered in Latin America. The ancient Romans also wrote extensively about the problems the insidious creatures caused them during their occupation of Palestine, Mumcuoglu said.