1. Introduction

The bone/antler hair-comb is a quantitatively important artefact of the period between the end of the Roman era and the High Middle Ages (c. AD 1050-1200). In addition, as we will see, it affords significant potential for the high-resolution investigation of temporal and spatial patterning.

Given this potential, it is unsurprising that a number of detailed comb classifications have been constructed for particular sites or regions (e.g. Winter 1907; Thomas 1960; Tempel 1969; Ulbricht 1980; Ambrosiani 1981; Flodin 1989; Luik 1998; Smirnova 2005). However, to date there have been few attempts to synthesise the Viking-Age and medieval European corpus. Indeed, in a relatively recent survey of early medieval northern European combs, Callmer (1998, 474) noted the absence of a 'comprehensive treatment of the Continental comb material'. The same may be said for large areas of northern Europe.

Such is the aim of the present article: the chief interest is the UK corpus, though some attempt is made to place this within a broader north European context. While a comprehensive coverage is unattainable, the identification of broad regional patterning is desirable. Such an understanding not only enhances knowledge of comb production, distribution and use, and how this varied across this particular transect through the continent, but also elucidates trade, population movement, and culture contact in more general terms, while facilitating and informing future, more focused, locally and regionally based investigations.

It is important to note that the use of composite combs was not limited to northern Europe. On the contrary, examples are known from central (e.g. Becker 1989; Piekalskiego and Wachowskiego 2004) southern (e.g. Coutts et al. 2001, 415), and south-eastern Europe (e.g. Curta 2009, fig. 10.9; Petkovic 2006), and even reached Iceland and the islands of the North Atlantic (Amorosi 1992, figs 7-9). Nonetheless, in the Viking Age their manufacture and use is probably best evidenced in Scandinavia, the British Isles, and the coasts of the Baltic and North Sea; consequently these regions are the focus of this article. Moreover, the collections from northern England (Ashby in press b; Ashby 2006), Scotland (Ashby 2009; Ashby in press a; Ashby 2006), and western Russia (Smirnova 2005, 86-92) have been dealt with elsewhere, and their treatment in this atlas is accordingly brief. While it is intended that the survey will be of interest to scholars across northern Europe, it should be noted that first-hand study of material evidence is largely limited to collections held within UK-based institutions. Nonetheless, this contribution aims to place the comb collections of the British Isles within their European context. To this end, a number of Scandinavian collections were studied at first hand (Birka, Sigtuna and Trondheim in detail; others, including Kaupang and Bergen, more summarily). In all other cases, information provided here is based on published data and details kindly provided in advance of publication. The study considers material published in a range of languages and academic traditions, but it is anticipated that material published in Russian will be less well represented here than that written in English, German, Polish, or the Scandinavian languages, and in this context the article owes a certain debt to Lyuba Smirnova's excellent survey (Smirnova 2005, 86-92). This is, unfortunately, inevitable, as is the omission of certain unpublished reports, since at the time of writing the author was unaware of their existence.

This review has the potential to impact upon a number of important debates. It has particular implications for the characterisation of the pre-Viking/Viking-Age transition (e.g. Ashby 2009; Barrett 2004; Curle 1982), discussions surrounding traffic in the North Sea prior to AD 795 (Carver 1990; Gaut 2002; Hines 1984; 1992; Myhre 1993; Smith 2000; Weber 1992), and the nature of local and long-range trade in the Viking Age (see Ambrosiani 1981; cf. Sindbaek 2007a; 2007b) and the succeeding centuries (see Spufford 2006). It is hoped that it will also find a role as a reference tool for the field archaeologist and curator of collections.


While this article aims for an accurate characterisation of comb distributions as they are known today, it is not comprehensive, and it is of course likely that further discoveries will be made over the coming decades. The comments facility allows users to communicate (to the author and other readers) information relating to excavated material omitted from the original survey.


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