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Central Sweden

The most important collection is that from the island of Björkö, including Birka's Black Earth deposits and the surrounding gravefields. This corpus has previously been subjected to a detailed study (Ambrosiani 1981), in which the majority of combs were classified as type 'A' (Type 5 in the present study) or 'B' (Type 6 here) on the basis of broad decorative styles and the cross-section of the connecting plates. These could then be further classified as subtypes A1, A2, A3, B1:1, B1:2, B1:3, B2, B3, and B4, based on ornamental variations.

Ambrosiani's primary dating was based on the Björko grave finds, using associated finds that were dateable on typological grounds, and paying particular attention to the co-occurrence of dissimilar comb forms in a given grave. She found that A2 combs (Type 5 combs with ring-and-dot ornament) were the oldest form, stretching back into the 8th century and persisting until the early 10th. These were accompanied and superseded by A1 (characterised by vertical line decoration), which were current between the early 9th and mid-10th century, and A3 (with interlace ornament), which were shorter-lived, spanning the period between the second-half of the 9th century and the first half of the 10th. Broad support comes from combs excavated from the harbour area (Ambrosiani and Clarke 1992). Thus, A combs as a whole can be said to date between the late 8th and mid-10th centuries. Regarding the typology applied in the present work, it should be recalled that earlier combs with similar cross-sections also fit into Type 5. These combs differ from Ambrosiani A combs in terms of overall profile and means of decoration, though they are clearly related to the former; Tempel (1969) refers to them as Vorformen. They date back into the 8th century, when they are known from sites in Frisia (e.g. Roes 1963) as well as southern Scandinavia.

A1 and A3 were partially contemporary with B combs (Type 6 here), as the oldest of these (B1), first appeared around AD 900, with B2-B4 following in the first half of the 10th century. Type B combs persist until the cessation of accompanied burial on Björko, so Ambrosiani (1981)cannot determine the duration of their currency, but the evidence suggests they remained extant at least until the second half of the 10th century. In order to corroborate her findings, Ambrosiani also analysed comb waste from Birka itself, and carried out a survey of published combs from the relevant levels at Staraja Ladoga, Wolin, Haithabu, Elisenhof, and Dorestad. This upheld the extinction of A combs (Type 5 in the present study) by c. AD 950, and demonstrated the absence of B combs (Type 6 here) anywhere prior to the late 9th century. However, again Ambrosiani's survey was less conclusive concerning the date at which type B fell out of use, stating only that similar combs were known from the lower levels of Bergen, Oslo, Sigtuna and Lund. Unfortunately, at these sites their chronology is difficult to assess, as they have been classified together with later (Type 9) forms. A comprehensive re-analysis of combs from Scandinavian towns is necessary in order to address the question of the latest date for Type 6 combs.

The most remarkable feature of the Birka collection is its apparent homogeneity; the vast majority of combs can be classified as Types 5 or 6, while Types 4, 7, 8a, 8b, and 8c are absent (c.f. contemporary England). This apparent conservatism is surprising, given the ostensibly cosmopolitan nature of Birka as a settlement and marketplace. However, within the collection of Type 5 and Type 6 combs, a variety of subforms were recorded. These included cymbiform (boat-shaped) Type 5 variants, similar to those from the Frisian terpen, labelled as pre-Viking Vorformen by Tempel (1969), and considered by Callmer (1998) to be of 'Frisian' origin. Also of note is a Type 3 'asymmetric comb' (see Ashby 2006, fig. 6.20b), but perhaps of most interest is an isolated example of a Type 11 comb (Ashby 2006, fig. 6.21) with most direct parallels in Frisia and north-western Europe. It seems possible that the comb was brought to Birka by raiders, merchants or other travellers from Frisia or its environs.

The town of Sigtuna, near Stockholm, is generally accepted as Birka's successor (see Ros 1992; Broberg and Hasselmo 1981; Roslund 1992; Tesch 1987; Tesch and Vincent 2003). Sigtuna has its origins sometime in the 900s, but was particularly important between the early 11th and mid-13th centuries. The combs from Sigtuna have not been widely published in detail, and examination of a selection of the comb material was necessary. A large quantity of combs is known from Storagatan, the main street of the town, together with waste deposits of considerable size. Comb types present include 6, 9, 13, and 14(a-c). Like other classes of artefact, those from the earliest levels share characteristics with the latest examples from Birka (see Clarke and Ambrosiani 1991, 79).

Similarly, excavations in the medieval town of Skara (Västergötland) recovered combs of Types 6, 9, 13 and 14b (see Vretemark 1990). Indeed, this is the general pattern seen across a number of central Sweden's medieval settlements, while earlier sites and burials incorporate combs of Types 1a, 5 and/or 6 (as at Tuna: Arne 1934).

 

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