1.1 Aims and geographical remit

This article considers chronological and geographical patterning in comb form in the UK and Europe. It is intended primarily as a guide for UK-based researchers, but may also constitute a useful first port-of-call for scholars based overseas. It is intended to complement, rather than to replace existing classifications, which are grounded in more focused consideration of particular morphotypes in restricted spheres of time and space. Thus, schemes by scholars such as Thomas (1960), Ambrosiani (1981) and Wiberg (1987) remain appropriate tools for the fine-grained classification of combs of Types 1a, 5/6, and 9/13 respectively. The atlas is intended as a guide to comb material from the Viking Age (c. AD 800-1050) and medieval periods (c. AD 1050-1450), though some detail regarding the combs of preceding centuries is necessary as an aid to understanding the chronological development of form. Moreover, it is important to introduce these early examples in order that they might be distinguished from Viking-Age and medieval types. Nonetheless, it should be pointed out that the atlas is not intended for use with combs pre-dating c. AD 800. While readers with an interest in the detailed development of Early Anglo-Saxon or Merovingian material may find this review a useful starting point, they are encouraged to follow up the more specialised publications cited herein. In particular, it should be noted that the distribution of these forms is much wider than the surveyed area.

Indeed, it should be emphasised that, in geographical terms, the survey is concerned with what one might term 'Viking Europe' (including Great Britain and Ireland in the west, Scandinavia, the northern coasts of France, Germany and Poland, the Baltic States, and north-western Russia in the east; see Map 1). In particular, no attempt is made to extend coverage beyond the south coasts of the Baltic into the interior of Poland or Germany. This must be a task for future research. Nonetheless, the present survey represents a significant undertaking, being one of very few extensive reviews published in the English language, the first since MacGregor's (1985) discussion, and certainly the first to be published in a digital format.

Neither does this review make any claim to be a comprehensive coverage. Key sites have been included in the various regions, and some attempt has been made to incorporate less well-known material alongside this and in the associated data tables, but the approach taken to discussion is one based on case studies, rather than 100% coverage. Inevitably, in some cases it has not been possible to access comb material or detailed context data. Nonetheless, the incorporation of material from a large number of sites of diverse form and function should ensure a representative coverage of the survey area. Maps 3-12 indicate the sites surveyed for this study, alongside other key contemporary sites mentioned in the text as points of reference.

The review is concerned with patterning in comb corpora, rather than with evidence for manufacture; the latter has seen extensive coverage elsewhere (e.g. Ashby 2006; Ashby in prep. b; Ambrosiani 1981; MacGregor 1989; Ulbricht 1978). Data are recorded on a presence/absence basis; given that the survey is grounded in a combination of primary analysis and synthesis of secondary texts (in which the data are recorded in varying degrees of clarity, consistency and completeness), a rigorously quantitative approach is neither possible nor appropriate. Thus, for the British Isles, the occurrences of comb types are mapped by site, while for the remainder of the survey area, types are recorded in a schematic manner, with their relative abundance ('frequent', 'occasional', or 'absent in all but isolated examples') aggregated across regional units (Map 2). These maps are intended to provide an accessible guide to the distributions of the various types, in order to gain some understanding of their relative frequencies both across northern Europe, and in a given region.

Finally, it should be noted that typological study represents no more than a baseline method of analysis. Classification necessarily involves a fundamental simplification of patterning: it is this that allows one to find order in what would otherwise be a potentially endless continuum of variation. Thus, the use of the broad-based scheme outlined here does not preclude the application of more focused typologies to particular types, subtypes or groups of types (e.g. Wiberg 1977 for Types 9 and 13). Furthermore, the production of nuanced social and economic narrative demands an approach that effectively identifies patterning at the level of discrete traits. Indeed, there is considerable variability within and across types, and only by studying patterning in traits relating to raw material use, methods of manufacture, and aesthetic treatment may we undertake interpretative discussion at a high level of resolution. However, such phenomena are beyond the remit of this article, and readers are referred elsewhere for consideration of such approaches (see, for instance Ashby 2005; Ashby 2009; Ashby in prep. b; MacGregor et al. 1999; Smirnova 2005).

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