1.3 Context of development

This article has been developed out of research undertaken as part of a doctoral project at the University of York (Ashby 2006). Taking an approach very much inspired by a previous contribution to Internet Archaeology (Tyers 1996), its goals are to clarify, systematise and compare comb typology across north-west Europe, in order to disentangle temporal and regional variability such that the latter can ultimately be interpreted in social and economic terms. Its particular contribution is the incorporation of material from the British Isles into the continental corpus at large; the detail of Scandinavian, British, and Irish material has rarely been considered in an integrated manner. Indeed, combs from northern England and Scotland (discussed in detail elsewhere) are key to this review, as they have been thoroughly studied by the author, and the multivariate and stratigraphic analyses undertaken on this material (together with similar investigations of selected samples from Scandinavia; see Ashby 2006) helped to provide the framework for the classification, which was then refined in light of evidence from elsewhere in Europe.

It is appreciated that a survey as broad and coarse-grained as this will be of limited utility in the elucidation of issues relating to the development of aesthetic strategies, or the construction of fine local chronologies. The detail required to satisfy such a use could not be comprehensibly incorporated into a survey on the geographical and chronological scale presented herein. Thus, specialists interested in the detailed variation apparent in Early Saxon triangular or round-backed combs may find their grouping together here as Type 1a of little utility other than as a basic label. Similarly, in any study of the development of Type 5 combs in Frisia and Scandinavia (see Callmer 1998), or of the chronology of later medieval (Types 9 and 13) combs in Scandinavia (see Wiberg 1987), the application of this typology would be appropriate only as a first step towards the development of more precise local or site-based chronologies, that might be based upon statistical techniques such as multivariate analyses (e.g. Ashby 2009). Indeed, this is precisely the purpose of the present overview. In synthesising variation on a broad scale, it is hoped that patterning on the macro-level may be identified, and that the study will provide a general framework in which further, targetted work may be encouraged. Finally, it is hoped that in the construction of a classification that is not overly divisive or hierarchical, this article will provide excavators, finds specialists, researchers and curators with the tools necessary in order to assess the form and spatio-temporal associations of any given Viking-Age or medieval comb rapidly and reliably. Such an approach should always be accompanied by full description, but allows us to circumvent the potential problems inherent in a 'description only' strategy, wherein terminology is not always well defined.

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