Northern France

Documentary and linguistic sources attest to a Scandinavian presence in the north of France from around the 10th century. However, archaeological evidence, including portable material culture, is not well understood, being most notable for its scarcity (see Price 1989; Roesdahl 2003). It is therefore unsurprising that a coherent characterisation of the region's early medieval Norman comb corpus has yet to crystallise. In general terms, insufficient work has been undertaken in order to establish a fine chronology of Viking-Age and medieval combs from northern France. Moreover, the task of characterising the corpus is confounded on the one hand by poor preservation of early medieval urban deposits, and on the other - for the Viking Age in particular - by the lack of an established tradition of research into such artefactual material (see Jaubert 2001, 159, 165).

Inspired, no doubt, by classic French anthropology (Leroi-Gourhan (trans) 1993), and by recent work on prehistoric French boneworking (e.g. David 2003), some insightful work has been undertaken on medieval manufacturing techniques (see in particular Thuet 2003). Moreover, valuable typological work has been applied to the study of Merovingian combs (Petitjean 1995), material from other regions of France (Barrière-Flavy 1901; Goret 2004), and wooden combs of the second millennium (Mille 2008), but the nature of bone/antler comb production and use in 9th- to 11th-century northern France remains unclear, as the declining frequency of grave goods means that there are consequently fewer combs from secure, well-dated contexts.

However, ongoing research is beginning to change this situation, and one recently excavated site is particularly worthy of mention. Work at La Calotterie, Pas-de-Calais, Canche Valley, has identified what may be the Carolingian Quentovic's 'artisan quarter', and excavations have produced 34 combs: an unusually large number for a medieval site in France. The combs are of both double-sided types and single-sided form, and most have close parallels in England (e.g. Addyman and Hill 1969), and continental Europe (e.g. Elisenhof: Tempel 1979), but I have not seen the material, and so full publication of this important site is eagerly anticipated (Jean Soulat pers. comm.).

Further glimpses of the character of the corpus are attainable through review of a number of small collections from excavations of Viking-Age and medieval sites in the Aisne, Oise, and Somme départements of northern France. At la Place des Hallettes, in Compiègne, Oise, excavated comb material included examples of Type 4 riveted-mounts from 9th- to 10th-century contexts, and a late variant of Type 12, with differentiated teeth, from a 12th- to 13th-century pitfill (Petitjean and Jakubowki 1997, 301-2). Similarly, excavations at the motte and bailey castle at Boves, Somme, recovered a number of Type 4 riveted mounts, as well as fragmentary single-sided and double-sided combs that are difficult to assign to type (Chandevau 2002, 40-3). At this site, Type 4 combs are common around the year 1000, but are scarce in 12th- and 13th-century levels; Chandevau (2002, 46) suggests that this is symptomatic of their replacement by one-piece combs in horn or wood. Finally, combs from 9th- to 12th-century levels at Château-Thierry, Aisne, include a number of examples of Type 4, as well as fragmentary composite double- and single-sided material (Goret 1997, 122-6). Of particular note is an ornate, iron-riveted double-sided comb from an 11th-century context, which appears to anticipate the appearance of Type 13 in Scandinavia. In addition, one might note a number of objects identified as handles; these might equally be interpreted as the remains of Type 4 combs (Goret 1997, 112, 120).

In general, this brief review raises two important questions. First, the appearance of Type 4, particularly in 9th-century contexts, is of note given that, beyond France, the form is most frequently encountered in England. The form's chronology and numerical significance in France is difficult to establish, given the possibility that a certain number of examples may have been identified as handles, or, if fragmentary, may even have been confused with casket mounts (see Goret 1997, 110-11 for a discussion). Nonetheless, this comb form already begins to speak of cross-channel connections and shared material repertoires, perhaps as early as the 9th century.

Second, the consistent occurrence of late (11th century and later) variants of Type 12 is of note, given the fact that the type constitutes a relatively small component of the English corpus. This may suggest shared Anglo-French material references in the post-conquest period. The ornate example from Château-Thierry may indicate a continental form that later provided the inspiration for the development of Type 13 in Scandinavia. The alternative - that they share a common prototype - is also possible (Goret refers to Byzantine parallels), but any such interpretation is inadvisable in advance of further investigation. Here, the aim is simply to highlight these patterns as offering potential for future work.

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Archived Comments

Further information on the combs of tenth- to twelfth-century northern France would be of great interest. I would be particularly pleased to hear about any further Type 4 combs from the region, where they have been identified. Steve Ashby


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