Viking Combs Revisited

Ian Dennis, Archaeological Illustrator
Cardiff University

I‘m an archaeological illustrator (traditional and digital), field and experimental archaeologist at Cardiff Uni, since graduating in 1992. I teach archaeological skills (including illustration) and run excavations at Piepenkopf Iron Age Hillfort near Detmold, Germany.

Archaeological illustration of artefacts over the years has allowed me to examine them in an extremely close way. I have illustrated numerous Norse composite (made up of many parts) antler combs, especially from the Norse site of Bornais, on the Isle of Uist in the Western Isles, Scotland. The varying detail and complexity of these objects captured my attention, I love illustrating them. It was during illustrating these wonderful objects, that I was able to de-construct how they were possibly made (fig 1.).

Fig. 1. Illustrated Norse combs from Bornais.

While illustrating, I notice how objects are made, and sometimes am even able to identify the tools used in manufacture, from the tool marks left on them. For example, during the illustration of the combs I was able to identify that the incised line decoration was created using fine saws, which were also used for cutting the fine teeth (which were only 0.5mm to 2mm apart). The dot and ring decoration, which occurs regularly on the combs was made using a two-pronged tool, and not a stamp.  The literature is limited on how these combs may have been made in the past, so I thought why not just knock one out?  I could use the sequence of construction observed when illustrating the combs and test this against the literature available. This gave me the motivation to experiment with making objects from the past using the tools they probably would have had at hand, supported by evidence for tools found from archaeological excavations.

Now it was beginning to escalate, I decided to do an experiment and make a comb or two. I quickly realised that when making combs, not only would I need antler from a red deer (most commonly used), I would also need tools similar to the ones used by the Norse/makers of the combs to make it a valid experiment. I based these on some of the iron tools recovered from the Bornais excavations.

To describe the whole making process here would take a few thousand words, therefore if as they say a picture is worth a thousand words, several pictures are worth several thousand words! Here are some images showing the process I undertook to produce the combs, using various techniques and tools. Enjoy.

Fig. 2. Cutting up the antler following the tool/saw marks found on discarded antler waste from Bornais.
Fig. 3. Splitting the cut-up antler beams to make the tooth plates. Splitting them with antler tines and chiseling them flat, this was quick and easy.
Fig. 4. Shaping the side plates and grinding the tooth plates smooth.
Fig. 5. Decorating the side plates before assembling the composite comb.
Fig. 6. Applying the dot and ring motif decoration using a two-pronged tool.
Fig. 7. Drilling the holes for assembly and riveting, using hand made rolled sheet rivets, as observed in the original combs.
Fig. 8. This illustrates the sequence used to assemble the combs. Top, a single sided comb (note how the rivets are every other plate, this replicates how the earlier combs were made). Below a double sided fish tail comb (note here, in the later style they are rivetted completely differently).
Fig. 9. Trimming off the not required parts of the antler tooth plates and finishing before the teeth are cut.
Fig. 10. This shows examples of how the comb may have been held/clamped for the teeth to be cut. The microscope image shows how fine the saw cuts are and an antler tine with a possible tang from a broken saw from Bornais.
Fig. 11. Probably the most nerve wracking and worrying part of making this comb: cutting the teeth. One mistake and you will have to pop out some rivets and replace the incorrectly cut plate (Phew, stressful!).
Fig. 12. Three examples of the types of composite combs found from Bornais.
Fig. 12. Previous reconstruction found in the literature.

People are often surprised at how hardwearing these replica combs are, they are also fairly easily repairable. My experiments making theses combs, proved my suspicions regarding the straight line decoration being saw cut and the dot and ring motifs being made with a two pronged ring boring tool. I was also able to estimate roughly how many combs you could make from one antler: one, if you’re lucky! This is a much smaller amount than the literature had suggested. My most signifiacant finding was that combs are actually fairly easy to make. It is the tools that required extremely high skill to make, and then the techniques that are employed using the tools. This hierarchy of skill and importance is backed up by evidence from early medieval Irish Brehon law, where a blacksmith was ranked higher in importance than a lowly combmaker. A combmaker was not particularly valued and could be made fun of by all other professions, just like me!