Canterbury Archeological Trust

Two Late Saxon Combs from Longmarket
Ian Riddler

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Amongst many finds to have been recorded from the Longmarket excavations are several combs, a few of which are almost complete. Two combs in particular provide some indication of comb production in the Late Saxon period. They are beautiful objects in their own right, but they also reveal two different styles of comb manufacture practised at this time, and add significantly to our knowledge of combs at both a local and international level.

Drawing of Saxon Comb

The first of the pair is a single-sided comb. consisting of three tooth segments and two end segments, fastened to two connecting-plates by five iron rivets. It is made of antler and is decorated on both sides by panels of ring-and-dot patterns, segregated by diagonal crossed lines. It is a well- made comb but by Anglo-Saxon standards it is not a top quality product. The design is the same on both connecting-plates but included six panels on one side and only five on the other, and the comb is not quite symmetrical about its centre. Its rivetting is unevenly spaced and (even in its present corroded state) those rivets are intrusive to the comb decoration, passing indiscriminately through its uneven patterns. These might seem like the unnecessary criticisms of a modern specialist who is setting standards to which the Anglo-Saxons never really aspired; but Anglo-Saxons could (and frequently did) make better combs. This comb was made by a reasonably proficient local craftsman in accordance with a style of the Late Saxon period which is now becoming increasingly familiar.

Most Late Saxon combs are single-sided. A gradual evolution can be traced from triangular combs of the early Anglo-Saxon period (which have scarcely been seen at Canterbury, as yet) to an extended version of that type with rounded connecting-plates and 'winged' end segments reaching upwards beyond the line of the rounded back of the comb. This comb type, essentially a form of the seventh and early eighth centuries, was itself supplanted at some point by the simpler type of comb seen here, whose end segments merely continue the line of the comb back. It is not clear, at present, what provided the impetus for such changes in style, although fashions in England do generally reflect those seen earlier on the Continent.

`Winged' combs of the seventh century have been described as Frisian but they may well owe more to developments in comb design in the Merovingian kingdom further to the south. The impetus for this Canterbury comb may, on the other hand, actually be Frisian, where `wingless' combs occur from the eighth century onwards.

Closer to home, the Canterbury comb is of a type familiar from other sites like Cambridge, York, Hereford and Norwich. It is not a common type of comb, however, and there are only a handful of examples known at present, few of which can be dated with any precision. It is not clear, therefore, whether this comb style was not particularly popular, or merely short-lived, or whether the paucity of examples simply reflects a lack of excavation of contexts of the appropriate period.

Ninth-century Anglo-Saxon contexts are themselves a scarce commodity, for example, and comparatively few items, outside of decorative metalwork, can be ascribed as yet to the reigns of either Offa or Alfred. We must be wary, therefore, of making too much out of a handful of combs. Nonetheless, differences in decoration between combs of the same general type may conceivable indicate different craftsmen and production centres and combs manufactured to a slightly indifferent standard are liable to be made locally, in emulation of contemporary designs.

Drawing of a Saxon Comb

With the second comb it is possible to further develop an image of the mechanisms of production and distribution. This comb is also single-sided but it is longer, with slender connecting-plates and end segments (one of which survives) which sweep up gently from the line of the comb back, Its decoration is the same on both sides and is simply but proficiently incised, with a cluster of vertical lines at the centre and diagonal lines at the comb ends. The comb teeth are longer and are cut and shaped a little more proficiently. The rivetting is evenly-spaced and is deliberately arranged so as to be less intrusive, being confined to spaces between the decoration. We are dealing here with a high quality production designed to increased standards of regularity and symmetry.

The comb type is characterised by the trapezoidal cross-section of its connecting-plates and by the central cluster of decoration, which consists of bands of vertical lines, alternating in their spacing across the three angled fields of the connecting-plate. The central part of a similar comb came from excavations at Mint Yard in 1979 and the type is also known from London, Northampton and York. In broader terms, however, the comb type is Scandinavian.

It is seen in some numbers at the Viking period emporium of Haithabu, where evidence for its production has also been located. Further examples are known from other Baltic Sea sites, including Wolin, Zantoch and Gnesen. Indeed, it has been regarded as a comb type characteristic of the southern Baltic Sea coast in the early medieval period, its distribution devolving out from one or more southern Scandinavian production centres.

This presents a few problems. Are the Anglo-Saxon examples of this comb type actually Scandinavian combs, or are they imitations of the type, better described as Anglo-Scandinavian? The term Anglo-Scandinavian is frequently used for objects other than combs and particularly for sculpture, where it is clear that although Scandinavian influence is apparent, the objects themselves were made in England. James Graham-Campbell has published a knife from Canterbury which can also be regarded as Anglo-Scandinavian; it may have been produced in York. With these objects it is the presence of an Anglo-Saxon element of style, alongside Scandinavian taste. which allows them to be defined as Anglo-Scandinavian.

There is nothing obviously Anglo-Saxon about the Canterbury comb. It can happily be set alongside Continental examples of the type and regarded as a Scandinavian comb. Dating for the type is reasonably secure and extends from the second half of the ninth century to the end of the eleventh; this particular comb type seems to have gone out of use by the beginning of the twelfth century. Both this comb and that from Mint Yard can in fact be regarded as Scandinavian.

This does not mean that Vikings were rampaging over the Longmarket in the tenth and eleventh centuries. dropping their combs into wells. Ceramic evidence from the context of the Longmarket comb provided a date of c. 1075-1100 for its deposition. Early medieval combs were sturdy artefacts designed to accompany an individual throughout their life; they may often have been kept in use for twenty to thirty years. The extent of their use can be determined from the degree of wear on their teeth. Following prolonged use the teeth are marked by horizontal striations which develop at the tooth ends into 'beads' which eventually drop away, shortening the teeth. The striations and 'beading' form a useful index of comb use and also help to indicate which parts of a comb incurred greatest use. This Scandinavian comb shows little sign of use. Its teeth are not beaded and those which survive are of similar lengths. It is likely, therefore that it was discarded (accidentally or deliberately) within a few years of its manufacture; and the date of that manufacture would have been just after the Norman Conquest. Its dating thus concurs well with that established at the Pommeranian site of Wolin, where this comb type first becomes common in the eleventh century, and continues into the early twelfth century. Similar dating has recently been established for combs of this type recovered from excavations in Dublin, and it has been suggested that they were made there. One of the lesser known attributes of Viking civilisation was its proficiency in comb-making. Excavations at Haithabu, Oldenburg, Ribe, Lund, Birka and Menzlin have revealed copious evidence of waste from comb production. Haithabu and Birka appear to have been major centres for comb-making in the ninth and tenth centuries.

In the eleventh century the Scandinavian tradition in comb-making is continued at Lund and Schleswig, as well as further to the east at Wolin. The products of these centres are widely dispersed across the Baltic and the North Sea littoral and are inevitably to be seen in England also. Scandinavian proficiency in comb-making undoubtedly had its uses:

It is reported in the chronicle attributed to John of Wallingford that the Danes, thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses

The two Longmarket combs represent two aspects of comb production in the Late Saxon period. One comb is a native product, reasonably well-made to an established design of the ninth or tenth centuries. The other owes its greater proficiency both to the fact that it is not English at all, and to its post-Conquest date. It is an interesting testament to a lesser-known facet of late Viking civilisation.

An overall description of what was found on the site, written while the dig was in progress
Pottery in the Longmarket
Two reports on the pottery finds in the Longmarket
Human remains
A short report on some human bones found during the excavation
Two Medieval London-type jugs from Longmarket
A detailed report on two interesting jugs found in a cess-pit.

See this place today Click on the logo to see this place today.   The information on this page is Copyright © Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd. 1991 Reproduced with permission.
The text and pictures were taken from Canterbury's Archaeology 1989/1990, The 14th Annual Report of Canterbury Archaeological Trust Ltd.

Peter Collinson Last change: 18th November 2018