Combs, Contact and Chronology: Reconsidering Hair Combs in Early-Historic and Viking-Age Atlantic Scotland

Combs, Contact and Chronology: Reconsidering Hair Combs in Early-Historic and Viking-Age Atlantic Scotland

By Steven P. Ashby

Medieval Archaeology, Vol.53 (2009)

Abstract: Analysis of an important collection of bone/antler hair combs from Atlantic Scotland has illuminated the chronology of early-medieval Scandinavian settlement in the region. Application of a new typology, identification of variations in manufacturing practice and analysis of spatial patterning throw light on the development of combs traditionally seen as characteristic of early-historic Atlantic Scotland. The application of new techniques of raw material analysis demonstrates the probable use of reindeer antler in combs of ‘native’ style.

However, none of these combs is from contexts that can confidently be dated to the 8th century or earlier, and the pattern is indicative of Norse-native coexistence (peaceful or otherwise) in the 9th century, but not before. The comb evidence demonstrates a Scandinavian presence throughout Atlantic Scotland from early in the Viking Age, but also highlights the importance of contact with Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England.

Introduction: This paper stems from doctoral research completed at the University of York in 2006. It addresses a number of key questions in the archaeology of early-historic and Viking-Age Atlantic Scotland (see Fig 1a), through the medium of artefactual analysis, specifically the study of bone and antler hair combs. These artefacts are a ‘type find’ of the settlements of early-medieval Atlantic Scotland.

However, although a number of site reports have incorporated analyses of combs, synthetic treatment of all or parts of the corpus is rare. This is unfortunate as they offer considerable potential for the investigation of patterning in time and space and may inform debate on several methodological and theoretical issues key to the understanding of Atlantic Scotland in the late 1st and early 2nd millennium ad. Using combs, this paper will examine the chronology and nature of native-Scandinavian contact in Atlantic Scotland, and its implications for the region’s political, economic and social dynamics in the early Viking Age.

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