ECR Case Study: Iron Age Long Handled Bone Combs

Using Experimental Archaeology to Understand Iron Age Long Handled Bone Combs

Amber Rivers

Amber Rivers received the SCARF COVID 19 bursary which has allowed her to fund a weaving course pertaining to her ongoing PhD research on the social practice of Scottish Iron Age textiles

Long-handled antler and bone combs become ubiquitous during the Middle Iron Age across sites in the UK (Harding 2004). Based on their morphology and use-wear there has been much debate over the last two centuries as to these combs’ intended use; ranging from hair combs (Harding 2004), to wool combs (Coughtrey 1870-72) to instruments for tablet weaving (Tuohy 2000). However, no scholars with a practical knowledge of textile production have attempted to use creative practice to answer this question. As part of my Masters research I conducted an experimental archaeology study of a ritual cache of twelve long-handled antler combs from The Cairns, an Iron Age settlement on South Ronaldsay, Orkney.

Fig 1. Aerial view of The Cairns. With permission of Martin Carruthers, site director.

Fig 2. Ritual comb cache discovered arranged in lattice formation mimicking woven cloth, wrapped in degraded cloth and included in decommissioning of building with fire. With permission of Martin Carruthers, site director.

I used a two-pronged approach of creative practice and use-wear analysis to identity the most likely purpose of these tools and the types of products they created. Replicas of three combs from this site were used to comb human hair, prepare raw Shetland wool for spinning, and to comb the weft threads on a warp-weighted loom. The combs were assessed for their ease of use in each experiment, and the use-wear which these actions could produce was compared to the markings on the original specimens. The results of these examinations concluded that these tools most likely functioned as weaving implements, and furthermore that the variety of sizes and teeth gauges reflects the type of cloth they were intended to produce. This study has implications beyond the site in question. The presence of these artefacts at sites throughout the UK can now shed light on the types of weaving which occurred and the types of cloth which were made at those locations. Furthermore, now that their purpose is better understood, the proliferation of these combs during the Middle Iron Age can help us recognise the increasingly important economic and social roles of textiles during this period.

Figure 3. Comb replicas (left); Figure 4. Hair combing (right). Images Amber Rivers

Figure 3. Comb replicas (left); Figure 4. Hair combing (right). Images ©Amber Rivers

Figure 5. Preparing wool Image ©Amber Rivers

Figure 6. Weft-facing fabric produced with long-handled comb (right). Image ©Amber Rivers

Sharples noted a significant change in the use of material culture towards the end of the Middle Iron Age throughout Scotland, whereby monumental architecture no longer served to display status and identity, but was replaced by personal adornment objects such as jewellery. This period also exhibits a preference for high status, rare, and imported goods (Sharples 2003). Cloth does not survive well in the archaeological record, because in prehistory it was composed entirely of organic materials, which degrade over time and can only survive in rare environmental conditions (Dimova 2016; Gleba and Mannering 2012; Barber 1994). As such, it has not been considered alongside surviving artefacts like jewellery, but it is probable that fabric would have been part of this cultural practice of personal adornment (Heckett 2012), and its highly portable nature would have made it an ideal product for gifting and exchange. By looking at comb teeth, we can then surmise whether a settlement was producing only coarse cloth for everyday wear, or whether they were engaging in the specialist production of fine cloth for gifting or exchange.

Figure 7. Comb use-wear. Image ©Amber Rivers

The aesthetic features of the combs can also help us to better understand the complex socio-cultural practices involved in weaving. The Cairns combs and indeed most long-handled weaving combs which have been uncovered, are made of red deer antler. This material is less easily acquired than bone from domestic animals, and is only seasonally available. In addition it is extremely difficult to work, as it requires a lengthy boiling process before it is malleable enough to carve. There must be some significance to this choice of material. Chittock has suggested that during the Iron Age, red deer might have a symbolic affiliation with transformation, as evidenced by depictions of human/deer hybrids such as the figure depicted on the Gündestrup Cauldron (Chittock 2014). If red deer do have this association, it is logical that antler would be used to make tools employed in the transformative process of weaving (changing raw wool into spun thread which is then interconnected to produce a single piece of cloth).

It is also interesting to note that weaving combs are among the few utilitarian items in the Middle Iron Age which are decorated. There must be a reason why the time was taken to embellish objects which show such evidence of use. Some combs, usually those which are more elaborately decorated have perforations near the base of their handles, which suggests they may have been worn around the neck or hung from a belt (Chittock 2014; Coughtrey 1870-72). If one examines the regional distribution of these artefacts, one can begin to discern local decorative styles. For example, combs in the Northern Isles of Scotland, which include the specimens in this study, typically exhibit linear motifs, while ring and dot markings are more common in combs found in the Western Isles. The etchings display a marked range of skill level, suggesting they were not always carved by experienced antler-workers, but may have been carved by the textile artists using the combs (Chittock 2014). It is entirely possible that in this period where textiles seem to take on greater importance for the consumers, the tools of the trade become a focal point in communicating the identity of textile artists.

Using Experimental Archaeology to Understand Iron Age Long Handled Bone Combs Bibliography

  • Barber, E. (1994) Women’s Work the First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. New York: Norton and Company, Inc.
  • Chittock, H. (2014) ‘Arts and Crafts in Iron Age Britain: Reconsidering the Aesthetic Effects of Weaving Combs’. Oxford Journal of Archaeology. 33(3), 313-326
  • Coughtrey, M. (1870-72) ‘Notes on Materials Found in a Kitchen Midden at Hillswick, Shetland, With Special Reference to Long-Handled Comb’. Proc Soc Antiq Scot. 9(1), 118-151
  • Dimova, B. (2016) ‘Textile Production in Iron Age Thrace’. European Journal of Archaeology. 19(4), 652-680
  • Gleba, M. and Mannering, U. (2012) ‘Introduction: Textile Preservation, Analysis and Technology’. In Textiles and Textile Production in Europe From Prehistory to AD 400. ed. by Gleba, M. and Mannering, U. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 1-26
  • Harding, D. W. (2004) The Iron Age in Northern Britain: Celts and Romans, Natives and Invaders. London: Routledge
  • Heckett, E. W. (2012) ‘Scotland and Ireland’. In Textiles and Textile Production in Europe From Prehistory to AD 400. ed. by Gleba, M. and Mannering, U. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 428-443
  • Sharples, N. (2003) ‘From monuments to artefacts: changing social relationships in the later Iron Age’. In Sea Change: Orkney and Northern Europe in the Later Iron Age AD 300-800. ed. by Downes, J., and Ritchie, A. Scotland: Pinkfoot Press, 151-168
  • Tuohy, T. (2000) ‘Long Handled Weaving Combs: Problems in Determining the Gender of Tool-Maker and Tool-User’. In Gender and Material Culture in Historical Perspective. ed. By Donald, M. and Hurcombe, L. New York: Palgrave Macmillan



“The aesthetic features of the combs can help us to better understand the complex socio-cultural practices involved in weaving”

Leave a Reply