ORP: Double-Sided Comb
About Object 1402
Object 1402 was described in the archeological records as a “double-sided bone comb in very fine condition.” The comb was found during the archeological excavations at the West Stow settlement that were undertaken by the British Department of the Environment beginning in 1965. During the excavation process, the department uncovered the remains of around 75 buildings and thousands of artifacts that served to add greatly to the known material culture of these people. The comb was found in Sunken Feature Building 51 (SFB 51), one of the most northern structures present at West Stow. This small building, about thirteen feet by seven feet, had a pit dug into the ground (it was estimated to have originally been about two feet deep) over which the building was situated. SFB 51 had two central support posts, as was fairly typical of the other buildings found on site, with straight walls and rounded corners. Interestingly, despite the comb being considered one of the better examples found at West Stow, there was very little else discovered in this building, only a single hook, and a few broken pieces of pottery. The small size of the building and the artifacts that were found suggest that SFB 51 was originally a domestic area that probably housed relatively few people, as would be expected in a single-family settlement.
Combs in Anglo-Saxon England
Bone and antler combs are by no means rare finds in excavations of Anglo-Saxon settlements, and at West Stow, they were one of the most commonly uncovered items. These included single- sided, double-sided, and triangular combs that were found scattered throughout many of the roughly 75 buildings uncovered on the site. While it is clear that these items were prevalent throughout England during this time, it remains uncertain of their cultural significance as they do not appear in textual sources from the era. Object 1402, for instance, though it is an unusually good specimen, but it still leaves many questions about its uses and those of many combs found throughout Britain. Were the broken teeth the result of the last 1,500 years underground, or were they teeth that snapped off before it was discarded? Who would have used it? Were combs primarily used by women, or would they have been seen as ungendered during the period? What does this comb tell us about the values of the Anglo-Saxons, does the level of detail put into the comb suggest vanity or merely a concern for hygiene? Many of these questions will never be answered, and certainly will not be will not be derived from a single artifact, but if observing an object will not bring us to understand the lives of the people who owned it centuries ago, attempting to recreate its production and use will at least serve to bring us closer to the headspace of those who produced these objects and interacted with them years ago.
I attempted to make a 3D model of the comb using the process of photogrammetry. Much of the process did involve mind-numbing struggles with the computer program or merely setting the computer system to run while I sat and read a book, but I also found that some of the process did give me a greater insight into the original making process. Through the process I had the ability to look at the object from many angles greatly improved my understanding of how the comb was put together, and allowed me to view the sides of the comb in much greater detail than I would have seen in a side-view photograph of so thin an object.
In addition to this, I believe that part of the photogrammetry process gave me a taste of the actual process of cutting the teeth of the comb. I spent many hours laboriously cutting away the excess material that the computer had produced from the background, carefully shaving it away from the teeth of the comb.
This long and intricate process (one that would have been made infinitely harder in the Anglo-Saxon period by the absence of an undo button) gave me an appreciation for the delicacy of the work. A bone worker would almost certainly have failed many times before he was able to create a comb so intricate with nearly uniform teeth. It would assuredly have been an arduous and often frustrating process, which led me to wonder, how these combs could have been so common throughout the West Stow settlement.
While a digital recreation of the comb found at West Stow did not necessarily shed great insight into the physical process of bone carving during the early medieval period, it did add give a greater appreciation for the time and energy that would have gone in to such a creation and the delicacy of much of the work involved. I discovered this in the process of cutting the excess material from the model, as described above but also through time spent examining the object and trying to place it within its larger context. This is one of the benefits of the field of digital humanities and the possibilities it presents for the wider exploration of history. It certainly should not replace physical models or other forms of recreation, but as an added tool, it offers the chance to produce a greater number of models of items and helps us to integrate interdisciplinary fields to better our understanding of archeological sights such as West Stow. Through the process of photogrammetry, I was able to take pictures of an item on the other side of the Atlantic and produce a physical, printed model that gives us a good idea of the original. It may not be an exact replica, but I have a much better idea of the complexity involved in the original object, and it can now be seen by a wider audience.
As is often the case, the greater understanding of the piece does not necessarily offer a greater simplicity to its historical narrative, but it does serve to enrich it and to give a more wholistic view of its place in history. Perhaps the recreation and reclamation of ancient objects and crafting techniques will not serve to answer all our outstanding historical questions, but it will, without a doubt serve to enrich our historical understanding. It is a journey of self-discovery that may vastly complicate our ideas, but it will also, overtime, allow for a greater exploration of Anglo-Saxon Britain through personal experience and immersion in many different avenues of historical exploration.
Ingold, Tim. Making. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Leahy, Kevin. Anglo-Saxon Crafts. Brimscombe Port Stroud, UK: The History Press, 2003.
West, Stanley. West Stow: The Anglo-Saxon Village. Ipswich, UK: Suffolk County Council, 1985.