ORP: Double-Sided Comb

About Object 1402

A double-sided bone comb found at the West Stow Settlement.

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.


Recreation Process

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.

Top of the comb during the photogrammetry process.

Bottom of comb during the photogrammetry process.

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.

Cutting excess material 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.


Insight Gained

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.

A 3-D reproduction of the West Stow comb.

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.


Further Reading

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.

Craft Fair: Early Medieval Calligraphy in the British Isles

While the book can be traced back to the second century AD, calligraphy did not come to the Anglo-Saxons until their conversion in the late sixth century. Calligraphy and book-making existed almost entirely in the ecclesiastical sphere, and we have no evidence for English books before the arrival of the Christians. However, manuscript writing had come to Ireland centuries earlier with the arrival of St. Patrick’s mission in the fifth century. The unique, geometric Celtic art style would be integrated into the Britons’ illuminated manuscripts, cultivating a unique illumination style known the Insular style. This style of illumination was used famously in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Monks made their books out of parchment, pages made from the skins of animals, commonly those of cattle, sheep, and goats. The parchment-making process was very similar to the hide-making process; the skin would be soaked, scraped, treated with lime to get the fat out, and dried. Vellum was a fine and costly type of parchment, an extremely soft page made from calf skin. Since parchment was dependent on animal skin, bookmaking was an extremely expensive process in early medieval England; it has been argued that a single page of vellum would have been the product of 400 hectares (almost 1,000 acres) of land.

While no quills survive from Anglo-Saxon England, they were almost certainly used by scribes. Quills have been depicted in contemporary descriptions of early medieval scribes and alluded to in Anglo-Saxon riddles. Commonly a swan or goose feather, the quill was made by cutting out the fletching and outer tissue of the tube. Scribes would then carve the tip of the quill out of the front of the feather with a small knife and cut a small incision in the center of the nib for an ink font. Scribes are often depicted holding this naked quill in one hand and a knife in the other. The knife was very likely used to quill sharp over the course of the transcription.

Black ink would have been made by mixing charcoal with gum or alternatively by combining tannic acid, found in oak galls (those small, apple-like growths one can find on oak trees), with ferrous sulphate. Anglo-Saxon books were usually written in Old English or Latin, although monks occasionally wrote in Greek and Hebrew. The Old English alphabet was originally a runic system, but runes were gradually supplanted by a variation on the Latin alphabet in the ninth century.

I did not want to focus my recreation on book-making. As such, I used modern paper instead of parchment and my ink was store-bought, not handmade. My intent, rather, was to have the visitor try their hand at writing in Old English script with a quill. To do this, I printed and laminated two pages of the Beowulf manuscript, dating back to the 10th-11th centuries. This manuscript is in Latinized Old English, so it would allow visitors not only to try out medieval transcription, but also to do so in the vernacular language of the Anglo-Saxons.

I then made three quills out of goose and turkey feathers. To do this, I trimmed away the fluff near the bottom of the feather. I then made a diagonal incision at the base of the feather and scraped out the inner tissue. After this, I soaked the feathers overnight. This process makes them more malleable for the coming carving jobs. I next heated up sand in a pan over a stove and heated the tubes of the feathers in the sand. This hardens the edge, so that the feather won’t have to be constantly sharpened.

Finally, I made a longer diagonal cut along the grain at the base of the feather and carved down the sides of the tube so that I had a flat nib. Then I made a cut across the feather, giving the nib the flat shape of the tip of the quill. Lastly, I made a small cut down into the nib to make an ink well.

At the Fair
I set out these quills, the laminated pages, two bottles of ink, a penknife, and scrap paper out at my station. I also had three unmarked feathers and intended to demonstrate quill-carving at my booth. Many of my visitors were very happy writing with ink and quill. However, not very many tried their hand at copying the Beowulf manuscript. More wanted to write in modern English or runic script. However, it seemed that the chance to write with ink and quill enticed many visitors.


Cutting away the fluff.

Making the first diagonal cut.

Soaking the feathers.

Heating the feathers.

Making the longer cut.

Making the square cut.

Making the ink well.

The calligraphy booth.


Further Resources

For more information on book-, quill-, and ink-making:

Anglo-Saxon Crafts, by Kevin Leahy, pp. 89-93

On monastic life in Anglo-Saxon England:

Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400-1070, by Robin Fleming, Chapters 6 and 12, “Missionaries and Converts: The Later Sixth to Early Eighth Century” and “Clerics, Monks and the Laiety: The Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Centuries”

On quill-making:

An excellent tutorial on modern-day quill-making processes by the New York Public Library.