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: Boneworking


Bones were for the Anglo-Saxons what plastic is for us today. A workable substance able to be molded into a variety of shapes and sizes, early craftsmen used bone and antler tip to make such diverse objects as combs, needles, pins and sword hilts as well as a number of other small specific pieces to meet everyday needs.

Our group endeavored to enter the mindset of early Anglo-Saxon craftspeople by procuring bone and antler and attempting to prepare them for working at the fair. We drew heavily on the teachings of a historical re-enactor, Halldor the Viking, and used his described methods of bone working as well as other contemporary sources. Due to a lack of instructional manuals from the period, trial and error proved to be our biggest teachers.

Preparing the bone:

We purchased 5 cow femurs at a butcher shop, still covered in gristle and some meat.

After researching the best way to clean bone for carving, we decided to simmer them gently in a pot for 4-5 hours. Even after the simmering, a fair amount of the meat remained on the bone, so we had to do the final cleaning by hand by scraping the bones clean with forks.

Later, in order to maximize the number of bones available to fairgoers, we split two of them longways down the center with power tools. Finally, about 36 hours before the start of the fair, we soaked them all in water to soften them for carving.

For more information about bone click here or here.

Preparing the antler:

Two antler tines were provided, and we used a combination of sawing and chiseling to cut them in half.

Like the bones, we soaked them for 36 hours prior to the fair.

For more information about making with antler, click here.

At the Fair:

We set out an array of the bones and antler pieces and provided saws (a hacksaw and a coping saw), chisels, knives, and rasps of varying coarseness for visitors to use.

Our goal was for fairgoers to correspond with the materials and feel their resistance, rather than attempting to make specific objects. As a result, the most common action that people took was to carve their own name into the bone (ignoring the antler), either in modern English or in the Futhorc alphabet from a nearby table. They carved the bone, rather than carving objects from the bone.

Overall, though none of the visitors suddenly became an expert in boneworking, we feel that they enjoyed the experience, and appreciated the toughness of the bone and the resistance it offers when being manipulated.

ORP: Bone Needle

By Brendan Glenn,  class of 2021

When one considers the objects of importance in one’s life, it is often the largest or most complex things which first come to mind. The buttons on my shirts or the zippers on my backpack, however, are as vitally important to my life, or at least to my lifestyle, as my phone or my computer. Such unseen but ever-present objects are probably more populous nowadays, in the age of mass-production and unobtrusive design, but they have doubtless existed for nearly as long as groups of humans have been producing things. One particular invisible object, a needle of carved bone, can be used to shed a little light on a certain group of humans: the people inhabiting the early Anglo-Saxon settlement of West Stow in the middle centuries of the first millennium. Despite the fact that it was likely taken for granted in its “life,” or perhaps because it was, it can if thoroughly noticed offer insights about those who created and used it.

The needle in question (Fig. 1) is a fairly simple object comprised of two main sections: a head and a shaft. The shaft is thin and cylindrical, descending from the head and tapering at the other end to a somewhat sharp point. The head is  a roughly shield-shaped structure with a hole in its center, which is positioned directly in line with the shaft. The needle likely originates from a pig fibula which was carved down into a needle shape around its central axis, preserving the tensile strength provided by the original bone while also minimizing the space the item would have taken up.

I bet whoever owned this lost it on purpose. Would *you* want to sew with it? It's made of a pig's leg and its head probably gets stuck in every piece of fabric it passes through.

Figure 1: An image of the bone needle I reconstructed, and one of many photographs used in that reconstruction.

This object was most likely used either as a simple dress-pin or for single-needle knitting. It shares with sewing needles found at and near West Stow a perforated triangular head and a simple design, although it is more elaborate than other needles due to the extra carving on its head which makes it shield-shaped. That this needle is fancier than other, similar objects, however, raises several questions about the people who used it. Why might someone want a more elaborate version of a bone tool whose uses were fairly mundane? The answer is likely that this needle’s relatively-ornate design served to highlight the bone-working skill of the person who created it, and therefore the status of its user. From this, one can infer that there was a certain amount of value placed on having finely-made things in the community at West Stow, which isn’t necessarily surprising, but also that this applied even to small, seemingly mundane items such as needles.

Finely-made needles have been important tools and status symbols in many societies.

Why, then, didn’t a person with the means to have a nice needle have a needle made for themselves out of a higher-status material? Iron, silver and bronze dress-pins are present at the West Stow site, but no needles of anything but bone have been found. Why make metal pins but not metal needles? Since needles, unlike dress-pins, are unlikely to be buried with people, it’s possible that metal needles were used and didn’t end up where archaeologists could find them, but it seems unlikely that no metal needles would ever be lost, unlike the many doubtlessly-misplaced bone needles found in other excavated dwellings. Perhaps metal simply couldn’t be shaped into fine enough needles for the purposes of West Stow’s needle-users. Either way, the fact that this simple object is the nicest needle found at the site provides a glimpse, however murky, into the sorts of things that its people valued in their invisible objects.

Despite the fact that this needle was probably used for fairly mundane purposes, such as doing simple, decorative embroidery, it nonetheless is an object which could be said to have had a higher level of importance than other quotidian tools. The people of West Stow lived simple lives and had access, from the perspective of even people alive in their own time in places not terribly far from Britain, to very little indeed.

Pictured: two residents of West Stow

    Despite that, however, they had the time and energy to make even their simple tools prettier than they necessarily had to be. Knit-work is useful for keeping oneself warm and dress-pins are necessary for holding certain types of clothing together, but there’s no need for the objects that facilitate knitting or pinned dresses to be nice. Despite this, some inhabitant of West Stow nonetheless wanted this needle to be prettier than it absolutely had to be, to make things nicer rather than simply do the bare minimum in a time and place where even achieving the bare minimum of survival was a fairly pressing task. It is things like this small, simple-yet-ornate needle which remind us that even the people who do not appear in histories have inner lives, and are, essentially, human.

Of course, producing this needle was not a task accomplished via the crafter’s deep belief in the innate human quest for beauty, but via bone-working tools and the leg of a slaughtered pig, which are much less romantic to ponder but substantially more useful. My own work to recreate this object was significantly less bloody and physical than its original creator’s, but did give me an appreciation for the effort required to produce such an object. Several of the issues which I encountered in my quest to convince Agisoft PhotoScan to produce a 3D model of the object could be taken as oblique metaphors for the experience of a human interacting with a needle like this one.

Not quite.

The program initially, for instance, had difficulties separating the needle from the background of the photos in which it was pictured. I have had the same experience multiple times when attempting to find similar small objects against backgrounds which seemingly ought to highlight their presence, and while I understood that PhotoScan was having a different issue than I do when I drop a red thumbtack and cannot find it on a solid green carpet, I still empathized with the program’s struggle. For reference, see Fig. 2, where the program constructed a horrible amalgam formed of photos of the object taken from many angles due to its inability to distinguish it from its  background.

And when the shapeless thing in skies above/does take the sun within its charnel form/the sky will tear itself apart for love;/ the stars despite that darkness will us warm.

Figure 2: an in-progress screenshot of my attempt to model the needle.

Likewise, the refusal of the program to assign any tie points to the object or its environs I assumed to be similar in aspect to my own difficulties when attempting to, say, seize hold of such small items as the needle. The solution for both of us in this sort of situation appears to be the application of additional computing power to the problem; I, on my second attempt, take time to resolve the depth of the evasive object before attempting to pick it up again, while PhotoScan required a greater limit for the number of points which it’s allowed to apply when aligning its images in order to sufficiently “acquire” the needle and model it sufficiently (see Fig. 3). In other words, I was able to experience an interaction with this item in vicarious fashion through the trials which PhotoScan went through in attempting to locate, acquire, and correctly model it.

Please ignore the blobs near the head, or imagine that they are there so as to avoid the wrath of God by the creation of a perfect thing.

Figure 3: My final model for (the upright perspective of) the needle.

    The stories which something as simple and seemingly unimportant as a needle can tell are, honestly, surprising in their scope and occasional depth. Through attempting to understand this object one can learn not only about its history but about the concerns, both social and aesthetic, of its user or users. That this needle holds so much information within it despite the fact that it likely went almost unnoticed by those in whose lives it was present has induced in me a sort of paranoia concerning the materials with which I live my life. What will my shirt-buttons tell the archaeologists and college students of the future? My discarded coffee-cup lids? My headphones? It’s not paranoia in the sense that I feel threatened (though I suppose it’s always uncomfortable to consider the prospect that nameless others will understand in great detail how I live my life), but more in the sense that my every use of an object is now paired with the thought, “what will they think of this when they find it?”. This has the uncomfortable effect of making objects that ought to be invisible (like my suddenly-fascinating shirt-buttons) quite visible indeed. Perhaps the owner of this needle felt the same way when considering its shield-shaped head. “I hope” they might have thought, “that nobody notices how inconvenient the shape of this thing is for sewing.”



West, Stanley. West Stow, Suffolk: The Anglo-Saxon Village. 2 vols., East Anglian Archaeology Report 24. Ipswich, Suffolk: Suffolk County Planning Dept., 1985.

The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, edited by Hamerow et al. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.

West, Stanley. West Stow Revisited. West Stow: West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village Trust, 2001.