Posted on 10 January 2014
Recent research by a team led by York's Isabella von Holstein (now at Kiel University), Steve Ashby, and Matthew Collins throws serious doubt on previously published claims that there was a long period of contact - perhaps peaceful - between the peoples of northern Scotland and Scandinavia prior to the start of the Viking Age. As a result, the chronology of contact may need to be rethought.
The research, published in January's Journal of Archaeological Science, focuses on the analysis of hair combs from Orkney. A number of these were previously believed to be made of reindeer antler, a material not available in Scotland at the time, and thus evidencing early contact with Scandinavia. Recent work by Steve Ashby (2009) had questioned the identification and interpretation of some of this material, but prior to the development of York's ZooMS (Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry) method, it had not been possible to definitively identify these objects one way or the other. The ZooMS method has considerable potential in this kind of study, as its minimally destructive sampling methods are well suited to application on fragile and ornate bone objects such as combs.
This study, the first of its kind to be undertaken on a collection of medieval artefacts, demonstrates this potential, and its results are supported by parallel identifications undertaken at Royal Holloway's Ancient DNA laboratory (Ian Barnes and Meirav Meirai).
The study was funded by NERC, the European Union, and the Catherine Mackichan Trust. Further analyses of antler combs from across England, Scotland, Scandinavia, and the North Atlantic are ongoing.
Von Holstein, I. C. C., Ashby, S., Van Doorn, N. L., Buckley, M., Sachs, S., Meirai, M., Barnes, I., Brundle, A. & Collins, M. J. 2013. Searching for Scandinavians in pre-Viking Scotland: molecular fingerprinting of Early Medieval combs. Journal of Archaeological