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Combs and Communities


This project builds upon recent work on Viking-Age comb manufacture and use, in considering the experience of comb production and consumption. However, the aim of this project is not to write a detailed monograph on combs, but rather to produce an engaging exercise in early-medieval artefact biography (something that has rarely been successfully achieved), taking the comb as the subject. It is intended that the project's output will function both as an introduction to bone/antlerworking, and as a catalyst for people to start thinking about other medieval artefacts in the same way.

 The overall approach is one of biography.  It will first consider the ecologies of the human-deer relationship, and the collection of raw materials, and will then progress to discuss the experience of production and shaping the object, and the means of distribution.  This will then lead into considerations of the varied modes of comb use in different social contexts, and the diverse ways in whioch combs have been disposed of, repaired, or meaningfully deposited.  The biography incorporates narratives based on archaeological examples, but also makes use of anthropological studies and analogies taken from documentary, literary and other artistic sources.   Throughout, the significance of material and form are central to the study, such that the biography is truly social and ecological. The comb is thus situated as a part of the world in which it is created.

The project's ultimate output is a volume for a general audience, to be published by Amberley in 2014. This volume will synthesise and rearticulates work published in more traditional scholarly fora.  It is also anticipated that the project will open up new avenues of research, into areas such as :


  • Viking-Age craft, technology, and identity
  • Hair and personal appearance in the early medieval world
  • Medieval Trade and economics in the North  and Baltic Seas




Ashby, S. P. in prep. A Viking Way of Life.  Combs and Communities in Britain and Scandinavia, c. AD 800-1100, Stroud, Amberley.

Ashby, S. P. forthcoming for 2014. Technologies of Appearance: hair behaviour in Early-Medieval Europe. Archaeological Journal 171.


In Print

Von Holstein, I. C., Ashby, S. P., Van Doorn, N. L., Sachs, S. M., Buckley, M., 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 Science 41, 1-6.

Ashby, S. P. 2013. Some Comments on the Identification of Cervid Species in Worked Antler. In: O'connor, S. & Choyke, A. M. (eds) From These Bare Bones: Raw materials and the study of worked osseous materials. Oxford: Oxbow. pp.208-222

Ashby, S. P. 2013. Making a Good Comb: Mercantile Identity in 9th to 11th-century England. In: Ten-Harkel, L. & Hadley, D. M. (eds) Everyday Life in Viking Towns: Social Approaches to Towns in England and Ireland c. 800-1100. Oxford: Oxbow. pp.193-208

Ashby, S. P. 2012. A Study in Regionality: Hair Combs and Bone/Antler Craft in North-east England c. AD 800-1100. In: Petts, D. & Turner, S. (eds) Early Medieval Northumbria:Kingdoms and Communities, AD 450-1100. Turnhout: Brepols. pp.303-319

Ashby, S. P. 2011. The language of the combmaker.  A study of craft and technology in early medieval England. In: Baron, J. & Kufel-Diakowska, B. (eds) Written in Bones.  Studies on technological and social contexts of past faunal skeletal remains. Wrocław.: University of Wrocław. pp.9-24

Ashby, S. P. 2011. An atlas of medieval combs from northern Europe. Internet Archaeology, 30,

Ashby, S. P. 2009. Combs, contact, and chronology: reconsidering hair combs in Early-historic and Viking-age Atlantic Scotland. Medieval Archaeology, 53, 1-33.

Future Work

The project has influenced ongoing and planned work in the following projects:






The link below will take you to the original project startup page:

Ashby Comb, Ambrosiani A, 9th -e. 10th C.  Drawing by Pat Walsh, Northants Archaeology.

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