I want to include documentation for pieces that I’ve entered into competitions during the past year. This was a comb that I created based on 10th century combs from Birka, Sweden and entered into Dragon’s Mist Arts and Sciences Championship. This comb was created entirely by hand and I was very happy with how it turned out.

Finished Comb and Display for Competition

PDF of Documentation
10th Century Composite Antler Comb Birka

10th Century Composite Antler Comb Based on Finds at Birka

HL Disa i Birkilundi

Andrea Harding

I find composite antler combs to be a very interesting area to study. I love that something as simple as a comb took so much work to create and was clearly highly valued. They could be simple or very ornate and were found all over Europe but particularly in Scandinavia.

Combs even when found in the same area vary greatly. It is rare to see two combs of the exact same shape and style. This is because every antler is different which makes composite combs almost impossible to exactly replicate. There is a slightly more unified look to the single piece combs but in that case you are working with a flat, large piece of antler which would be easier to keep consistent with.

Composite comb and single piece comb

I was surprised to discover just how common place combs were in Birka. I explored the excavated graves on the island by way of Historiska Museet’s website which gives you access to details and pictures of each grave site by type and location. What I found was that if a grave had any objects still visible, odds were you would also find at least a fragment of a comb. When looking further into the research of others I discovered that combs are the second most common item found in graves at Birka. This shows that nearly everyone carried or owned a comb regardless of status within the community.

Combs were also not something that everyone made. Piles of both tooth and connector plates have been found along with scraps of antler. This was a specialized craft in the community.

Materials

Antler

Initially I believed that Red Deer antler was the primary material used for creating composite combs however after further research it seems that Elk was actually used much more frequently in Birka than Red Deer. Cow bone and Moose were also used but much less common than the above materials and were most often used for single piece comb. My piece was made using Elk antler as it is much easier to acquire than Red Deer and is the more common material used in my primary location of interest.

Wire

Material used for rivets is commonly said to be either iron or bronze. I do not have easy access to either and so decided to look further into copper wire as it is a material that would have also been found in the area (if you have bronze you have copper.) I found an article written by Niklas Stjerna regarding the analysis of wire used in composite comb making specifically in Birka in the tenth century. The analysis showed that the wire tested was almost exclusively nonalloyed copper wire.

The wire that I used was a 14 gauge dead soft copper wire. I chose 14 gauge (1.63 mm) because it sits right in the middle of the 1-2 mm diameter size that was commonly found in Stjerna’s study and it seemed like a large enough diameter to effectively hold the comb together.

Tools

I used a saw, hammer, various files, jeweler’s saw, and a rivet forming tool all of which were similar to tools found in period. I also used a drill to create the holes for the rivets as I did not have access to a hand drill at the time of construction.

Process

Experimentation

As it had been several years since I had attempted to make a composite comb I decided to start by making a practice piece out of wood. I used a large dowel and cut it down into plates like I would antler. The wood was very frustrating to work with as the grain tends to make it more unpredictable and it split and broke much more easily than wood. Since wood is also much softer than antler when I attempted to put together the comb using my copper rivets it looked very messy as the wire ended up bent over instead of having a head. This was a very frustrating experience and I don’t think I will be using wood to test antler work again!

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The breakdown of the wooden “antler” and my resulting attempt at a composite comb from the pieces.

Before I began cutting down the antler that I intended to use for this project I wanted to try something that I had seen regarding the splitting of antler. Ambrosiani had speculated that the tine of the antler was used to split the larger section into smaller pieces. This seemed like an interesting thing to test as I had an extra antler that had been more weathered and was not in decent condition to use for actual comb construction. I scored the large piece of antler and attempted to split it using the tine. The antler split to some degree but not where is had been scored and the spongy inner core of the antler simply absorbed the tine.

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An illustration of Ambrosiani’s theory and my attempt at splitting the antler with the tine.

Based on what I saw in this experiment, I do not believe that this would be an effective way to split an antler, particularly if you are expecting to use the pieces for something like a comb. Even if you could get the tine to split the antler the edges of the split would be rough and messy and there would be much more waste than if you simply cut the antler with the saw that you need to score it in the first place. I would like to test again in the future by making my cuts a bit deeper to see if that makes a difference on how clean the split is. It is also possible that the age of the antler affected the density of the antler’s core. This may have also created a less dense core that did not create enough pressure on surface of the antler to split it correctly.

Breaking Down the Antler

The antler that I had was a good size and so I had a lot of options in finding good areas to work with. I chose an area where the antler split to create the plates used for the teeth because it gave a wide and relatively flat spot to work with. This would create less waste and a stronger plate as you would be using less of the soft center of the antler. I used the saw to cut plates off the antler and shape them. I also filed them down to a uniform width so that they would hold evenly between the connecting plates. I left them longer than the finished comb intentionally so that I would have more space to work when I put the comb together.

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The creation of the plates used for the teeth of the comb.

Initially I planned on using a piece from the large section of the antler to form the top connecting plates, however, I found an area on one of the smaller tines that I felt would work better. To create the connecting plates I took this section and cut it in half. The back area was fairly flat and so I cut it in half again and used a file remove the inside and flatten out the back of the plates. I used the saw to adjust the two pieces so that they were uniform and would hold the larger plates well.

Rivets

The creation of rivets is something that I have very little experience with. I looked at possible ways that it was done in period and decided to create a basic rivet using a metal tool to form the first head and then close the rivet on the piece itself. I created a simple tool for forming the first head. I used a block of aluminum (that was what I had available) and drilled two small holes roughly the size that I wanted the rivets to be. This worked relatively well with the exception of putting a piece in the smaller hole that was a bit too short and getting it stuck. If I were to create a tool for this use in the future I would run the whole the entire way through the block or split it down the center and clamp it together.

I had some difficulty forming the heads using the copper wire. They were forming off to the side and the heads were larger than I would have liked. I was working with a half-hard copper wire which made it very difficult to create a head at all. Once I moved to dead soft wire the rivets were easier to form. In the future I plan to experiment with heating the copper to create a more uniform head.

Simple riveting tool and copper rivets

Putting It Together

Once I had my plates and rivets I used clamps to hold the plates together in the desired configuration. I drilled holes though all of the plates and added the rivets. This part is simple to accomplish as long as all of your pieces fit relatively well together. If you have inconsistency in your tooth plates they can slip and cause the holes to be off (I had this happen with the wooden test comb.)

I used five rivets to put the comb together. The amount of rivets in extant pieces varies widely. I have seen combs with as many as ten rivets and combs with as little as three. I initially used three but decided that five would better hold the plates in place. The plates were able to move just slightly and I wanted the piece to hold together well.

Through my research I found that the majority of combs had relatively small connecting plates and teeth that were around double that size. Since the connecting plates are 1 cm I cut the area for the teeth down to roughly 2.5 cm. This gave the comb a much more accurate look and will give the teeth added strength.

121314

Putting the comb together

Teeth

Extent combs teeth also widely vary. A majority of combs have very clear saw marks on the connecting plates which shows that the teeth were added after they were put together. This made the most sense to me as it gives you added stability when you are working as well as more consistency in appearance from plate to plate.

The extant combs have anywhere from 5 to 24 teeth per inch. My previous comb had 6 teeth per inch. Using the jeweler’s saw I was able to get 10 teeth per inch leaving .5 cm on either side. I marked the cut lines onto the plates and cut the teeth without a guide. I felt more confident about cutting them freehand because I was afraid that a guide may become crooked and I wouldn’t be able to see that there was an issue. I did have some issue with having my cuts stay completely straight because the jewelers saw has such a small blade. I plan to use a wider bladed saw on my next comb.

Cutting the teeth

There were a few issues with the teeth. The lines were very crooked and the space between each tooth was too small to actually brush your hair with. The teeth were also the same with all the way down when there really should be a taper, also to ease in combing. The solution to each of these problems was files! I found a picture of the tooth of an unfinished comb and it looked very similar to what I had created. This made me feel a little less like I had made a mistake and more like I was on the right track.

I first used a large flat file to taper the teeth. When you see side views of combs they generally have a trapezoidal shape from the connector plate down to the bottom of the teeth. To get this look I simply angled my filing, taking turns on each side of the plates, until the side view looked correct.

Before and after side views and the side view of an extent comb

The shaping of the teeth took a good amount of time. I took a small round file and shaped each tooth individually making sure to create a nice point at the bottom. This process eliminated the crooked look of the teeth almost entirely. I was amazed at how much of a difference it made!

Teeth of extent combs before and after filing

Decoration

After looking at the finds from Birka I discovered that most were very lightly decorated. The piece that I based my comb on had no decoration at all but I wanted to add something as my previous comb had no decoration as well. I went with a basic line design as opposed to adding dots because I found more combs excavated from Birka with simple line designs. The design was made using a combination of a saw and file.

Though every composite comb is different almost all of them have a curved top. I had initially decided to leave my piece straight but after further research I went with a curve as well. This meant more filing. I shaped the top with a rougher file and finished the shaping with a finer one.

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Before and after filing the teeth and rounding the top and a close up of the finished teeth

Conclusion

I am very happy with the final product. I have received great feedback from everyone who has tried it! The next time I would love to try a longer or double sided comb with two different sized teeth. I would also like to experiment further into decoration, possibly adding dots or additional shaping to the top.

Examples of 10th Century Composite Combs

Common Tools Found in Scandanavia

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Biblography

A Short Notice on the Manufacture of Copper Wire at Birka Niklas Stjerna

An Antler Comb-Construction Notes Dirk; http://www.angelfire.com/mi4/olafvanta/Dirk/comb/comb.htm#Provenance

Combs and Comb Making in Viking and Middle Ages: A Short Resume Dan Carlsson

Historiska Museet Personal communication and website http://www.historiska.se

Viking Age Combs, Comb Making and Comb Makers; In the Light of Finds from Birka and Ribe Kristina Ambrosiani, 1981

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2 thoughts on “10th Century Composite Antler Comb Based on Finds at Birka

  1. You should point out that your process of assembling the comb prior to cutting the teeth is consistent with the extant examples, as evidenced by the grooves cut into the connecting plates of the extant examples from where the maker’s saw cut further than necessary.

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