I entered this comb into the Glymm Mere Arts and Sciences Championship in December of 2015. I love this little comb! It’s the first comb that I have created with a case and any real ornamentation. Normally I base my pieces on finds from Birka but I loved the extant piece and wanted to try to replicate it.
PDF of Documentation
Composite Antler Comb with Case Based on Tenth Century Gotland Find
HL Disa i Birkilundi
“Bronze ornaments have hitherto been valued most highly by archeologists because it is possible to trace their development with the least difficulty and so to detect contacts with alien folk. Who knows what the significance of other objects, for example combs, may be when they come to be studied.”
I’ve always found everyday items very interesting and combs are a wonderful example. The tenth century combs found in Scandinavia are well crafted, often beautifully decorated tools that people carried everyday and many were buried with. Combs have been found with multiple materials used as rivets implying that they were repaired as opposed to being replaced. This is the same tool many people today will purchase cheaply and use a few times before discarding it.
Combs are one of the most common items found in graves. The style that I have based this piece on (straight pieces with line and circle dot decoration) are found primarily between 950 and 1000. Earlier combs were more rounded and their decoration was more ornate. This change was most likely due to an increase in the population of Scandinavia resulting in a higher demand for combs.
Original Gotland Comb
The extant piece that I based my work on was a small comb with a case found in Gotland. While looking into comb production in Gotland I discovered that there is little evidence of a resident comb maker in that area. In areas like Hedeby and Birka there is evidence of larger scale comb production in the form of large piles of antler pieces and incomplete tooth and connector plates. This most likely means that comb makers would create their pieces in one place a majority of the time and then travel to other areas with a lower demand and sell their work during the large seasonal markets. Most areas would not have had a high enough demand to support a resident comb maker.
According to research, combs with cases have only been found in male graves. Combs in female graves tend to be found around waist area and were most likely carried in a cloth or leather bag on the belt and not hung from the brooches. This comb would have most likely been a man’s comb in the tenth century. It would have been created in Hedeby or Birka and brought to Gotland to sell.
Most combs are made of either Red Deer or Elk antler. Red Deer is more commonly found in earlier period while Elk, which is more readily found in Scandinavia, is found in later period almost exclusively. This happened because the population growth meant that comb makers did not have to travel as far to support themselves and used the local sources of antler.Red Deer is easily distinguished from Elk due to remaining blood vessels that create a brown discoloration in the antler while Red Deer antler is solid white.
Cut pieces of elk antler showing the distinctive discoloration
Most of the antler found in debris piles have been shed. This is indicated by the condition of the burrs, the large piece at the base of the antler where it connects to the skull. The burrs found in the debris piles have the rough look of shed antler rather than being cut from the skull. The sheds were most likely collected during moulting season and then purchased by comb makers.
My comb was created using elk antler shed. I chose elk because the piece was based on a tenth century comb and this was the most common material used. Elk also has a larger amount of usable material. The spongy core is smaller leaving a thicker outer core.
Rivets used to connect the pieces of the comb were made of copper, bronze, or iron. I have chosen dead soft 14 gauge copper to use create my rivets. Rivets found have been between 1 and 2 mm thick and 14 gauge sits right in the middle of that thickness. I chose copper because iron and bronze are less readily available to me and copper is more easily worked.
I used a saw, hammer, rasp, files and clamps all which are tools similar to those found in period. I also used a bandsaw and a drum sander to cut out the basic pieces and get them to a workable size. I have hand cut and filed the pieces down to size by hand previously and was unable to do this with this piece due to time constraints.
Tools used in comb construction
A small drill was also used to drill the holes for the rivets. I did purchase a hand drill and attempted to use it but the drill bits were too small initially. When I found a way to use the small bits with the drill the drill was too heavy for the small bit and the bit broke. I was able to successfully drill a hole into my test antler before this happened.
Both eye and breathing protection were also used as it is not safe to work with antler without proper protection.
Breaking down the Antler
I started by looking at my antler and deciding which areas would be best to work with. I chose to use the thicker areas of the antler where it split into multiple points. I thought this would give the largest areas of useable material. The pieces were then cut down to workable pieces using a bandsaw and then run through a drum sander to create a uniform thickness.
Antler pieces cut and sanded to uniform thickness
After my rough pieces were cut I needed to be sure that I had enough material to create my comb. I took measurements of the original and discovered it was much smaller than I had realized initially. The comb itself is just over 6cm long and 1.5cm wide. The total length of the entire piece is just roughly 10cm long and 2cm wide. I measured out all the pieces needed and added a little bit of extra in order to account for loss due to cutting and sawing.
Pieces measured out and ready to be cut
The pieces were cut out of the antler with a small saw. I clamped them down to my workbench in order to have better control. Once the pieces were cut I placed them together to be sure they would fit properly. There were some inconsistencies that needed to be adjusted. I thinned out the side pieces of the case so they were more even and didn’t look overly large and filed down the front and back of the comb and the case to make them even.
Pieces of comb cut and ready to be put together
Putting it Together
I started with constructing the comb. I clamped the tooth plates in between the front and back pieces and drilled two small holes the size of my rivets through each plate. I used two rivets per plate because I wanted to be sure they were stable and it was consistent with the look of the extant comb.
(left) Comb pieces clamped together (right) Completed rivets
My rivets were created by taking a piece of copper wire and clamping it into my vice. I then used my hammer to flatten the top of the wire to create the head. After the holes were drilled I pushed the rivets through. One of the holes was a bit small and the rivet became stuck halfway in. I had a moment of panic before I was able to remove it and widen the hole to place a new rivet.
(left) Riveting in process (right) Comb riveted together
Cutting the Teeth
Once the comb was riveted together I cut off the excess tooth plates and used the rasp and files to smooth the edges and shape the top. I also added a point to the bottom of the tooth plates to make it easier to taper later. I didn’t want to completely taper the tooth plates at this point because I didn’t want the case to be too loose.
(left) Comb cut down and sanded to desired shape (right) Tooth cutting experiment
I wanted to try something new in an attempt to create more consistency in my teeth. I found a wooden comb of similar size to the teeth that I wanted to create I clamped it into my vice with a piece of test antler behind it and tried to use it like a guide to keep my lines straight and consistent. Unfortunately it didn’t work very well. The teeth are so small that they move and because I couldn’t see my antler the cut became more inconsistent and teeth were cut off. I decided the best way to cut the teeth was to mark the lines on the comb and cut by hand. This worked relatively well. There were a few small adjustments that needed to be made but I am happy with how the teeth turned out. After the teeth were cut I used a file to created the points on the bottom of the teeth and each tooth was smoothed out.
Before and after cutting the teeth
Making the Case
When the basic comb was done I repeated the riveting steps with the case. I needed the comb mostly complete in order to be sure the case would fit snugly. I clamped the pieces of the case around the comb and drilled the holes for the rivets. After the rivets were applied I was very surprised at how snugly the comb fit into the case. I filed down the inside of the case a bit and tapered the teeth of the comb so that they comb now fits snugly but is not too difficult to remove.The case was now smoothed out using files and the end pieces were cut to the appropriate shape.
(left) Case clamped and ready for riveting (right) Complete comb and case
The basic comb and case were complete but I wanted to add decoration. The extent piece had both lines and a circle dot pattern. I had done some simple line decoration on previous combs but not the circle dot design. I created a small tool in order to create a consistent circle dot pattern. I used one side of a pair of tweezers and using my files shaped it into the tool that I needed. I did some practice runs on some scrap antler and it worked very well.
(left) Tapered teeth (right) Circle dot tool and sample
I did not want to duplicate the pattern on the extant piece but used the same designs to create my own. I used my tool to create the circle dots and a combination of my saw and file to create and smooth the lines.
Completed comb and case and the Extant piece
I am very happy with my completed piece. The size initially surprised me but I love how small it is and with the teeth that short they are stronger and still work very well.
In the future I would like to continue to work on the consistency of my teeth and experiment with other styles of combs.
Ambrosiani, Kristina, Viking Age Combs, Comb Making and Comb Makers; In light of the finds from Birka and Ribe
Dirk, An Antler Comb-Construction Notes http://www.angelfire.com/mi4/olafvanta/Dirk/comb/comb.htm#Provenance
Carlsson, Dan, Combs and Comb Making in Viking and Middle Ages: A Short Resume
Stjerna, Niklas, A Short Notice on the Manufacture of Copper Wire at Birka