1,500-Year-Old Ivory Beard Comb Found in Grave in Germany

The rare sixth-century grooming tool features intricate carvings of a hunting scene

Ivory comb
The ivory comb shows gazelle-like animals attempting to escape predators. BLfD

Archaeologists in Bavaria, Germany, have discovered the 1,500-year-old grave of a 40- to 50-year-old man who was buried in luxury with a horse and fine weapons—and an intricately carved ivory comb that he may have used to style his hair and beard. The team also uncovered a second grave holding the remains of a slightly younger woman who was buried with ornate grave goods, including a ceramic bowl from North Africa. It’s unclear how these  objects found their way to Central Europe, Tag24 reports.

“The two finds must have been real luxury goods at the time,” says Mathias Pfeil, curator-general of the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation (BLfD), in a statement, per Google Translate. “They show how far people’s contacts still went even after the dissolution of the Roman Empire and its provinces [in the fifth century C.E.]”

At the time of the man’s death around the sixth century, Germanic Alemanni people under control of the Franks dominated the region. The archaeologists speculate that the unusual goods may have been gifts from a ruler or loot from battles in what is now Italy.

The graves were located in Nördlinger Ries, a 16-mile-wide crater in southern Germany formed by a meteor strike, reports Mindy Weisberger for Live Science. The ancient village where the burials took place roughly covered the crater’s central depression.

skeleton and grave goods
The man was buried with fine weapons, including a battle ax and longsword. BLfD

After extensive work restoring the comb, which had been heavily damaged, the researchers found that both of its sides were covered in carved decorations featuring gazelle-like animals. The creatures appear to be jumping to escape predators not seen in Europe, suggesting that whoever made the comb based the scenes on African wildlife, per the statement. While combs are common in centuries-old European graves, discovering such intricately carved, sixth-century ivory examples is very rare. Those that do exist are typically carved with Christian imagery rather than hunting scenes.

“We have not yet found any comparable representations on a comb from this period,” says BLfD archaeologist Johann Friedrich Tolksdorf in the statement. “That makes this find not only an outstanding archaeological discovery but also an important art historical source.” 

A battle ax, lance, shield and longsword buried with the man indicate that he was a prominent wealthy person. In addition to the comb, the grave contained a pair of scissors that may have been used for personal grooming. The woman’s grave held preserved eggs and other food items, as well as a “weaving sword” used to tighten threads on a loom.

A ceramic red bowl from North Africa
A ceramic red bowl from North Africa BLfD

While most of the grave goods were produced locally, the bowl found in the woman’s grave was an example of African red slip ware, probably produced in what’s now Tunisia, writes Sam Tonkin for the Daily Mail. Such ceramics were widely traded in the ancient Mediterranean world, but this is the first of its kind found intact so far north. The bowl’s base was stamped with a cross, and its rim held markings that may have been magical symbols or letters spelling the owner’s name.

The team made the discoveries ahead of a building project in the municipality of Deiningen, where more than 100 ancient graves have been found since the 1930s, the German Press Agency (DPA) reports. Other new finds at the site include a double grave in which a man in his 20s and a woman between 25 and 35 were buried holding hands.

Deiningen officials plan to make the newly found artifacts accessible to both researchers and the public.

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