Trove of Viking Combs Sheds Light on English Town’s Medieval History

The hair care items are part of a sprawling collection of artifacts found in Ipswich between 1974 and 1994, which are now the subject of a new book

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Most of the combs found in Ipswich were made of deer antlers, but some were carved from animal bones. Suffolk County Council

Archaeologists have amassed an “extraordinary” trove of Viking combs during excavations in Ipswich, a historic town in Suffolk, England. Now the subject of a new book, these objects provide critical insights into the region’s medieval history.

Researchers with the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service unearthed the items during some 40 excavations between 1974 and 1994. According to a statement from the council, those digs revealed 2,400 fragments of antler and bone waste and 1,300 objects dating to between the 7th and 12th centuries.

In March, the council (in partnership with Historic England) published a book on the Ipswich artifacts: An Early Medieval Craft: Antler and Bone Working From Ipswich Excavations 1974-1994. Written by Ian Riddler, Nicola Trzaska-Nartowski and Shona Hatton, it’s the latest addition to East Anglian Archaeology’s monograph series.

A new book detailing the Ipswich finds was published by the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service in partnership with Historic England. Suffolk County Council

“Ipswich has a fabulous collection of objects of antler and bone,” say Riddler and Trzaska-Nartowski, both archaeologists, in the statement. “It was always our intention that the book had a European outlook and placed Ipswich in the center of a developing early medieval world for one particular craft.”

According to the book’s description, the finds from the Ipswich excavations have long been considered significant. But until now, they’ve never been presented as “a printed and digital resource.”

The collection includes a wide variety of artifacts, but it’s especially rich in Viking objects. In particular, the collection of combs is “unmatched elsewhere in the country,” as the council writes in the statement.

The port of Ipswich was founded in the seventh century after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Known as “Gippeswic,” it was a modest Anglo-Saxon trading settlement that rose to prominence as a critical port in British-European trade. In the late ninth century, Ipswich was conquered by the Vikings, the Scandinavian seafarers who raided and colonized much of Britain beginning around the 800s.

The Vikings brought a few things from home—including tools for detangling their hair. According to the National Museum of Denmark, Viking men and women practiced careful grooming, and their toiletry kits weren’t too different from ours today, featuring items like “beautiful patterned combs, ear picks and tweezers.”

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Vikings likely made most of the combs in England, though some came from western Europe and Scandinavia. Suffolk County Council

According to the authors, some of the combs were imported from western continental Europe and southern Scandinavia. Most of them, however, were probably made in Ipswich. Many were carved from the antlers of red deer, and a few were made of bones from animals like whales, reports BBC News’ Katy Prickett.

In addition to hair care products, other discoveries include brooches, pins and “some fabulous gaming pieces—reflecting the pronounced Viking enthusiasm for board games,” per the statement. Researchers say that analyzing artifacts collected over so many excavations helps historians gain a more comprehensive understanding of the region.

“The number of items found in 40 digs meant they could build up a convincing picture of the role Ipswich would have played in medieval life,” writes BBC Newsround.

As Historic England’s Will Fletcher says in the statement, the new book also contributes to researchers’ understanding of medieval trade’s reach across the North Sea. “It’s so interesting to see the level of detail that has been discovered about Ipswich’s craft and industry at this time and how that connects us with communities from the past,” he adds.

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