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New book on Viking combs in England

#New book on Viking combs in England

Ipswich can be placed at the centre of the developing early medieval world thanks to a unique collection of Viking combs, as detailed in a new book published this week. An Early Medieval Craft: Antler and Bone Working from Ipswich Excavations 1974-1994 is published by the Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service (SCCAS) in partnership with Historic England.

Twenty years of excavations by SCCAS in the historic core of Ipswich between generated an amazing 2,400 fragments of antler and bone waste and over 1,300 objects – most dating back to the 7th to 12th century. It is the range of objects which is so rich, especially for the Viking material, which surpasses all other English sites for its quantity and quality. In particular, there is an extraordinary sequence of Viking combs unmatched elsewhere in the country.

Photo courtesy Suffolk County Council

“It was always our intention that the book had a European outlook and placed Ipswich in the centre of a developing early medieval world for one particular craft,” says Ian Riddler and Nicola Trzaska-Nartowski, authors of the book. “Ipswich has a fabulous collection of objects of antler and bone.”

These combs were made in Scandinavia and indicate the presence of Vikings in Ipswich in the late ninth century. Combs were also produced in Ipswich, as there are distinctive local forms, along with links to the continent. It is this particular craft that suggests the town played a prominent role in early medieval times.

“The range of objects is extraordinary and unique in the UK,” Riddler and Trzaska-Nartowski note. “There are several items that indicate links abroad, particularly northern France, Frisia (what we now know as parts of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark) and southern Scandinavia. Although most of the combs were likely made in Ipswich, there are also imports from the Merovingian, Frisian and Viking worlds and the closet contacts seem to lie with Dorestad and Hedeby.”

Viking comb – photo courtesy Suffolk County Council

The objects are dominated by those made of fragments of red deer antler and include smaller quantities of other bone, including whale. Alongside combs, there are brooch moulds, pins, strap-ends, weaving and textile-making equipment, as well as some fabulous gaming pieces – reflecting the pronounced Viking enthusiasm for board games.

Will Fletcher, the East of England Development Advice Team Leader for Historic England, comments, “We’re delighted to have supported the publication of this important book which gives a fascinating insight into Ipswich’s medieval history. We recognise the important contribution this work makes to our wider understanding of medieval trade and industry and its 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.”

An Early Medieval Craft: Antler and Bone Working from Ipswich Excavations 1974-1994 is available through Pen and Sword or

Example pages of “An Early Medieval Craft. Antler and Bone Working from Ipswich Excavations 1974-1994” – photo courtesy Suffolk County Council

Top Image:  Viking comb – photo courtesy Suffolk County Council

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