Why Archaeologists Are Excited About a Viking Comb

It's a 1,000-year-old comb simply inscribed with the word "comb," but it may hold clues to the origins of the Viking Age.

By Sarah Gibbens
Published 21 Jan 2018, 19:45 GMT
A Viking reenactor in full Viking dress stands at a festival in Poland.
A Viking reenactor in full Viking dress stands at a festival in Poland.
Photograph by David Guttenfelder, National Geographic Creative

Perhaps no one has ever been as excited to see a comb as Danish archaeologist Søren Sindbæk.

He and a team of archaeologists from Aarhus University recently unearthed one at a historic Viking town called Ribe in Denmark.

Even more exciting, he says, the word "comb" is inscribed on one side while what amounts to the version of "to comb" is on the other.

For anyone who's not a career archaeologist or Viking history enthusiast, the find may seem trivial, but it could potentially tell historians about the birth of a Viking alphabet and, as a result, how the historic Viking Age rose to prominence.

To understand why the comb is important, you have to rewind to the late 8th century, a critical moment in time for the Vikings. It was the dawn of the Viking Age, which began just before 800 C.E., and language in the region had undergone hundreds of years of evolution.

The new alphabet, once adopted, would have made trade easier to facilitate in those European regions under Viking control.

Then, suddenly, the alphabet changed. The runes, or letters, used by the group's predecessors became more uniform and modern to match the evolved way of speaking.

Tall and vertical, the new lines were easy to carve into wood or stone, says Sindbæk.

"We don't know why or when that happened," he says of the new alphabet being used. "It doesn't seem to be gradual."

Meaning the new alphabet was likely created by one person or one institution and then disseminated. But why, when, and by whom? Archaeologists aren't sure.

Spreading the Word

Once the new system of runes was adopted, European regions under Viking control would have been able to use one uniform method of written communication. Trade would have been easier to facilitate.

That the comb is named after itself indicates an early adoption of the alphabet, says Sindbæk.

"There's a sort of redundancy," he says of signs of adopting the new runic alphabet. "You add it to obvious things."

Henrik Williams from Uppsala University in Sweden has also studied runes extensively. His theories for why the comb might be inscribed with its own name differ from Sindbæk's. The first is that it could have helped people who have cognitive diseases like dementia or children learning the language.

"There were no schools, so teaching a child how to read and write runes might be done by writing words on household items," he says.

Another theory is that runes may have been thought to convey a special purpose or even magical properties. It wasn't until the new alphabet became more widely adopted that archaeologists find evidence of it being used for common forms of communication like sending notes.

Ultimately, says Williams, "Both explanations are just hypotheses, but every new find of this character constitutes a new piece of the puzzle."

Additional Artifacts

In addition to the comb, the Aarhus University team found a plate made from some sort of ivory or antler. It contains some sort of runic word, but the object was too fragmented to make out. Excavators speculate it might be a common Viking name—Tobi. The material and cut indicates it would have been attached to a box or coffin in ceremonious fashion.

Both early runic artifacts are among many found in Ribe, the oldest town in Scandanavia and therefore the first known Viking settlement.

Two other early runic objects have been found in the past year. One is a simple ironing tool and another is a skull inscribed with a phrase to summon the Viking god Oden, says Sindbæk.

Casting moulds found at the site last year match metalwork found throughout Europe. To Sindbæk, this suggests Ribe played a central role in the start of the Viking Age.

Excavations are ongoing and part of a year-long project to learn more about the ancient town.

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