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In England, Bar Hill’s ‘Cranium Comb’ Is an Iron Age Thriller

In England, Bar Hill’s ‘Cranium Comb’ Is an Iron Age Thriller

2023-05-22 14:56:45

Fens and farmland dominate England’s Cambridgeshire. The A14 runs the size of the whole county and, only a few miles northwest of the traditional college city of Cambridge, it passes by the small village of Bar Hill. There, throughout excavations a couple of years in the past, archaeologist Michael Marshall and his crew discovered one thing extraordinary: a bit of historical human cranium, carved to resemble—nearly, however not fairly—a comb.

It’s commonplace to seek out artifacts on this nook of England, which has been inhabited for millennia. Specifically, Cambridgeshire was dwelling to a number of Iron Age settlements, courting from round 350 BC to the arrival of the Romans about 400 years later. Marshall and his colleagues knew they’d flip up some fascinating issues once they started digging in 2016 forward of a deliberate A14 enlargement. Two years later, after excavations at about 40 websites, they’d collected greater than 280,000 artifacts.

Of all of the instruments and bits of bone unearthed, the cranium comb stood out. It’s certainly one of solely three ever discovered, worldwide—the opposite two have been found at close by websites a long time in the past—and was a profession first for Marshall, the prehistoric and Roman finds specialist on the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). It was additionally an merchandise of intrigue: one thing that would simply match within the palm of 1’s hand, however which clearly carried nice worth. Somebody had rigorously carved practically a dozen tooth alongside one edge, after which drilled a gap on the prime. Was it a instrument? An amulet? One thing else totally? Determining the comb’s goal required understanding the way it may need match into Iron Age Britain.

Based on Bangor College archaeologist Kate Waddington, this was a time of huge communities dwelling in hilltop settlements referred to as hillforts. “That is very a lot an agricultural-based society the place ritual and faith are deeply embedded inside folks’s properties and settlements,” she says.

Between 2016 and 2018, ahead of a planned A14 expansion, archaeologists excavated about 40 sites in Cambridgeshire, England, home to several Iron Age settlements.
Between 2016 and 2018, forward of a deliberate A14 enlargement, archaeologists excavated about 40 websites in Cambridgeshire, England, dwelling to a number of Iron Age settlements. Heritage Picture Partnership Ltd/Alamy

These rituals included remedy of the lifeless. Based on Waddington, the burial custom of excarnation was practiced by most Iron Age societies in Britain. “The our bodies of the lifeless are laid out for defleshing, and after the flesh has began to rot away, the bones develop into disarticulated and you may choose them up,” she says. It seems, nonetheless, that solely a choose few had their bones really repurposed ultimately—most stays, believes Marshall, might have been cremated or dumped in rivers, primarily disappearing from the archaeological file. The invention of the Bar Hill comb and the 2 different related artifacts so geographically shut to one another suggests some distinctive, native custom, and a specific worth connected to the skulls used to create the combs.

In reality, whereas a number of archaeological finds round Europe present that human limb bones have been usually used to make numerous sorts of instruments, the human cranium appears to have been notably important to a number of Iron Age cultures throughout the continent. In Southern France, for instance, in the course of the Iron Age, warriors would decapitate their enemies and then embalm and display the skulls in entrance of their properties as an emblem of victory.

“We all know that headhunting was a phenomenon in Iron Age Europe,” Marshall says. There’s additionally, he provides, “a recurrent phenomenon of Iron Age skulls specifically with holes drilled into them.” That features complete skulls which have a number of holes drilled on the prime; some archaeologists consider the skulls have been suspended or hung, says Marshall, “in doorways, rooms, or in a shrine.”

The outlet drilled within the Bar Hill comb means that it might have been displayed in some symbolic approach. The tooth carved into the piece of cranium, nonetheless, initially steered one other attainable—and extra sensible—operate.

The artifact known as the Bar Hill Comb was made from a piece of bone at the back of the head.
The artifact often called the Bar Hill Comb was constituted of a bit of bone behind the pinnacle. Courtesy of the Museum of London Archaeology

“Essentially the most uncommon factor concerning the Bar Hill comb that basically distinguishes it from the broader context of curated and modified human bones, in Iron Age Britain not less than, is the truth that alongside the underside edge, it has these types of tooth lower into the sting,” Marshall says. The opposite two cranium combs even have tooth, and Marshall first thought it was attainable that every one three objects have been really used to comb by hair.

“I questioned if it was a form of ritualized factor, preparation for ceremonies or vital occasions,” Marshall says. Or, he thought, it may need been a approach for folks to honor ancestors, utilizing the comb for grooming as an emblem of getting somebody you like taking care of you each day from the afterlife. The comb’s proprietor might have worn the comb as an amulet, maybe utilizing the drilled gap to string it like a necklace.

“In case you solid round, you’ll find different examples of this form of factor,” says Marshall, “issues like Victorian mourning jewelry.” Ultimately, he concluded it’s unlikely the comb was used for grooming, as its comparatively quick tooth lack indicators of damage in step with being pulled by hair repeatedly.

There might have been one other utilitarian use for the article, he says: as a disguise scraper. Whereas it will be a primary to discover a cranium fragment used this fashion, human limb bones, whittled down to be used as instruments in disguise preparation and leatherworking, have been discovered at Iron Age websites within the close by cities of Trumpington and Bedfordshire.

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No matter how the Bar Hill comb was used, it’s probably that it had some symbolic which means for the consumer. Waddington says that the transformation of the cranium right into a comb-like object reminds her of human cranium fragments discovered at a ceremonial feasting website in Potton, about 20 miles southwest of Bar Hill. The location is a couple of centuries older than Bar Hill, and the fragments have been formed into small squares. Waddington believes that each the Potton and Bar Hill fragments might have been thought-about highly effective objects linked to the deceased.

The skull comb is one of three ever found, worldwide—the other two were discovered at nearby sites decades ago—and fits nearly into the palm of your hand.
The cranium comb is certainly one of three ever discovered, worldwide—the opposite two have been found at close by websites a long time in the past—and matches practically into the palm of your hand. Courtesy of the Museum of London Archaeology

The researchers acknowledge we might by no means know the importance of the Bar Hill comb, or the 2 related combs beforehand discovered within the space. The total story of those uncommon combs might have been misplaced with the communities that made them. “There are many little native traditions that distinguish folks,” says Melanie Giles, a College of Manchester archaeologist whose analysis focuses on Iron Age Britain and Northwestern Europe.

Marshall and his crew proceed to check the Bar Hill comb and different finds from the excavations, in search of clues to regional variability within the methods human stays have been handled within the Iron Age. They’re now targeted on different human stays discovered on the A14 website, and hope to extract and analyze historical DNA from the fabric. “This may inform us extra about mobility inside these communities, and should assist us get solutions,” Marshall says.

Whereas the proof at the moment factors to the cranium combs being a neighborhood customized, Marshall believes that, ultimately, extra discoveries might join it with broader traditions all through Iron Age Europe.

“I believe it’s actually fascinating that this can be a recurrent approach of treating the lifeless,” Marshall says. “It’s occurred not less than thrice—and that’s simply the occasions we’ve dug the holes and located them.”

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