Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 3-1 (November 2011)Wietske Prummel; Hülya Halici; Annemieke Verbaas: The bone and antler tools from the Wijnaldum-Tjitsma terp 1

5 Six groups of bone tools, production waste and unfinished tools

The bone and antler tools are subdivided into six groups. Each group more or less represents a common type of use or a common sphere in which the tools were used. The assignment to a specific group is not absolute, especially since the function of the objects is not always known or certain. Waste and unfinished tools of unknown type form a seventh group. The groups used in this paper are:

fibre and skin working tools,

personal utensils like combs, pins, rings and beads,


musical instruments,

household utensils,

transport: bone skates and a sledge runner,

waste and unfinished tools of unknown type.

The most common tools are personal utensils (n = 112), mainly combs and comb fragments, and fibre and skin working tools (n = 65). Less common are amulets (n = 27), transport utensils (n = 18), household utensils (n = 11) and musical instruments (n = 5) (table 1). Many bone and antler tools are decorated, mainly with single lines, combinations of parallel, crossing and zigzag lines and point-circles. In particular, antler tools tend to be decorated. Details on individual tools as well as on pieces of production waste and unfinished pieces may be found in Halici 1997.

5.1 Fibre and skin working tools

next section

Pin beaters, needles, awls and polishing or rubbing instruments attest to fibre and skin working at the site. Pin beaters, which are bone rods that are pointed at both ends, were made out of large mammal long bones, such as those of cattle or horse (fig. 2). The only exception is a pin beater made of a fragment of a whale mandible (table 4). One pin beater of large mammal bone is decorated with lines (fig. 2). Pin beaters were used in weaving (MacGregor 1985, 188-189).


Figure 2 Pin beater made from a large mammal bone (cattle or horse) decorated with lines, find no. 5946, Carolingian period.

Bone needles, which are quite numerous at Wijnaldum-Tjitsma, perhaps because of the water-sieving, were probably used in fibre and skin/leather working and in making or repairing fishing or fowling nets. All needles of which at least the top is preserved have a round or elongated eye. Most needles (n = 14) were made out of pig fibulae (fig. 3). The pig fibula is a narrow bone with wider ends, which can be made into a needle without much effort. The distal end of the fibula is the top of the needle in which the eye was made. The top of eight pig fibula needles was made narrower to prevent damage to the material that was sewn.


Figure 3 Needle or awl made out of a fibula of a young pig, find number 1525, Merovingian period. The hole, which is broken, was made in the unfused distal end of the fibula.

The top of six pig fibula needles, however, is more than 1 cm wide. Their wide top made these needles unsuitable for sewing cloth. Wear trace analysis on three of them (two dating to the Merovingian period and one undated) at the Laboratory for Artefact Studies, Leiden University (link to report in supplementary material), showed that they were used on plant fibres, for instance in making or repairing fishing or fowling nets or in basketry. Fishing and fowling were more extensively practiced at Wijnaldum-Tjitsma than at other terpen and this may account for the rather large number of these needles. Another pig fibula with a wide head was used on various materials.

Needles were also made from cattle ribs and long bone fragments of sheep and unidentified mammals. A wide needle and a narrower needle, both of unidentified mammal long bones, were used on plant fibres, just like the pig fibula needles with wide heads. A needle made from unidentified mammal bones was used on several materials, such as skin, plant materials and possibly wool. An irregular object made out of a bone from an unidentified mammal was used on hide or skin. Metal needles were most probably used for sewing fine linen or woollen cloth. The unfinished bone needles indicate that needles were made at the site. Awls were made out of sheep mandibles and metatarsi and out of large mammal long bones (fig. 4). They were made at the site as well. Awls were probably used in skin and coarse fibre working.


Figure 4 Awl decorated with crossing lines made out of a long bone from an unknown mammal in the cattle/horse size group, find no. 1001, Merovingian period.

Spindle whorls were made out of red deer antler or the caput femoris of cattle (fig. 5). Two antler spindle whorls are disc-shaped (fig. 6). The third, that from the cremation burial, is round, with flat upper and lower sides. Both are decorated with lines. An unfinished cattle caput femoris spindle whorl shows how these whorls were made: the beginning of the hole through the caput femoris is visible in the sawn off bottom of the whorl. The spindle whorls were used for the spinning of wool and plant fibres. Ceramic spindle whorls were also used at the site, including 7th and 8th centuries examples which appear to be made using collected fragments of imported Roman tiles (Galestin 1999).


Figure 5 Spindle whorl made of an unfused cattle caput femoris, find no. 1001, Merovingian period.


Figure 6 Spindle whorl of red deer antler, find no. 1001, Merovingian; a. photograph, b. drawing.

Five worn and shiny tools are interpreted as polishing or rubbing instruments to polish, clean or smooth linen[3] cloth, skins and other materials, or to rub in skins or cloth with fat. These tools are horse and cattle metacarpi, cattle humeri and a piece of red deer antler. The horse and cattle metatarsi were used without any processing: they are informal bone tools. They are worn at the proximal and distal ends and are shiny all around.

Such worn and shiny metapodia are regularly found at terp sites (Knol 1983; Nieuwhof & Prummel 2007; Prummel 2008). Experiments at the Groningen Institute of Archaeology in 2010 to remove the hairs of a fresh piece of cattle skin by rubbing modern cattle metacarpi and metatarsi over the skin resulted macroscopically in the same type of wear and shine after a short time of use. It proved to be quite hard work. The skins would have perhaps been left to decay for a while or soaked in water with lime before the hairs were removed with this kind of tool. An alternative explanation is that these tools were used to rub in skins with fat to make them waterproof (Barthel 1969).


Figure 7 Caput humeri sawn from the left humerus of a cattle and used as a polishing tool, find no. 7025, Carolingian or Ottonian period.

Sawn-off proximal articulation heads of the humerus – the caput humeri – were also used as polishing tools (fig. 7). They show post mortem wear on the articulation surface, resulting from moving the object over a surface, for instance cloth or a skin, with the aim to polish or smooth this. Similar objects, with wear on the articulation surface, were found in Carolingian Dorestad (Clason 1980; Prummel 1983). Their shape resembles the glass irons found at Dorestad (Isings 1980).

5.2 Personal utensils: combs, pins, rings and beads

All combs found in Wijnaldum-Tjitsma are composite combs made out of a row of tooth plates that were fixed between two side plates with iron or bronze nails to keep the tooth and side plates together. After the tooth and side plates were joined, the teeth were created by sawing the plates (Ulbricht 1978; Ambrosiani 1981; MacGregor 1985).

Most comb finds in Wijnaldum-Tjitsma are fragments of broken combs: isolated tooth plates, fragments of side plates, or tooth and side plate fragments of the same comb. Complete combs are rare (table 1). The fragmentary state of the comb material hampered the attribution of all comb fragments to a comb type.


Figure 8 One-sided type 1 composite comb made of red deer antler, find no. 1145, period unknown. Combs of this type have curved, high-sided plates and extended end tooth plates. The comb is decorated with parallel and crossing lines.

We recognized five types of one-sided composite combs. Type 1 has curved, rather high side plates; the end tooth plates extend at both ends beyond the side plates. The top of the tooth plates follow the curved top of the side plates. At Wijnaldum-Tjitsma the combs’ tooth and side plates were made out of red deer antler. One side plate of each comb is decorated with crossing and parallel lines (fig. 8). The upper edge of the tooth plates is sometimes decorated with lines. Type 1 is represented by five complete or larger parts of combs. Two date to the Merovingian period, the other three are undated. This type of comb was quite common in the Frisian and Groningen Early Medieval terpen area (Miedema 1983, 224; Knol 1993, 82-83).

Type 2 of the one-sided composite combs has the same curved, rather wide side plates and is also made out of antler. The end tooth plates, however, do not extend beyond the end of the side plates. Both side plates are decorated with point-circles and lines (fig. 9). Three combs are attributed to this type. One is dated to the Merovingian period, one to the Carolingian period and the third is undated. This type of comb was quite common in Dorestad (Roes 1965).


Figure 9 One-sided composite type 2 comb made of red deer antler, find no. 11624, Merovingian period. These combs are similar to type 1 but the end tooth plates do not extend beyond the side plates.


Figure 10 One-sided composite type 3 comb made of red deer antler, find no. 6047, Carolingian period. The end tooth plates of this type extend beyond the ends of the side plates. The side plates are straight and narrow.

The end tooth plates of one-sided composite comb type 3 extend beyond the ends of the side plates, similar to type 1. The side plates, however, are straight and narrow. Four such combs were found, one dates to the Carolingian period, two to the Ottonian and the fourth is undated. The side plates of these combs are decorated with lines and, similar to type 1, only one side plate of each comb is decorated (fig. 10). These combs were made out of red deer antler, cattle metacarpus and sheep rib (table 3). This type of comb is quite often found in Frisian and Groningen terpen (Roes 1963; Miedema 1983, 225; Knol et al. 1996, 334).

One-sided composite comb type 4, which is only represented by a fragment, is a so-called winged comb. In this type, the end tooth plates extend as wings above the ends of the side plates. The Wijnaldum comb of this type has straight and narrow side plates, similar to type 3. The wings are small. The comb was made of red deer antler. The end tooth plates and the side plates are decorated with point-circles and there are lines on the side plates. The Wijnaldum winged comb dates to the Migration period (fig. 11). Winged combs are found in other Frisian and Groningen terpen (Roes 1963, 19-20; Miedema 1983, 228; Knol 1993, 82-83).


Figure 11 Fragments of a one-sided composite type 4 comb, the so-called winged comb, made of red deer antler, find no. 8018, Migration period. The end tooth plates extend like wings above the straight and narrow side plates.

The tooth plates of one-sided composite comb type 5 extend far above the side plates. Only one example was found in Wijnaldum, dating to the Carolingian or Ottonian period. It was made of red deer antler. The only side plate present is decorated with lines (fig. 12).


Figure 12 Fragments of a one-sided composite type 5 comb made of red deer antler, find no. 6067, Carolingian of Ottonian period (AD 770-900/950). The tooth plates extend above the side plates.

The many tooth plates and side plate fragments from broken combs mainly come from combs of type 1, 2 and 3. The side plates are either undecorated or are decorated with parallel lines, crossing lines, zigzag lines or point-circles or combinations of these elements. The side plates and the end tooth plates of the only complete two-sided composite comb are decorated with point circles and lines (fig. 13).


Figure 13 Two-sided comb of red deer antler, find no. 9608, Migration period; a. photograph, b. drawing.

One-sided composite combs are much more common in Wijnaldum-Tjitsma than two-sided ones (table 1: 87% against 13%). A different picture emerges in Late Roman and Early Medieval Maastricht (AD 450-750) in the south of the Netherlands, where 82% of the composite antler combs are two-sided composite combs and 18% are one-sided combs. Of the one-sided composite combs, 91% have triangular side plates (Dijkman & Ervynck 1998). The three (late) Roman composite combs from Wijk bij Duurstede-De Geer show the same distribution: two are two-sided and the only one-sided comb has triangular side plates (Thach & Lauwerier 2010). This type is completely absent in Wijnaldum-Tjitsma but was found in the Hallum, Oosterbeintum and Englum terpen (see below) and in some other terpen (Roes 1963, plate XIV-XVI; Miedema 1983, fig. 169). Triangular combs are absent in Early Medieval Dorestad and Leidsche Rijn (Roes 1965; Clason 1980; Esser 2009).

Other personal utensils in Wijnaldum-Tjitsma are pins for clothing and hair, rings and beads. One of the pins was made out of a pig fibula (fig. 14). Wear trace analysis (link to report in supplementary material) on a pin made from red deer antler demonstrated that it was used on wool, i.e. on clothing. A pin made from a mammal long bone was presumably a hairpin, since it seems to have made contact with hair, which may have been slightly oily or dirty, at least not very clean. Both pins date to the Merovingian period. The rings are made from antler (fig. 15) and unidentified bone and the bead was made of antler bone (fig. 16) (table 4).


Figure 14 Two hair or clothing pins made from a pig fibula (left: find no. 8021, Migration period) and a mammal long bone (right: find no. 5453, Merovingian period).


Figure 15 Two red deer antler rings. Left: find no. 1004, Migration period; right: find no. 702, Ottonian period. The last object might be a pendant instead of a ring.


Figure 16 Unfinished bead of red deer antler, find no. 3945, Migration period.

5.3 Amulets

Amulets refer to the symbolic and ritual aspects of life at the site. Sheep and cattle astragali that are worn and shiny due to being used and handled are the largest group in this category. Some of them are perforated (figs 17 and 18), others have little dots (fig. 19). Most of the astragali were not processed, but just used, presumably as amulet or as dice in divination (Knol 1987; 1988), or perhaps in knucklebone-games. The two die found at the site may have been used in divination or games (fig. 20).


Figure 17 Perforated, worn and shiny sheep astragalus, find no. 4057, Carolingian period.


Figure 18 Left astragalus of a neonatal calf, perforated from plantar to dorsal, presumably used in divination, find no. 6564, Migration period.


Figure 19 Right cattle astragalus with dots on the plantar side, find no. 6654, period unknown.


Figure 20 Two dice made of sheep metatarsi, find nos. 8014 (left) and 2664 (right), both Migration period.

Pendants made of red deer antler were probably used as amulets in magic and divination rituals (Knol 1988). This seems to be the case for the nicely decorated ‘Donar amulets’, which are decorated conical rods of antler with a hole at the top (figs 21 and 22). One of the Wijnaldum ‘Donar amulets’ was found in the Merovingian inhumation burial of a young woman. It was found between her knees (Cuijpers et al. 1999) (fig. 21). Antler amulets were generally placed as grave goods in early medieval graves, for example a round pendant of red deer antler is found in a child burial at the early medieval cemetery of Oosterbeintum, dated AD 450-600 (Knol et al. 1996, grave 402).


Figure 21 ‘Donar amulet’ of red deer antler found in the Merovingian inhumation burial of a young woman, find no. 11702.


Figure 22 ‘Donar amulet’ of red deer antler broken at the hole, find no. 11694, Merovingian period.

5.4 Musical instruments

Musical instruments made out of bone or antler were found in small numbers in Wijnaldum-Tjitsma. One flute was made out of an ulna of a whooper or a mute swan (fig. 23). The other, unfinished flute is part of a sheep tibia. Two cattle ribs with a serrated edge were perhaps musical instruments (MacGregor 1985; Roes 1963). Sounds could be made by moving the object over a surface (figs 24 and 25). Alternative interpretations for these tools are that they were graters or coarse polishers.


Figure 23 Flute made of the right ulna of a whooper or a mute swan, find no. 11702 Carolingian period; a. photograph, b. drawing.


Figure 24 Cattle costa with sawn rim, possibly used as a musical instrument, find no. 2326, Carolingian period; a. photograph, b. drawing.


Figure 25 Right cattle costa with serrated edge, possibly used to make music or sounds, find no. 1508, Merovingian period.

Very interesting is an object made of antler, probably a tuning pin for a lyre (fig. 26). Lyres were found in early medieval sites in Britain, for example in the royal or princely graves at Sutton Hoo and Prittlewell (MacGregor 1985, 147; Carver et al. 2005, figs 88 and 99, table 21; Hirst 2004, 37). Singers of heroic verses played a lyre as they sang. The exact date of the Wijnaldum tuning pin is unknown, but it dates to the Merovingian or the Carolingian period. The tuning pin refers to musicians connected to high status people during one of these periods. Undated tuning pins were found in the terpen at Finkum, Hallum and Teerns in Friesland (Van Vilsteren 1987, 56) and in Carolingian Dorestad (Roes 1965, Plate XX).


Figure 26 Tuning pin made of red deer antler dating to the Merovingian or the Carolingian period, find no. 2175.

5.5 Household utensils

The objects described as household utensils are a little box (fig. 27), three decorated bone plaque fragments, which could have been used as inlaid decoration of furniture (fig. 28), two handles, two spoons (figs 29 and 30) and a sieve (fig. 31). These are all exceptional for the terpen area (see below).


Figure 27 Fragment of a box made from the long bone, for instance a femur, of a large mammal, such as a cow; find no. 9470, Carolingian period, perhaps used to store make-up or jewellery.


Figure 28 Decorated part of a cattle costa, originally terminating into a triangle, possibly used as inlaid decoration of furniture, find no. 6596-7, Carolingian period.


Figure 29 Spoon of red deer antler, find no. 11381, Merovingian period; a. photograph, b. drawing.


Figure 30 Frontale of a cattle foetus, cut around and presumably used as a spoon, find no. 7448, Merovingian period.


Figure 31 Sieve made of the flat part of a cattle scapula, find no. 9325, Roman period; a. photograph, b. drawing.

5.6 Transport: bone skates and a sledge runner

Bone skates were made from horse radii and metacarpi and a cattle radius. A sledge runner was made out of a horse metatarsus (table 3; fig. 32). That these objects were used on a completely flat and hard surface, i.e. ice, is proven by the flat dorsal side of the bones, which makes straight, sharp edges with the lateral and medial sides of the bones (Becker 1990).

To skate using bone skates, a person would have had to use a stick to push oneself forward and feet were not lifted from the ice during skating (Clason 1980; Becker 1990). This explains why several bone skates found at the site lack holes for ropes to attach the skates to the feet. Ten bone points, made out of cattle, horse and sheep long bones, are identified as the tips of skating sticks (fig. 33) (compare Lauwerier 1995, 203-204; Lauwerier & Van Heeringen 1995, 6-7).


Figure 32 Sledge runner made out of a horse’s left metatarsus, find no. 7536, Ottonian period.


Figure 33 Hollowed out bone point made out of the proximal end of a horse’s left metacarpus, presumably used as the tip of a skating stick, find no. 2596, Carolingian or Ottonian period.