Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2-2 (November 2010)Ton Derks; Wouter Vos: Wooden combs from the Roman fort at Vechten: the bodily appearance of soldiers

3 Typo-chronology and representativeness

How special are our finds and how do they fit into the history of the comb? Through the ages, wood and a wide range of other organic materials have been employed for the production of combs (Ulbricht 2000; Cruse 2007). In addition, metal combs were manufactured from the Bronze Age onwards.[3] As far as wooden combs are concerned, few have survived from European prehistory and the surviving examples are, unlike our dataset, mostly of the one-sided type with just one row of teeth.[4] The oldest double-sided wooden combs stem from Neolithic lake settlements in Switzerland (Tschumi 1949, 621, 644 with Abb. 247; Stotzer et al. 1976, 19-20, fig. 14), but the type first became widespread in the Roman era and then again between the 15th and early 18th centuries, when wooden combs, nearly always of boxwood, seem to have been articles of everyday use at all levels of society (MacGregor 1985, 74; Deschler-Erb 1998, 156; Cruse 2007, 21 f.).[5] After the Germanic incursions and the crisis of the late 3rd century AD, when supplies of ready-made box combs from the Mediterranean were interrupted, antler and bone were exploited as the dominant primary materials and combs were usually composed of a number of individually worked tooth-plates riveted between two side plates rather than produced from a single piece (MacGregor 1985, 82 ff.; Dijkman & Ervynck 1998, esp. 67-70, 76, fig. 44). In the Netherlands, such Late Roman and Early Medieval composite combs are especially well known from the Frisian terps (Roes 1963; Knol 1993, 81-84) as well as from Maastricht. From the 11th to the early 18th century combs were virtually exclusively of the double-sided type. Initially they were mostly single piece products, and this became the norm from the 14th century onwards. The latter series was quite comparable to the combs from the Roman era, though their shape is square rather than rectangular. Depending on the availability of the primary material and the predilections and spending power of consumers, different raw materials were exploited alongside each other. Antler remained in use until the 14th century, but from the 12th century onwards, when supplies of antler began to run dry, bone, cattle horn and wood gradually became predominant (MacGregor 1985, 32, 76 f., 81; Cruse 2007, 21). Ivory combs, which had not been unknown in the Roman period, became particularly popular among the affluent upper classes from the 14th century on, when trade companies had established a regular supply of elephant tusks from the African west coast. Manufacture of these luxury commodities became concentrated in the ports of trade around the North Sea, first in Paris and Dieppe, and then in London and Amsterdam (Baart et al. 1977, 130 ff., figs. 110-113; Rijkelijkhuizen 2008, 67 ff, with fig. 3.15; Cruse 2007, 211 f.).

From this brief review of shifting popularities of particular comb types and changing predilections in the choice of raw materials we may conclude that the double-sided boxwood combs from Vechten most likely belonged to the cheapest and most readily available comb form in the Roman empire. Similarly designed luxury items made of ivory, amber or precious metals, which were produced alongside the commonly available box comb, were probably only accessible to the privileged.

If this picture proves to be true, how then do we explain the fact that box combs are still a relative rarity in the display cases and archives of our museums? First, chance or lack of good preserving conditions certainly plays a role here. Since wood is normally only preserved under either permanently waterlogged or permanently dry conditions, the same objects made from the hard parts of animal carcasses such as antler, bone, horn or ivory generally have better chances of survival. On the other hand, the explosive increase in numbers in areas which have recently been the subject of systematic study shows that the relatively poor attention paid to wooden objects may be an important additional factor.[6] In her 1986 book on Roman toilet implements from Augst, Emilie Riha, for instance, was not able to mention a single item from this ancient town, and for the whole of Switzerland could refer to only one specimen from the Schutthügel – the rubbish dump – of the legionary base at Vindonissa (Riha 1986, 20). The lacuna is now gradually being filled by new studies. Fellmann’s long-awaited exhaustive inventory of wooden objects from the Schutthügel contains no less than thirty-seven additional specimens (Fellmann 2009, 68 ff and Taf. 22-23), whereas recent publications of wooden finds from waterlogged contexts in the small towns (vici) of Oberwinterthur (Vitudurum) and Eschenz (Tasgetium) produced another thirteen (Fellmann 1991, 19-20, 33-34, Taf. 1.1-9; Brem, Steiner & Kesselring 1999, 132). Within two decades the number for Switzerland has thus gone up from one to 51! Similarly, the recent survey of wooden combs from Roman Britain by Paola Pugsley, resulting in a total of 153 specimens, raised the number of published examples from the famous Roman fort at Vindolanda from one to 61.[7] If still necessary, such developments make it abundantly clear that whenever soil conditions are favourable – as they are in the damp sites of the above-mentioned army camps – wooden combs may be expected in very large numbers, especially in military and urban settlements. Against this background, it just seems a question of time until the soil of Vechten produces the next examples.


Fig. 3: Boxwood comb blanks from the Roman town of Altinum showing progressive stages of comb manufacture (scale 1:2). 1 fragment of rectangular blank of homogenous thickness; 2 fragment of rectangular blank with one long side being bevelled; 3 fragment of rectangular blank with both long sides being bevelled; 4 nearly complete rectangular comb blank with central bar and lentoid section but no teeth yet; 5 fragment of a half-finished comb with teeth on just one of the long sides (after Ferrarini 1992 , 197, fig. 9.1-4, 6).