Despite its appearance, the "Bar Hill comb" may have been worn as an amulet rather than used for styling hair.
Archaeologists at the Museum of London Archaeology have identified a rare and unique artifact found at an Iron Age site at Bar Hill near Cambridgeshire, England: a 2,000-year-old comb made from a portion of a human skull.
Dubbing the object the “Bar Hill comb,” archaeologists believe the discovery could illuminate the local customs of Iron Age humans. Only two other human bone combs have ever been found in Britain — and both of them were unearthed within 15 miles of the Bar Hill comb.
“It is possible this fascinating find represents a tradition carried out by Iron Age communities living solely in this area of Cambridgeshire,” said Michael Marshall, the archaeological team lead from the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), in a statement. “To be able to see such hyper-local influences in groups of people living over 2,000 years ago is truly astonishing.”
Over the years, archaeological excavations at Iron Age sites have turned up numerous artifacts made from human bones, such as tools made from arm and leg bones. This has led many historians to believe that reusing human bones was a fairly common ritual practice in Iron Age Britain. Combs made from animal bones were also quite common, used for both textile work and hair styling.
The Bar Hill comb’s teeth, however, didn’t show any signs of wear, which could indicate that the object was symbolic rather than practical.
“The Bar Hill comb may have been a highly symbolic and powerful object for members of the local community. It is possible it was carved from the skull of an important member of Iron Age society, whose presence was in some way preserved and commemorated through their bones,” Marshall said.
A small hole bored into the side of the Bar Hill comb suggests it may have been worn as an amulet. Archaeological evidence from other Iron Age sites across Europe supports this theory, showing that portions of human skulls were frequently collected, repurposed, and displayed.
Comparing the Bar Hill comb to the two similar human skull combs from Iron Age Cambridgeshire opened the doors to another possibility as well. The first comb, discovered at Earith in the 1970s, featured carved teeth, but the second, found in the early 2000s at Harston Mill, did not. Instead, it had incised lines, which means it likely wasn’t used for any practical purpose.
It’s possible, Marshall theorized, that these carvings were meant to represent the sutures joining sections of the human skull.
“These carved teeth and lines would have emphasised the Bar Hill comb’s origin, at least amongst communities familiar with skeletal remains — as many in the Iron Age would have been. Rather than being an anonymous piece of bone, its symbolism and significance would therefore have been immediately apparent to anyone who encountered it,” he said.
The Bar Hill comb was discovered as part of an ongoing analysis of more than 280,000 artifacts recovered from archaeological excavations on the National Highways A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon Improvement Scheme between 2016 and 2018.
The Iron Age was a pivotal moment in human history. Depending on the region, it began sometime between 1200 B.C.E. and 600 B.C.E. as humans across Europe, Asia, and Africa began creating tools and weapons from iron and, more importantly, steel.
At the time, Europe was home to a group known as the Celts. The Celts lived in small tribes or clans, often in hill forts composed of simple round houses made of mud and wood. Celtic communities shared similar religious views and languages, but they were not, on the whole, united, and they often saw conflict between clans.
Early Iron Age Celts also didn’t have their own written language, so much of what is known about their culture comes from the discovery of ancient art and artifacts. This is also why the Iron Age bog bodies that have been found across Europe are so captivating. With no written record, historians can only speculate as to why these people were killed and thrown into peat bogs.
But as archaeological excavations uncover more ancient artifacts, our understanding of what life was like for Iron Age humans becomes at least a little bit clearer.
The Bar Hill comb is just one example of these enlightening discoveries.
Interested in more Iron Age discoveries? Read all about the Iron Age Celtic woman who was found buried in a hollowed-out tree in Zurich. Or, learn about the discovery of an Iron Age chariot buried alongside its horse and driver in England.