Iron Age comb made from human skull bone among A14 finds

The artefact was found at Bar Hill, approximately four miles north-west of Cambridge, and is believed to date to the Iron Age (c.750 BC-AD 43).

A prehistoric ‘comb’ made of bone from a human skull was recently discovered by archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) during analysis of the more than 280,000 artefacts that were recovered between 2016 and 2018 in advance of the National Highways A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon Improvement Scheme (see CA 339).

Photo: MOLA

The artefact was found at Bar Hill, approximately four miles north-west of Cambridge, and is believed to date to the Iron Age (c.750 BC-AD 43). It probably comes from the parietal bone of the skull, located on the back of the head. The part of the comb that survives measures approximately 6cm in length, although the complete object may have been around double this size (pictured above).

Curated and worked human bone was not uncommon in Iron Age Britain, and fragments were occasionally made into objects for use by the living, such as containers and tools. However, animal bone and antler were much more commonly used for making combs, and only two other comb-like objects made of human bone are currently known – both also from Cambridgeshire, found within 15 miles of Bar Hill (at Earith and Harston Mill), perhaps reflecting local beliefs or rituals for dealing with the dead.

Michael Marshall, the MOLA Finds Team Lead, said: ‘It is possible this fascinating find represents a tradition carried out solely by Iron Age communities living in this area of Cambridgeshire. To be able to see such hyper-local influences in groups of people living over 2,000 years ago is truly astonishing.’

How might the object have been used? Iron Age combs made of animal-derived materials include types used for textile working and others for personal grooming. The human bone example from Bar Hill resembles the latter category, but its surviving teeth are shorter and lack the wear grooves seen on heavily used examples. It could have been used only occasionally, perhaps during specific rituals, or may have had another function entirely. Iron Age tools made of human limb bones, found nearby at Trumpington, are suggested to have been used for working hides, and the Bar Hill comb could perhaps have been employed as a toothed scraper on similar soft substances.

Another possibility is that the object, which is perforated, was suspended as some kind of amulet or trophy. Skulls were favoured for such purposes in Iron Age Europe, and many fragments have perforations suggesting that they were worn or displayed. If the Bar Hill comb was used in this way, too, the ‘teeth’ could be purely decorative, perhaps imitating the distinctive jagged shape of cranial sutures (two of which are present on the right side of the comb) and emphasising the symbolically important origins of the raw material.

A ‘trophy’ need not necessarily have been taken from a vanquished enemy: while Iron Age head-hunting is attested in historical sources, bone amulets representing revered ancestors could also have been a way for Iron Age communities to commemorate their dead, perhaps offering protection or assistance to the living. In modern Britain, some people retain or display cremation urns containing the remains of family members or remember the dead with locks of their hair. Today we are able to remember our dead through video, photos, and other media, but in prehistory this would not have been possible, making such tangible mementos even more poignant.

Michael explained: ‘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.’

The Bar Hill comb will now be kept at the Cambridgeshire Archaeology Archive, the main repository for material found during excavations in the county, where it will be available for any future research.