6th-century ivory comb

What is it?

This 6th-century ivory comb, which may have been used by its owner to style his hair and beard, was found in a grave in Germany, in an early medieval toiletry bag that also contained a small pair of scissors for personal grooming. The ivory comb is approximately 15cm long and 8cm tall, and has been engraved on both sides with high-quality, elaborate carvings. The decorations depict a hunting scene featuring gazelle-like animals, which appear to be jumping to escape an undetermined predator. It is not possible to identify the exact species being depicted, but researchers suggest that they may be African animals, reflecting the comb’s possible origin in the Mediterranean.

Photo: Bayerisches Landesamt fĂĽr Denkmalpflege.

Where was it found, and when?

The comb was found in Bavaria, in southern Germany, during excavations in the municipality of Deiningen, in an ancient village located in the depression of the Nördlinger Ries, a meteor impact crater that measures c.25km across. The comb was discovered in a 1,500-year-old inhumation grave belonging to a man aged 40-50 years old. The burial contained a number of luxurious grave goods, including several weapons – an axe, a lance, a shield, and a longsword – as well as spurs and a bridle, suggesting that he was the rider of the horse found buried in the pit next to him. The remains of the toiletry bag containing the comb and the pair of scissors were unearthed at the foot of the grave.

Why does it matter?

This beautifully carved ivory comb is a very rare find. Combs have often been found as grave goods in Europe in the early medieval period, but 6th-century ivory examples with such intricate decoration like this are very unusual, and those that have been found are usually engraved with Christian imagery, rather than hunting scenes. Currently, no comparable examples with such decoration are known, making this object not just a unique archaeological discovery, but also a significant source from an art-history perspective.

The comb was found in a very fragmented condition, but extensive restoration work has pieced it back together and revealed the details of the carvings as being based on scenes of African wildlife. In another grave nearby, excavated at the same time, a female burial was found, containing several valuable grave goods, including a ceramic bowl made in North Africa. The discovery of these objects suggests that the people of this community had access to long-distance networks even after the dissolution of the western Roman Empire in the 5th century. It is unknown how the comb and the bowl ended up at Nördlinger Ries, but researchers suggest that they may have been tributes, gifts from a local ruler to important followers, or plunder from a campaign in the area that is now Italy.

A 3D print of the comb is currently on display in a temporary exhibition at the Rieskrater Museum in Nördlingen.