Solved: The Myѕtery of the Bаr Hіll Comb

Jan Bartek – – When archaeologists found a curious object at Bar Hill near Cambridge, UK, they understood it was an unusual ancient artifact, but exactly was it?

Examinations revealed that the strange object was a comb dating back to the Iron Age (750 B.C – 43 A.D). The comb is rectangular, with rounded edges and coarsely cut teeth. All in all, a fairly standard Iron Age bone comb. However, further study revealed something unusual about this particular comb – it is carved from a human skull.

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The Bar Hill comb. Credit: MOLA – Image compilation

It might be surprising, but in Iron Age Britain, people used human bone to make many different tools. Other excavations in Cambridgeshire have uncovered tools for cleaning animal skins made from human leg and arm bones. The Bar Hill comb could have been used for textile work or even combing hair. However, Finds Specialist Michael, quickly spotted something that blew this theory out of the water -there was no wear on the comb’s teeth. This means it was probably never used as a comb.

Archaeological evidence from Europe tells us that the human head was important to the Iron Age people. They were treated differently from other human bones. Across the continent, including Britain, skulls were collected and even displayed at the entrances to settlements. This may have taken place during times of conflict as “headhunting trophies”.1 There are also examples from Britain of pieces of the human skull with holes drilled into them. These may have been worn as amulets.

imageThe Bar Hill Comb - MOLA Headland Infrastructure

Reconstruction of the Bar Hill Comb. Credit: MOLA

The Bar Hill comb had a circular hole drilled into it. This means it could have been worn as an amulet.

Although amulets made from the human skull were common in Iron Age Britain, the Bar Hill comb still stands out. In fact, it is one of only three Iron Age combs made from human skulls ever found. And the other two come from just down the road.  The first was found at excavations at Earith, 9 miles north of Bar Hill, in the 1970s. The second, which has carved lines rather than teeth, was found during excavations at Harston Mill, 10 miles south of Bar Hill, in the early 2000s. This suggests it may have been an Iron Age tradition unique to this part of Britain!

The Bar Hill Comb - MOLA Headland Infrastructure

According to a press statement by MOLA, “conversations between Michael Marshall and MOLA Osteologist (human bone expert) Michael Henderson also sparked a new theory. It is possible the teeth of the comb could represent the natural sutures that join sections of the human skull.”

“These carved teeth and lines would have highlighted the Bar Hill Comb’s origin, especially for local Iron Age communities who were familiar with skeletal remains. Its symbolism and significance would have been obvious to anyone who encountered it,” Michael Marshall explains further.

Instead of being just a practical tool, the Bar Hill comb may have been a powerful object for local Iron Age community members. Perhaps the skull belonged to an important person who played a role in the community even after their death.

More of these combs may be revealed by future excavations across Cambridgeshire, but for now, many questions remain. We don’t have written evidence from people living in Iron Age Cambridgeshire, so we will never know exactly why this was made. We can only imagine the thoughts or feelings the amulet would have inspired in the people who held or wore it.

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