Recently, my sponsor Michael Weller drew my attention to an interesting find from Birka, which I overlooked for years and which has the potential to become quite popular in reenactment, although I have not seen its successful reproduction to this day – a multifunctional comb. I would like to briefly describe this interesting find in the article below, mention analogies and comment on the issue of multifunctionality of historical tools.
Two combs from Birka
In the graves Bj 715 and Bj 955 we find two combs of non-standard construction, which are absent in prominent comb works; information about them is not included in Ambrosiani (Ambrosiani 1981; Ambrosiani 1984) nor Ashby (Ashby 2011); only Arbman (Arbman 1940: Taf. 163.11; Arbman 1943: 248-9, 349-380) and Hårdh (Hårdh 1984: 158) mention them. These two combs are constructed as follows: the panels forming the teeth are shorter and do not reach the ridge formed by the handles, thus creating a horizontal groove on the ridge which is filled with a steel strip – a striker that protrudes 0.7-1 cm. The metal strip copies the shape of the handles. In the case of the Bj 955 comb, the comb is connected by three rivets that appear to pass through the metal strip. The safety of the teeth during striking was ensured by the presence of a case. The correct identification of these multifunctional combs in archaeological material is difficult and requires well-preserved pieces that do not come from cremation graves, yet when carefully inspected, strikers should be recognizable by their specific size and D-shape.
At present, we know only two specimens from the Viking period:
Inhumation male grave Bj 955 (Arbman 1940: Taf. 163.11; Arbman 1943: 349-38, Abb. 329; Hårdh 1984: 158; catalog SHM)
The comb is 12.2 cm long and is connected by three rivets. The surface of the handles is decorated with a delicate ornament consisting of triangles, rhombuses and vertical lines. According to the SHM catalog, the decoration corresponds to the comb type B1:2, but the shape of the handles differs from this type. According to Ambrosiani, the comb was equipped with a case or its fragments (Ambrosiani 1984: 166). The tomb also contained a spear, a long and a short knife, a shield boss, a cloak fibula, a whetstone / a touchstone, textile remains, a striker, a purse, and horse gear (Arbman 1943: 349-380, Abb. 329). The dating of the grave points to the 10th century (Ambrosiani 1981: 75; Ambrosiani 1984: 170).
Inhumation male grave Bj 715 (Arbman 1943: 248-9, Abb. 199; Hårdh 1984: 158; catalog SHM)
The comb is preserved in three fragments and is known primarily from the drawing of the grave. According to Arbman and Hårdh, the comb consists of an steel piece with visible antler components. The SHM catalog states that the decoration corresponds to the comb type B1:2, but has a distinctive shape. It adds that the comb includes a copper alloy; it is not impossible for rivets to be formed from this alloy. The deceased’s body was placed in a coffin along with a weight, a button, a purse, a silver coin, a buckle, a knife, a ceramic vessel, and a whetstone / a touchstone.
The comb from Bj 955. Source: Arbman 1940: Taf. 163.11.
The multifunctional combs from Birka are unique finds to which we do not yet know parallels from the Viking period. The only comparable find is the decorated comb L.U.H.M. 12591:LI 97, which was found during the excavations of St. Kungsgatan in Lund. In this case, the steel is not inserted into the comb, but into the case that accompanied the comb. This finds can be dated to the 13th century (Blomqvist 1943: 142, Bild 22; Hårdh 1984: 158).
Medieval comb from Lund. Source: Blomqvist 1943: Bild 22.
A note on multifunction tools
The multifunctionality of some tools, such as a knife or axe, is more than obvious and there is no point in commenting on it. On the other hand, small tools that combine several pieces of tools into one unit deserve attention. The medieval man was a practical man, simplifying her/his work and saving space – the pockets were not used at all or only very small ones (Hägg 1984: 42-5; Hägg 2015: 260), so all the equipment was stored in limited belt pouches with a maximum size of about 15 × 15 cm. This created the need to carry fewer tools that would perform more functions.
The idea of a multitool is certainly not modern, quite the opposite – it has been repeated over the millennia. We can mention the Roman 15.5 cm long folding tool made of silver, which combines a spoon, fork, knife and three smaller thorny and spatula tools (Fitzwilliam Museum 2020). Another interesting folding tool is shown on page 136r of the Ms germ qu 14 manuscript, which dates back to 1500 – this tool combines 6 pieces of tools, including a knife and a saw.
Left: Roman instrument from the 3rd century AD (Fitzwilliam Museum 2020).
Right: drawing of an instrument from about 1500 AD (Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt am Main, Ms germ qu, 14 fol. 136r).
Of the early medieval multitools, it is possible to mention razors and pivoting knives. One of the razors was found in the grave of Bj 456 in Birka and consists of a metal case from which two identical razors can be tilted (Arbman 1940: 184.4; Arwidsson 1989: 95). Another razor with two blades, which are probably fixed with one rivet, was found in grave IV in Alsike, Sweden, which can be dated to the second half of the 9th century (Arne 1934: 29, Taf. VIII.7). In this connection, it is possible to mention the pivoting knife from Canterbury, which is equipped with a double-sided blade – a smaller blade, similar to today’s box cutter, serves as a tail, while a larger blade is long enough to fill the whole decorated case (Graham-Campbell 1978). Very similar blades have also been found in York and Winchester (Goodall 1990, 837, Fig. 251.2644, 2648; Ottaway 1989: 887, Fig. 20.2978; Ottaway – Rogers 2002: 2791-3, Fig. 1380). The handles of many other razors were provided with eyelets for hanging or were formed by long metal straps/spike, the function of which is yet to be found.
Above: a razor from the grave of Bj 456 in Birka (Arbman 1940: 181.4).
Bottom: pivoting knife from Canterbury (Graham-Campbell 1978: Fig. 3b).
Other interesting Early medieval multitools are Alanic fibulas of the 9th-10th century, which combine the function of a fibula, striker, thorn, tweezers and loop (Belyj 2013). The fibulas are reminiscent of the ancient “pliers fibula” (Zangenfibeln), which are known in hundreds of pieces from the 4th century BC to the 4th century AD (for example Feugère 1985: 426-45; Genčeva 2004: 123).
Alanic strikers-fibulas. Source: Belyj 2013.
These specimens are, of course, only examples. I believe that reenactors have great potential to change the view of entire groups of objects because they reconstruct and use them. If you yourself discovered a tool not described here, we will be very happy if you write to us!
I hope you liked reading this article. If you have any question or remark, please contact me or leave a comment below. If you want to learn more and support my work, please, fund my project on Patreon or Paypal.
Ambrosiani, Kristina (1981). Viking Age Combs, Comb Making and Comb Makers in the Light of Finds from Birka and Ribe, Stockholm.
Ambrosiani, Kristina (1984). Kämme. In: Arwidsson, Greta (ed.). Birka II:1. Systematische Analysen der Gräberfunde, Stockholm, 161-176.
Arbman, Holger (1940–1943). Birka I. Die Gräber. Text (1943), Tafeln (1940), Stockholm.
Arne, T. J. (1934). Das Bootgräberfeld von Tuna in Alsike, Uppland, Stockholm.
Arwidsson, Greta (1989). Klappmesser. In: Arwidsson, Greta (ed.). Birka II:3. Systematische Analysen der Gräberfunde, Stockholm, 95–96.
Ashby, S. P. (2011). An Atlas of Medieval Combs from Northern Europe. In: Internet Archaeology 30 [online]. [2021-01-12]. Available from: http://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue30/ashby_index.html.
Belyj 2013 = Белый, А. В. (2013). Находки двух железных фибул хазарской эпохи на территории Юго-Западного Крыма // ‛Pωμαĩος: сборник статей к 60-летию проф. С. Б. Сорочана. Сост. А. Н. Домановский, Харьков, 418-425.
Blomqvist, Ragnar (1943). Kammar från Lunds medeltid. In: Kulturen: en årsbok till medlemmarna av Kulturhistoriska föreningen för södra Sverige 1942, Lund, 133-162.
Feugère, Michel (1985). Les fibules en Gaule meridionale de la conquite a la fin du Ve sicle apres J.-C., Paris.
Fitzwilliam Museum 2020 = Compound utensil. In: The Fitzwilliam Museum [online]. [2021-01-12]. Available from: https://collection.beta.fitz.ms/id/object/70534.
Genčeva, Eugénia (2004). Les Fibules Romaines de Bulgarie de la fin du 1er s. av. J.-C. à la fin du VIe s. ap. J.-C., Veliko Trnovo.
Graham-Campbell, J. A. (1978). An Anglo-Scandinavian ornamented knife from Canterbury, Kent. In: Medieval Archaeology 22, 130-133.
Goodall, I. H. (1990). Knives. In: Biddle, M. (ed.). Object and Economy in Medieval Winchester, Winchester Studies 7.2, 835–60.
Hägg, Inga (1984). Die Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu. Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu, Bd. 20, Neumünster.
Hägg, Inga (2015). Textilien und Tracht in Haithabu und Schleswig. Die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu, Bd. 18, Neumünster.
Hårdh, Birgitta (1984). Feuerstahle. In: Arwidsson, Greta (ed.). Birka II:1. Systematische Analysen der Gräberfunde, Stockholm, 155-160.
Ottaway, Patrick (1989). Anglo-Scandinavian ironwork from 16-22 Coppergate, York : c.850-1100 A.D. PhD thesis, University of York.
Ottaway, Patrick – Rogers, N. S. H. (2002). Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Finds from Medieval York (The Archaeology of York 17/15), York.