Iron Age Bone Weaving Comb, Mildenhall

top of weaving comb

A weaving comb made of bone, dating to the Middle Iron Age (300-50 BC) . It was discovered in an Iron Age storage pit during excavations at Recreation Way, Mildenhall in 2010.

The comb has been carved from a horse’s metapodial (cannon bone), it measures 15.9cm in length and 4cm in width. It still has six of its original seven teeth remaining. The ring and dot decoration would have been punched or drilled into the surface. Although the decoration is reminiscent of that seen on some Anglo-Saxon bone combs, this Iron Age comb is used for weaving rather than for brushing human hair. This shape of comb is common in Eastern England, and very similar combs have been discovered as far away as Danebury Iron Age Hillfort, Hampshire and Glastonbury Lake Village on the Somerset Levels.

black and white illustrations of bone objects
Illustration of the bone comb (4), bone needles (1-3) & bone weaving plates (5-7) scale at 2:3, image from Havard et al. Unknown.

This comb was not the only piece of weaving equipment found on the excavation site. Weaving tablets used to create belts or patterned fabric strips to stitch onto clothing were found in a different pit and date to the same period. A number of needles, spindle whorls and loom weights were also recovered during the excavations. People on this site raised their own sheep alongside other animals, processed their own wool to make their own clothes and even made their own weaving tools. What is unknown is which individuals in society took part in which specific activities. What roles did men, women and children of the village have in textile production?

Exactly how these combs were used during the weaving process is uncertain, this is partly due to their multifunctionality. Most theories agree that they were used as beaters, it is what type of beating they were used for that is up for discussion. There are two likely methods of beating that the combs could have been used for. The first is that the teeth of the comb could have been placed between the warp threads of the loom, parallel with the weft, and used to push the wool upwards, perhaps in conjunction with a sword beater. When used this way their slightly curved shape is thought to have helped adjust the tension of the weft to prevent the fabric tailoring inwards as more length is added. The second method involves the comb being turned on its side and used as a pin beater in the space between the warps.

photo of reconstructed iron age loom
Reconstruction Iron Age warp-weighted loom at Flag Fen, Cambridgeshire. Image from http://www.britainexpress.com/counties/cambridgeshire/ancient/Flag-Fen.htm

More Information:

Cotswold Archaeology. 2013. Land at Recreation Way, Mildenhall, Suffolk. Post-Excavation Assessment and Updated Project Design. Vol I: Text and Figures and Vol II: Specialist Assessments.

Cotswold Archaeology. 2010. Highlight 9. Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon worked bone objects from Mildenhall, Suffolk.

Cunliffe, B & Poole, C. 1991. Danebury: An Iron Age Hillfort in Hampshire. Vol5 The excavations 1979-1988: the finds. Council for British Archaeology Research Report No. 73

Havard, T., Alexander, M., and R. Holt. Unknown. Excavations at Recreation Way, Mildenhall, Suffolk in 2010. Unpublished East Anglian Archaeology Report.

The ‘From the Vaults’ series is written by the County Council’s Archaeological Archives Officer

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