The Vikings were known for many things: trade, pillaging, sailing skills. They weren’t known for their literacy or neat appearance. Both of those may change with the discoveries of an inscribed comb that may indicate how the early Vikings were involved in switching from a rudimentary but complicated phonetic symbol-based alphabet to a more simple and sophisticated one. The Vikings were sophisticated? They used combs? This changes everything!
“These are the runes we've been missing.”
That sounds like a Star Wars quote but it’s actually from a description of the discovery in ScientificNordic. Archaeologist Søren Sindbæk from Aarhus University, Denmark, was leading an excavation in an ancient Viking market in Ribe, the country’s oldest town, when the comb, along with an inscribed bone plate, were found. The inscriptions were in a runic alphabet – a set of runes or phonetic symbols developed by the Germanic people. They date back to 150 CE and followed the Germanic tribes in their migrations until being replaced by the Latin alphabet.
However, before that, the runes themselves underwent a transformation and that’s where the comb may be the proverbial missing link for archeologists like Søren Sindbæk. The original early Vikings runic system was a 24-character alphabet called a futhark. Each rune had its own sound and, as their use increased, it became difficult to remember them. It appears around 800 CE that the rune changed to a simpler form. This may have been due to the trading the Vikings did, which needed a word for an object and also a word or sentence to describe the transaction.
The letters on the comb (and the partial series on the plate) are of a longer, straighter shape than the early runes. The comb contained the biggest surprise because the letters made up the word “comb.” The word appears on both sides, forming the noun “comb” on one and the verb (to comb) on the other. This indicates that the alphabet may have been transitioning from a magical purpose to a means of communication that was both oral and written.
Why were the words written on a comb and not a sword or knife or weapon? It turns out the Viking men may have been as vain as they were violent. Elaborately decorated combs have been found in Norse excavation sites and graves. They were generally carved from antlers and bones from animals in other countries, demonstrating their ability and affection for travel and trade.
Does the discovery of a Viking comb engraved with the word “comb” change everything? Not yet, but it’s a start. What would really be interesting is a comb from an older Viking containing the word “combover.”