An investigation into hair combs crafted from deer antler has illuminated previously undiscovered details about Viking trade routes, unveiling connections between northern Scandinavia and the outskirts of continental Europe. Led by scholars from the University of York, this research offers compelling proof of trade links between Hedeby, which is the modern equivalent of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, and the remote upland regions of Scandinavia, located hundreds of kilometers to the north.
This revelation stems from a biomolecular analysis of antler combs discovered at these locations. Hedeby emerged as a prominent hub for antler craftsmanship, boasting a staggering 288,000 recorded antler remnants, predominantly stemming from the production of hair combs—a pivotal urban trade during the Viking Age. The collaborative team of archaeologists from the Universities of York, Stockholm, and Barcelona, in conjunction with the Center for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology (ZBSA) and the Leibniz Center for Archaeology (LEIZA), meticulously assessed the collagen within these combs to discern the deer species from which the antlers originated.
The outcomes of this examination unveiled that a striking 85–90% of these combs were crafted from reindeer antler. Yet, reindeer herds exclusively inhabited northern Scandinavia, implying that either the combs themselves or the antlers used in their production were imported. A previous investigation examining waste materials from antler artifact production at the site disclosed that only 0.5% of the waste was linked to reindeer, with no manufacturing evidence from this early phase. Consequently, these combs undoubtedly originated from elsewhere, underscoring the existence of extensive, recurrent long-distance maritime exchanges between Hedeby and the northern regions, as early as AD 800.
Dr. Steven Ashby, a scholar from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, remarked, “We have embarked on addressing a wide array of inquiries concerning the timing of travel and trade during the Viking Age in Britain and Scandinavia.” He went on to emphasize the significance of the work conducted at Hedeby, highlighting its capacity to reveal connections between the mountainous or Arctic expanses of Scandinavia and the substantial town situated at the gateway to continental Europe. Furthermore, it indicates a specific window in the 9th Century when these northern connections must have been notably robust.
The team’s forthcoming endeavor will employ biomolecular analyses of artifacts to investigate movement and interactions spanning the Viking world, from Greenland to the Baltic. The research paper, titled “In the footsteps of Ohthere: biomolecular analysis of early Viking Age hair combs from Hedeby (Haithabu),” has been published in the Antiquity Journal.
Source: University of York