Sometimes the very best is saved until the last and this was certainly the case in the closing days of the community excavations undertaken at Clare Castle on behalf of the Clare Castle Country Park Trust. A discovery was made that is not only incredibly rare but is one also of extraordinary beauty and fine craftsmanship. Two pieces of an intricately carved, double-sided ivory comb of 11th to 12th-century date were collected from the same trench where many pieces of 13th to 14th-century painted medieval window glass and glazed tile had already been found.
The comb is made from African elephant ivory and would have had decorative panels to either side. One side panel depicts the hind legs of a beast that could be a griffin, set amidst foliage. The other side is decorated with a spectacular lion; one of a possible pair with the second now missing. The teeth and sides of the comb are absent. It appears that, at some point in its past, the object may have suffered lamination causing the teeth to fail and rather than discarding such a fine object, the teeth were neatly sawn away leaving the decorative panels to be reused.
Ivory combs of this form have been described in literature as ‘liturgical’ combs, thought to be used by bishops and priests before and during the mass; the Danish Missale Lundense contains a prayer from the 12th century that was recited whilst the bishop’s hair was being combed out. However, some scholars feel that such combs would have had a more secular use as a luxury item and are perhaps better identified as Byzantine combs, reflecting their point of origin in Egypt, Syria, or just possibly Constantinople itself.
It is highly likely that the comb from Clare is the first example of an ivory Byzantine comb to have been excavated this century; a study in the late 1990s revealed that only 22 decorated ivory Byzantine combs were known in Europe, with many of the latest discoveries coming from Sigtuna, Sweden, where no less than four came out of the excavations of 1988-90. In Britain these combs are extremely scarce. Only three examples are known, one in the Victoria & Albert Museum, one in the British Museum, both of which are old finds without decent provenances and a third fragment from a stratified context under York Minster.
Of course, the question to answer is – how did such a rare object come to its final resting place at Clare Castle? At the end of the 11th century, the First Crusade took Englishmen into the areas where such combs were being produced; Anglo-Saxons had already travelled as far as Rome and Jerusalem with the Normans travelling even more extensively. It is possible that the object returned to Suffolk as the result of such exploration, and whether it was owned by a clergyman or a secular aristocrat, the skilled way in which the object was preserved by removing the teeth when it failed as a comb provides some indication as to how treasured the item was; to be preserved for generations rather than discarded when damaged.
We are greatly indebted to Ian Riddler who has generously provided us with research and information on this object.