In conjunction with the other pilot projects engaged in the investigation of networks of trade for specific raw materials (ivory, metals), this work package builds a framework for identifying source regions that were involved in the utilisation and manufacture of the objects which were produced at these important early trading sites.
The project emerges out of the study of past networks of exchange and communication and, in particular, discussions of how these articulated with the natural world. Northern Europe’s three large cervid species – red deer (Cervus elaphus), reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), and elk (Alces alces) – all produce a product that was invaluable in pre-modern craft and industry: antler. In the early medieval period, this raw material gained a particular currency, as it found a role in the production of a range of valued items including (though not limited to) hair combs. As a result, it began to be exploited on a previously unprecedented scale. However, the organisation of this craft – and, in particular, the means by which the antlers from local or exotic animals were collected and traded – remains unclear. If we could identify the material source of particular types of object, our understanding of the communication, movement and exchange involved in the craft could be elucidated somewhat. More particularly, were we to know the species of antler used in the manufacture of particular objects, then that would considerably reduce the range of possibilities for the source region of a given body of raw material.
Such information is no longer beyond our grasp. Using the innovative approach of Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS), it is now possible to test antler objects in order to identify the species of deer from which the raw material was taken. The method relies on the extraction of only a small sample of material, and thus facilitates the identification of archaeological material that would not otherwise be amenable to such analysis (by traditional zooarchaeological methods, for instance). The method will thus function equally well on tiny fragments of craft debris, and highly worked finished objects, both of which would not be easily identified using macroscopic techniques. Moreover, as the technique is rapid, inexpensive, and minimally destructive, it is possible to test a large quantity of archaeological material.
This project is designed to exploit the potential of this new technique, in order to address long standing questions regarding the organisation, dynamics, and chronological development of the comb trade in early-medieval Europe, which will of course have more substantial implications for understanding of exchange, communication, and urban development around the Baltic and North Seas in a more general sense. In particular, ZooMS will be used to identify the species of antler that was used to fashion combs at key sites in Viking-Age Jutland: the Viking-Age market centres of Ribe and Aarhus, and the famous later Viking-Age fortification at Aggersborg. Analysis of these results, in the context of what is known about antlercraft at other sites, will enable us to answer diverse questions about the organisation of the craft (how, for instance, it was provisioned), the nature of communication between the various sites, and how this changed over time, under the influence of social, political and economic developments.
In the initial stages of the project, further reference material from red deer, elk, and reindeer antlers from a variety of locations in Scandinavia will be analysed, in order to expand the reference collection, and thus increase the potential for these species to be reliably and rapidly discriminated using ZooMS. This will enable the ‘fingerprinting’ of archaeological combs, as well as small antler fragments (such as the manufacturing debris found throughout Ribe’s early-medieval deposits). Identification here will enable closer characterisation of the comb trade, its regional dynamics, local organisation, and chronological development.