Unique 6th c. ivory comb found in Bavaria

Archaeologists in Bavaria have unearthed two exceptionally furnished graves from the 6th century each containing a find unique north of the Alps: an ivory comb decorated on both sides with animal scenes, and a red ceramic bowl made in what is now Tunisia.

The comb was found in the grave of an adult man about 40 to 50 years old at time of death. He was a warrior, buried with a full complement of weapons including a long sword, a lance, a shield and a battle axe. A bronze basin was also unearthed in the grave. In a pit next to the grave archaeologists found the skeletal remains of a horse, and the presence of a pair of spurs and the remnants of a bridle found inside the man’s grave indicate he was the rider of the horse buried in the grave next to him.

At the foot of the warrior was a bag made of an organic material. Most of it has decomposed, but there are some remains. That bag was the 6th century version of a toiletries bag, containing a pair of scissors and the ivory comb he would have used to groom his hair and beard. The comb had splintered apart over time, but conservators from the Bavarian State Office for Monument Preservation were able to piece it back together.

Combs are more frequently seen in funerary contexts from later in the medieval period, but they are typically carved from wood, animal bone or antler. Ivory carvings of any kind were exceedingly rare in the 6th century, and the few surviving ivory combs believed to date from this period are either plain, or carved with Christian or Biblical motifs. This one is also unusually long at more than 5.5 inches, one of the largest combs of any material found in an early medieval funerary context.

The carving on this comb is of extremely high quality. It features a hunting scene of animals non-native to Europe, antelope-like prey leaping away from the predators chasing them. As there are no comparable examples to this one known, archaeologists have not been able to pin down exactly which animals are represented on the scene, if they were meant to be African animals specifically.

The second grave contained the remains of an adult woman who was around 30 to 40 years old when she died. She was buried with jewelry, food offerings, including eggs, and a weaving batten, a tool used to beat the weft on upright looms. Pottery of local manufacture was also found in the grave. To the left of her left elbow was a bowl buried upside-down, but it was not local. On the contrary, it had traveled far to accompany this woman to the afterlife.

Cleanly broken in two pieces but complete, the bowl is an example of high-quality African red slip ware, pottery characterized by a thick ochre/red slip that coats in the interior, and often the exterior, of many forms of vessels. African red slip ware was in active production in what is now Tunisia from the 1st to the 7th century A.D. and was highly sought-after all over the territory (and later former territory) of the Roman Empire. It was traded throughout the Mediterranean as far as Constantinople until production ceased, but this is the first example in such complete condition found in Germany.

The inside of the bowl is stamped in the center with a square cross, a design struck during production of the ceramic. After market, some loops and what look like sixes were scratched around the rim of the bowl. They could have been random doodles, or they may have had linguistic or religious meaning, an unknown form of runic script, for example.

The burials were discovered during an excavation at the site of a new municipal development in the town of Deiningen which is located in the Nördlinger Ries meteorite impact crater of western Bavaria. At the time the graves were dug, the area was populated by Alemanni tribes but under the suzerainty of the Frankish kings of the Merovingian dynasty.

The excavation of the site has unearthed more than 75 graves, including one double grave of a young man and a young woman about 20 years of age who were buried holding hands. They were found just a few feet away from the warrior’s burial. The presence of 6th century graves, especially those of elite individuals, in an organized burial ground rewrites the history of Deiningen which was previously believed to have been settled in the 8th century.