Analysis of ancient combs reveals that extensive trade contacts existed around 800 between the Danish viking town of Hedeby, located in today’s Danish-German region of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, and northern Scandinavia. The combs are made from reindeer antlers, which at the time were only found significantly further north.
Hedeby, or Haithabu in German, was a Danish trading post that, during the viking age between 800 and 1050, is said to have been the largest central town in northern Europe, according to Swedish history magazine Världens Historia. In the year 1050, it was burnt down by the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada (Haraldr harđrádi).
Researchers at the University of York in the UK, Stockholm University, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, the Centre for Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology (ZBSA), and the Leibniz Research Institute for Archaeology in Germany analyzed hair combs made of deer antler from Hedeby.
The goal of the analysis was to examine the collagen in the combs to determine from which type of deer the combs were made. In the study, published in the scientific journal Antiquity Journal, researchers found that 85 to 90 percent of the combs were made of reindeer antlers.
At the time, reindeer were only found in Northern Scandinavia, indicating that the reindeer antlers and the combs were imported to Hedeby. A previous study also showed that horn waste in the town did not contain much reindeer antler, suggesting that the combs were not produced in Hedeby.
According to the researchers, these findings collectively suggest that there was large-scale and frequent contact between Hedeby and the northern parts of Scandinavia around the year 800.
– We have begun to answer a whole range of questions about the timing of travel and trade in Viking-Age Britain and Scandinavia, says Dr. Steven Ashby at the University of York.
“A very large city at the very end of the world’s ocean”
There are also historical testimonials from Hedeby, including those from Ibrahim ibn Yaqub al-Tartushi, an Arab-Jewish explorer from Spain, who described Hedeby in the 10th century as a “very large city at the very end of the world’s ocean”. He particularly noted the good access to drinking water, the free status of women, and that only a small number of its inhabitants were Christians. According to Al-Tartushi, at that time, the brightly shining star Sirius held a particularly sacred place in the religious beliefs of the Vikings in Hedeby.