Bone, Antler and Horn Working

The assemblage of bone, antler, ivory and horn objects and manufacturing debris from Fishergate House and Blue Bridge Lane is of medium size, and potentially very informative. Probably of greatest interest is the material from Period 3 the Anglian settlement, and its close association with the deposits excavated at 46-54 Fishergate, which allows valuable comparison, and facilitates the analysis of continuity or variation between geographically connected sites. In particular, it allows a test for whether the trends detected at the original Fishergate site are echoed in this assemblage, and whether the original patterns identified were genuine, or simply related to the extent of excavation. Moreover, comparison with other Middle Saxon sites, such as Ipswich, Southampton, London or Dorestad may enhance the understanding of the bone- and antler-working industry in this period. Through their use, curation, and deposition, the objects also have the potential to tell us about “everyday life”, as well as craft and industry.

Material from Period 4 is scarce, but there are several objects of note from Periods 5 to 8. Although the overall number of finds from these later contexts is low, a proportion of them are of significant interest in and of themselves, and merit detailed investigation and comparative analysis.

All artefacts are catalogued, and the Anglian material is considered in some detail. The use of completed artefacts is also discussed. Given that material from later levels is less numerous, and lacking in manufacturing debris, it is treated somewhat differently. All artefacts are catalogued, while only finds of particular interest are drawn, photographed, and discussed.

The Anglian Material



The quantity of material from Anglian phases at this site is not overwhelmingly large, but its range is nonetheless diverse. Combs and waste from comb manufacture make up a considerable proportion of the material, but tools for textile production are also present, as are household and dress accessories. Finished objects are considered here; all manufacturing waste and tools are discussed in Craft & Industry.


Eleven pins or pin fragments were recovered, nine of which were worked from pig fibulae or probably pig fibulae. Similar pins are known from Anglian sites such as West Stow (West 1985, fig 30) and Wharram (MacGregor 1992, 56-58; MacGregor 2000, 150-152), as well as 46-54 Fishergate, York (Rogers 1993, 1368-9). They are also common finds from Anglo-Scandinavian York (e.g. MacGregor et al. 1999, 1950-2) and Lincoln (Mann 1982, 8-11). Most can be assigned to MacGregor’s Groups 2 and 3, but are difficult to date closely (MacGregor et al. 1999: 1950-51). Here, as at 46-54 Fishergate, most bone pins recovered have expanded heads, somewhat limiting their potential as sewing tools. Such pins may have been used to fasten clothing or dress hair, and while those with perforated and reduced heads could conceivably be interpreted as needles; in practice the nuances of their function are invisible to us.

A single pig fibula pin (Find no 2778) was found in a 12th century context, but this example showed considerable degradation, and is probably residual. Find nos 2766 and 2790 were possibly of a different form, but fragmentation made classification difficult. Find no 2790 was encrusted in organic deposits, and raw material identification was not possible, although the object is clearly a dress pin with decorative head. Although indistinct, the decoration on the spatulate-shaped head appears to consist of an incised line at the top with a series of spaced diagonal lines below and passing across it.


Twenty-eight fragments of early medieval combs were recovered, and, after cross-matching, a minimum number of at least twenty combs was established.

Of the fragments of completed combs, most were too small to be identified to type. Nonetheless, it was noted that both postcranial bone and antler were utilised, as is common at many Mid-Saxon and Anglian sites. Given the level of fragmentation, and the small sample size, quantitative analysis of raw material exploitation would prove meaningless, but it may be said that there is no evidence of a preference for either bone or antler. Regarding forms, detailed analysis is again impossible, but there does seem to be a general absence of the double-sided types common at many Anglian sites (e.g. Wharram, MacGregor 1992, 2000 ; Hamwic, Hinton 1980: 76). This trend is similar to that noted at 46-54 Fishergate (Rogers 1993: 1388-1405), and it may be that in York there was a genuine preference for single-sided forms. Also absent at Blue Bridge Lane, though present at 46-54 Fishergate, were handled single-sided forms (see Rogers 1993: 1388-1394). Nonetheless, the examples present fit well within the Mid-Saxon range of types. Decoration is largely limited to ring and dot, incised lines, cross-hatching and broad saltires, while the carefully planned and standardised arrangements of Anglo-Scandinavian combs are less prevalent.

Beyond this, a small number of more substantial fragments yield more useful information. Find no 2777 is of particular note and consists of a single antler connecting plate with a shallow plano-convex section and a concavo-convex profile. Decoration extends along the middle area of the plate, but is not enclosed in a fully-bordered field. Paired horizontal lines lie above and below a central chain of intricate, interconnected double-ring and dot. Direct parallels for such elaborate decoration are few, though a variety of interlocked forms of ring and dot are known from Anglian contexts (West 1985, Fig. 13), and Rogers (1993, 1404) notes comparable designs on Frisian triangular-backed combs (see Roes 1963, plates IV, VII, IX). Roes also records an asymmetric comb with a very similar motif (Roes 1963, XXIX), while a simpler form of ‘wave’ design is present on a comb from 46-54 Fishergate (Rogers 1993, Fig. 682, number 5727). Rogers (1993, 1405) suggests that this design has a parallel on the Zweins casket (Roes 1963, pl LXIII, 10) and on a comb from Hamwic. One might speculate that the investment in time and effort that this decoration represents suggests that the comb was owned by someone of some status or wealth.

Another notable comb is represented by the Find nos 2772 and 2784. This comb would have had four connecting plates (two on each side), and might be classified as a barred comb (see MacGregor 1985, 86-87). Such comb forms are known from Anglo-Saxon and Frisian contexts, dating between the 5th and 8th century, placing the Blue Bridge Lane example toward the end of this chronology, though its fragmented nature is notable. The connecting plates are short, and flat in section, being carved from (?sheep) ribs, and together form a gently curving plano-convex profile. They are heavily decorated with fine cross-hatching, and further ornamented with close-set rivets. No finds as complete as 2772/2784 were excavated at 46-54 Fishergate, but two toothplates (Rogers 1993, Fig. 679, numbers 5716, 5718), clearly derive from combs with double-pairs of connecting plates.

Also of note are Find nos 2779 and 2787, which are decorated in such a way that one must perceive the original arrangement to have included two pairs of connecting plates with a line of simple ring and dot between them. Indeed, 2787 may well be part of the same comb as 2772/2784 (see above), while on inspection it became clear that 2779 crossmended with 2781, and together with finds 2792 and 2795, the basic morphology of a now highly fragmented comb could be recognised. It would have been short in length, double-barred, and vestigial working marks suggest that there may have been zoomorphic ornament along the back edge. Zoomorphic barred combs seem to date primarily from late 4th and 5th century contexts (see Hills 1981; MacGregor 1975, 1985, 85), although a range of similar forms seem to persist for longer, perhaps as late as the 8th century.

Find no 2791 has connecting plates cut from split ribs, which are decorated roughly, with broad cross-hatching and grouped vertical lines. The object is rather crude, in comparison to some of the finer examples (e.g. Find nos 2772/2784). Other comb connecting plates are constructed from sheep or cattle ribs, and are blank, or decorated with simple ring and dot or incised line.

In general, the combs from Fishergate House and Blue Bridge Lane fit well within the canon of Middle-Saxon forms known from sites such as 46-54 Fishergate, as well as further afield (e.g. Mortimer 1905; MacGregor 1975; Clason 1980; Hinton 1980; Hills 1981), although the absence of double-sided composite types is notable (compare Hinton 1980). At the YAT’s excavations at 46-54 Fishergate, many of the fragments were too small to be identified to type, but again, single-sided forms were the most common. These included handled and winged combs, forms typical of the Middle Anglo-Saxon period. Double-sided Anglian forms were also present, although fragmentation again meant that typological designation was difficult. All examples had undifferentiated teeth. Decoration included incised line, ring and dot, zig-zag, and Z- and Y-motifs. Of particular note are interconnected chains of ring and dot, not common in this period, although examples are known from Frisia (Rogers 1993, 1404).

The ‘Buckle’ Plate

This somewhat enigmatic object (Find no 2785) might be some form of mount or strapend, but a buckle plate seems most likely. Carved from antler, it has 3 holes on one edge, and one large sub-rectangular perforation at the other. It is decorated with a line of interconnected ring and dot, and is generally a well finished, relatively high quality item.

Buckles from the YAT’s excavations at 46-54 Fishergate were all of iron or copper-alloy, and none were of comparable form. (Rogers 1993, 1346-50). A bone belt buckle was recovered from excavations at 16-22 Coppergate, although it was found in a Phase 5B (late 10th to early 11th century) context, and bears little resemblance to our example other than in general form (MacGregor et al. 1999: 1942). Indeed, the only close parallel from York comes from St Leonard’s Place (Tweddle et al. 1999, 279, Fig. 101), and though the form is similar enough to suggest a common function, the dimensions and decoration differ considerably.

The sledge runner

This object is tentatively identified as a sledge runner and is worthy of note. It consists of a red deer metatarsal, polished from use on its underside. Several examples of such objects are known throughout medieval Europe (MacGregor 1985: 141-146), but in this example the bone itself (a Cervus elaphus metapodial) is very unusual, since it is of anomalously large dimensions, representing an animal of considerable size. One is tempted to postulate that it came from a Pleistocene red deer, in which case it must represent the re-use of subfossil material; radiocarbon dating may clarify this issue.

Its identification as a sledge runner rather than a skate is based on the deliberate use of the foramina as vertical fixing holes, the proximal foramen in particular showing clear wear marks from being strung. The thong was apparently threaded through the foramina into the cavity of the bone and then out through holes made in the proximal and distal ends of the metapodial. These vertical holes distinguish the piece from the more numerous examples of skates from York.

Medieval Material

Few finds were recovered from post-Conquest levels, but of these, several are of particular interest, and are discussed in detail below.

The Pin

A fragmentary round-headed bone pin (Find no 2804) was found in a context dated to the 12th century. The only other pin from these levels was as a pig fibula (Find no 2778) and is probably residual.

The Elephant Ivory Comb

One of the most interesting medieval finds is a well-preserved, miniature one-piece double-sided comb carved in elephant ivory (Find no 2773), recovered from a 12th century feature. The comb has a marked lentoid section, and a rectangular profile. The teeth are differentiated into coarse (5 per mm) and fine (11 per cm), but teeth on both edges are of equal length and do not graduate towards the ends. Their bases are marked with rough, knife-cut guidelines, but decoration is absent, though there is a wide central field. The thickness and transverse section differentiate it from the similar, more common examples from later medieval sites such as the Bedern, but though parallels are known from other early post- conquest contexts, these combs are not well-studied (the most recent extensive review is Lasko 1956). Such combs were often ornately carved in Romanesque style (e.g. Higgit 1987), and although this example is comparatively plain, such a fine comb in such exotic material would not be easy to acquire, and one may see it as something of a status symbol. The Jedburgh Abbey example was found with a  cache of personal belongings found in a well-sealed sewer trench deposit with articulated human remains (Yeoman 1995, 22); the finds are thought to represent a robbery and murder. Whether or not this interpretation is correct, the piece clearly belonged to a person of rank in an ecclesiastical context and was well-dated to the late 12th century. An ecclesiastical connection or liturgical function should not be ruled out for the Blue Bridge Lane comb (see Lasko 1956; MacGregor 1985, 78-81).

The ‘Styli’

Two lathe-turned bone styli (Find nos 2775 and 2783) were recovered from a rubbish pit dated to the 14th to15th century. Both are decorated with circumferential lines, and globular/double-globular heads. Notably, Find no 2775 has an intact iron tip. The function of this class of objects is unclear; they may have been used in writing on wax tablets, or during the preparation of parchment for scribing, or even as markers for use in embroidery, while some have been identified simply as pins (MacGregor et al. 1999, 1975). The iron tips apparent on some examples, including Find no 2775, might suggest a use as a parchment pricker, while the blunt point of Find no 2783 may relate to its use in writing on a wax tablet.

While styli are known from secular contexts, they are particularly numerous at ecclesiastical sites. Several examples are knwon from 46-54 Fishergate, in contexts associated with St Andrew’s Priory (Rogers 1993). Both examples come from Blue Bridge Lane which is known to occupy the periphery of the precinct of St Andrew’s. Broadly similar objects are known from Coppergate and the Bedern (MacGregor et al. 1999, 1974-76); the Bedern is of particular note, since twenty-nine styli were recovered in a relatively small area (MacGregor et al. 1999, 1974).


Find no 2789 is a small cylindrical fragment of what may have been some form of handle, traces of a possible tang position are visible. It is made of antler (probably red deer), and its entire surface is covered with cross-hatched decoration. It was retrieved from a 12th century deposit, although may be residual from Period 3, and is calcined.

A beautifully carved knife handle (Find no 2770) was recovered in two pieces from a rubbish pit dated to the 14th century. Worked in bone, it displays the form of a female figure, wearing the robes and headdress of a medieval individual of status, and bearing a jessied bird of prey on her arm. The object’s surface is quite highly polished, and its interior is hollow, having originally borne the tang of a small knife. In cross section the handle is broadly triangular, and there is a discernible ridge down its median line.

Knife handles featuring figures holding birds of prey form a small European group, with examples known from as far afield as Paris, Ribe, Roskilde and Leningrad (Howe 1983, 146-150; see also Molaug 1980). The small number of finds (Howe notes twenty-six examples) concentrate in northern Europe, arguably centred around Scandinavia and its contacts to the east and west. However, though elaborate anthropomorphic knife handles are known from the British Isles (e.g. Hall 2001) clear parallels are rarer. Nonetheless, there is one from Crowland Abbey, Lincolnshire (see Howe 1983), and a particularly close parallel is known from Coventry (unpublished, but in the collections of the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Paul Thompson pers. comm.). It might be suggested that the York, Lincolnshire and Coventry finds are the products of an identifiable English school.

Howe (1983) argues that these knives were only intended for light work, and may have been the property of figures of high social or economic status. Significantly, two of the English examples (Crowland and York) are from ecclesiastical institutions, although the connotations of hunting would not be automatically associated with the monastic lifestyle. Few are well-stratified, but they have been stylistically dated to the late 13th and 14th century and this is supported by the ceramic-dating from Blue Bridge Lane.

Rosary beads

Find numbers 2780 and 4217 are bone beads. Find no 4217 is discoidal in shape and well-made, with a very high polish, while Find no 2780 is more simple, having a globular, subspherical form, with one flat side. Both are small; less than 5mm in diameter (approximately half the size of the 10th century and later examples from Coppergate, MacGregor et al. 1999: 1944). The finds come from the same feature and may represent use in decorative personal ornament or a rosary.

Postmedieval and Modern Material

Postmedieval finds from the site are even scarcer than late medieval artefacts, but in the absence of a meaningful collection, a few objects are of sufficient interest in their own right to merit brief discussion.

The ‘Bottle-stop’

This unusual bone object (Find no 2771) seems most likely to be a stopper for some sort of vessel; perhaps a glass apothecary’s or perfume bottle. It is lathe-turned, and consists of a cylindrical, open-ended base and an ornately carved handle. It is most notable for its remarkable level of preservation.

The Fork

This composite item (Find no 308) was identified in x-ray. It consists of a riveted antler handle and its surface is covered with fine cross-hatch decoration. The decoration is typical of post-medieval cutlery and may have been to enhance the grip (MacGregor 1985, 170). The scale tang of a two-pronged iron dining fork is contained within the riveted handle and a cutler’s mark of the number ‘6’ is visible on the tang in x-ray.


From Period 3 deposits, finished artefacts include combs, pins and knife-handles. They might represent the completed products from an onsite workshop, or objects lost or discarded by their owners. It is difficult to differentiate between these two scenarios without a more detailed analysis of microwear; even the comb fragments rarely preserve enough teeth for beading to be studied. However, some of the combs do show signs of wear, so it seems that at least a proportion of the material represents combs that were lost or discarded after use.

There are few artefacts from medieval and postmedieval levels at the site, but what there is might be read as to suggest that the people occupying this area of the monastic precinct were of some socio-economic standing. This is certainly true of the 12th century ivory comb (Find no 2773), and the ornate 14th century knife handle (Find no 2770). The styli too relate to the St Andrew’s Priory, and indeed the comb should also be read in this light, since there is a possible connection between simple ivory combs and the clergy (see MacGregor 1985: 78-81; Lasko 1956; see also Shalem 1998). However, any such attribution must remain speculative.

In short, the worked bone, antler, horn, and ivory from Blue Bridge Lane demonstrates a certain level of continuity with the site of 46-54 Fishergate, while the material fits well within the local canon, and compares with regional patterns for its respective phase. There is evidence of both production and use of artefacts on or near to the site, and one may visualise the area as an important and busy centre at several points from the early 8th century onwards, though there is a notable absence of material from the 9th-11th century. The concept of a shift in focus from Fishergate northwards to the Coppergate/Ouse Bridge area sometime in the Anglo-Scandinavian period seems to be supported, while activity appears to pick up again from the 12th century onwards, probably related to St Andrew’s Priory.