Author Barbara Birley

Published on 23rd April 2020

Common box (Buxus sempervirens) was popular during Roman times due to the smooth but hard nature and was sought after for making not only combs but many other objects. It does not splinter and catch the hair and it can be dulled at the point, which stops the comb from injuring the scalp. In classical literature the term ‘buxus’ is often used for combs.

The Vindolanda Combs

All of the over 160 combs in the Vindolanda collection are H combs, so named because they resemble the letter H. The vertical lines of the H are the terminals and the horizontal line is the central bar. The H comb has two sets of teeth, one fine and the other coarse. Guidelines have been placed on most for accurate carving but on some examples the carver has gone over the lines.

The identifying marks on the combs most often appear on the central bar. The objects can show decorations, makers’ marks or have graffiti. Decorated central bars can include many different motifs, including waves, stars, lines and circle-in-circle patterns. Many use more than one form of decoration.

The Vindolanda collection shows a greater variation of central bar adaptation and decoration then many other collections. This could indicate they wanted to be able to identify personal combs. As these objects were undoubtedly used to help with the removal of head lice, which would have been prevalent within a military community, the ability to mark individual combs would have been useful to reduce the spread of parasites.

The makers’ marks are very faint and are best seen through magnification. The collection at Vindolanda currently includes seven combs which have makers’ marks. It is also noticeable that the combs with makers’ marks are of very high quality, possibly showing that the maker only wanted to identify with superior work.

Some of the combs from the collection show other forms of modification. Three combs have holes drilled through at the top. This would have been a very functional way to attach your comb, avoid loss and prevent others from using it.

One of the combs from Vindolanda shows that it was originally a standard H comb but its coarse teeth, and probably the terminals, were intentionally removed leaving a decorative comb that could have been worn in the hair.

The most elaborate comb from the collection (pictured below) has fretted terminals and a highly decorative central bar. The very thin copper alloy plaque shows a standing figure in military dress with shield and spear. The other side would have possibly had a plaque as well but this has not survived. A similar comb was found in Carlisle but the copper alloy plaque shows three conjoining aediculae or small religious shrines, separated by twisting columns and framing images of deities.

Archaeological evidence

Roman boxwood combs have been found not only in Romano British contexts including London, Carlisle and Ribchester but also in other parts of the empire including Vetchen (modern Netherlands), Vindonissa (modern Switzerland) and eastern provinces including modern Israel. This growing evidence shows that they were more common than once thought. Questions have been raised such as who was using them and whether they were part of the woman’s mundus muliebris or of the grooming ritual of men. Evidence from Vindolanda would suggest both.

Two wooden buildings dating to c AD105-120 were uncovered during the excavations in 2012/2013. The first was a circular house with a small ditch to the north and west. The other was a rectilinear building with a later modification of a cross wall. The buildings were situated in between the fort wall and the Stanegate Road.

The red dots mark the 9 wooden combs to come from this area. Also from this area were over 80 leather boots and shoes (both genders), large caches of buried hazel nuts in sealed pits, preserved animal bones, pre-Hadrianic pottery, brooches, perfume bottles, hairpins, beads, stylus pens, stylus tablets, ink pen and ink tablet.

The combs come from both the rubbish deposits outside the buildings and inside the probable single family residences. This distribution could be interpreted as both casual loss and intentional removal from the house. When combined with the other objects from these contexts these show a rich material culture, literacy and access to imported goods as well as objects which were probably used by both men and women.


These small portable pieces of material culture would have been easy to pack and carry with you when your garrison was moved on to a new post. Also, they show that the people here had disposable income and that the money spent on these functional but imported luxury goods was significant to the people at Vindolanda. Cleanliness was important to them, as we see from other objects and the use of bathhouses on the frontier, but combs also relate to the ritual of the everyday and show that dressing one’s hair was an important signifier of identity.


Further reading

Allason-Jones, L 1999 ‘Healthcare in the Roman North’ Britannia, Vol 30 (133-146).

Ashby, S P 2014 A Viking Way of Life, Combs and Communication in Early Medieval Britain, Stroud: Amberley.

Blake, J 2014 The excavations of 2007-2012 in the vicus or extramural settlement, Brampton: Roman Army Museum Publications.

Birley, R 2009 Vindolanda, a Roman Frontier Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, Stroud: Amberley.

Cruse, J 2007, The Comb, Its History and Development, London: Robert Hale Limited

Derks D and Vos W 2010 ‘Wooden combs from the Roman fort of Vechten: the bodily appearance of soldiers’, Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries. Available;sid=095741f1231d8f86c4f63866855fbf08;rgn=main;idno=m0202a03;view=text last accessed 20 August 2015

Fell, V 1991 ‘Two Roman ‘Nit’ Combs from Excavations at Ribchester (RBG80 and RB89), Lancashire’, Ancient Monuments Laboratory Report 87/91. Available last accessed 20 August 2015.

Fellmann, Rudolf 2009 Römische Kleinfunde aus Holz aus dem Legionslager Vindonissa, Brugg:

Jackson, R 1988 Doctors and Diseases in the Roman Empire, London: British Museum Press.

Mumcuoglu K Y and Hadas G 2011 ‘Head Louse (Pediculus humanus capilis) Remains in a Louse Comb from the Roman Period Excavated in the Dead Sea Region’, Israel Exploration Journal 61, Nu 2 223-229. Available last accessed: 20 August 2015.

Rackham H 1968 Pliny: Natural History Vol IV Books 12-16, Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library.

Pugsley, P 2003 Roman Domestic Wood, Analysis of the morphology, manufacture and use of selected categories of domestic wooden artefacts with particular reference to the material from Roman Britain, Oxford: BAR S1118

Ulrick, R B 2007 Roman Woodworking, New Haven: Yale University Press.