FENS AND FARMLAND DOMINATE ENGLAND’S Cambridgeshire. The A14 motorway runs the length of the entire county and, just a few miles northwest of the ancient university town of Cambridge, it passes by the small village of Bar Hill. There, during excavations a few years ago, archaeologist Michael Marshall and his team found something extraordinary: a piece of ancient human skull, carved to resemble—almost, but not quite—a comb.
It’s not unusual to find artifacts in this corner of England, which has been inhabited for millennia. In particular, Cambridgeshire was home to several Iron Age settlements, dating from around 350 BC to the arrival of the Romans about 400 years later. Marshall and his colleagues knew they would turn up some interesting things when they began digging in 2016 ahead of a planned A14 expansion. Two years later, after excavations at about 40 sites, they had collected more than 280,000 artifacts.
Of all the tools and bits of bone unearthed, the skull comb stood out. It’s one of only three ever found, worldwide—the other two were discovered at nearby sites decades ago—and was a career first for Marshall, the prehistoric and Roman finds specialist at the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA). It was also an item of intrigue: something that could easily fit in the palm of one’s hand, but which clearly carried great value. Someone had carefully carved nearly a dozen teeth along one edge, and then drilled a hole at the top. Was it a tool? An amulet? Something else entirely? Figuring out the comb’s purpose required understanding how it might have fit into Iron Age Britain.