The Mystery of the Mane Comb

Before there were planes, trains, and automobiles, and other engine-driven devices, people of the 18th, 19th and early-20th centuries used horses, mules, and other four-legged draft animals to transport themselves, pull their wagons and carriages, and help manage the chores of farm and rural life.

Just like the time and expense we currently spend on car, truck, and small engine maintenance to keep those running smoothly, an equal amount of attention is essential to keeping horses healthy, clean, and physically fit so that they can perform the tasks we ask of them. The process of grooming a horse not only improves the health of their skin, coat, hooves, mane, and tails but it also allows the groomer to notice any health issues or problems that aren’t apparent until seen up close.

A mane comb, an essential horse grooming tool, was excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm from an early nineteenth-century context. This rusty iron alloy comb is incomplete, measuring two inches high with a broken width of 1 ¼ inches.  The finished width might have been between 3 and 4 inches.  What makes this find interesting is that there is a decorative “G” inset above the comb’s teeth.  This letter was obviously followed by others, but what the complete word or initials indicate is a complete mystery.  Was the word a favorite horse’s name or just the name of the comb maker?  Was it actually a person’s name? And, of course, if it is a person name, could it possibly be George Washington’s name?

Mane comb

Mane comb excavated at George Washington’s Ferry Farm.

Mane combs are just one piece in any essential grooming kit for horses, which also includes curry combs, brushes, hoof picks, and grooming cloths.  The mane comb is used to comb out the tangles and remove debris from the mane and tail of horses.  It can be very simple and utilitarian in looks, similar to a common hair comb, or more ornate and decorative, such as this example that is stored on a leather backing. Our mane comb falls between these two extremes. It does not have an elaborative top but it is still decorated within the handle area with a swirled scroll, raised beading along the outer band, and the letter “G–”.

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A simple modern mane comb. Credit: MyEquineStore.com

original

A more ornate antique mane comb with decorative handle. Credit: Roger Jones & Co.

DRAWING OF COMB inked1

A drawing of the mane comb excavated at Ferry Farm clearly showing the decorative inset “G”.

Ferry Farm archaeologists are curating a number of artifacts related to animal husbandry, an assemblage dominated by utilitarian buckles. Such buckles may have been part of harnesses but these fasteners had many uses around a farm. Horseshoes are the next most frequently recovered item, and they date from throughout the 1800s and 1900s. A few are of a style of manufacture that reliably derives from the colonial era. Bits, stirrups, curb chains, and harness rings were also lost or discarded by their owners. A mid-1800s iron alloy brace for a saddle was also discovered. Ferry Farm archaeologists found evidence for mules as well, as our collection includes a few mule shoes. A few bolts for carriages or wagons were recovered. Perhaps our favorite animal husbandry objects are the brass ornaments used to embellish leather horse tack. Several of these have been recovered and all date from the colonial period, when these early New World equestrians relished showing off their fine steeds.

So if there are any horse-loving readers out there who recognize this style of mane comb or have a clue as to what “G” could be the start of, please let us know.  We may never know but we do hope that maybe the “G” is the beginning of the name of our site’s most famous horseman, George, who was certainly well known for his horsemanship skills!

Juby Jobrack, Archaeologist
Assistant Lab Supervisor

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Small Finds Analyst/Field Director

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What Is This Artifact?

With building work on the reconstructed Washington family home at George Washington’s Ferry Farm nearly finished, our archaeologists are in the midst of identifying Washington-owned plates, bowls, glasses, and other household artifacts to be used to furnish the house once construction is finally complete.

While working to identify things, archaeologists sometimes encounter a “mystery artifact” that either can’t be identified or has been altered to serve an unknown purpose from what was originally intended.  We wrote about one especially perplexing mystery artifact almost three years ago.  With that mystery artifact, someone intentionally and for unknown reasons chipped away the edges of that 18th century leaded glass base from a cup or mug to form a disc .

Recently, during analysis of the Washington family’s table glass, Ferry Farm archaeologists discovered another base from an 18th century drinking glass that someone tried to modify by actually breaking or knapping off flakes of glass. It was an apparent attempt to turn the base into a disc. As before, we don’t know for what reason.

Mystery Glass Base

To confirm the glass was knapped, Ferry Farm archaeologists got “science-y” and asked nearby Dovetail Cultural Resource Group in Fredericksburg to take photographs of the glass base using a microscope camera.

Using this microscope camera made the clear glass appear green in the resulting photos.  More importantly, the photos helped us to see flake scars from knapping, which we’ve outlined in black in the photo below, and thus confirm that the glass was actually knapped by someone.

Microscope Photo of Mystery Glass Base

As often happens when studying the past, however, our analysis provided answers but also created many more questions.  Who did the knapping?  Was it perhaps the job of an enslaved worker?  What was the goal?  Why make these modifications?  Although it’s the science of history, even archaeology can’t yet provide answers to these questions.  In fact, we many never have the answers.  In the end, sometimes not knowing is just as much a part of archaeology as knowing.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

What Is This Artifact?

Archaeologists are occasionally confronted with ‘mystery artifacts’ that either cannot be identified or have been altered to serve a purpose other than what was originally intended.  Recently, in our small finds collection, we identified an artifact transformed in just such a way.  Someone intentionally chipped away the edges of this 18th century leaded glass base for a cup or mug to form a disc.  In addition, they also smoothed out the broken edges so they are no longer sharp.

Base  (3)

Base  (1) copy

For the moment, the object’s purpose is and, may always remain, a mystery.  Use-wear on the base’s interior may hint at how it was used after alteration.  Numerous scratches in the glass are present on the ‘kick up’- a small bump on the inside of the glass formed when it was hand blown.

This is not wear that typically accumulates during the life of a drinking vessel so we know the wear occurred after modification.  Oddly enough, while pondering possible uses, a staff member here at Ferry Farm turned it upside down and spun the disc on the table.  It whirled around perfectly like a top right where the glass exhibited the extreme wear!  Take a look at this video for more detail in how the glass has been broken and smoothed and see how the modified base spins like a top.

While this is only speculation, it is possible that we are looking at an improvised toy.  Perhaps a child living at Ferry Farm converted this broken glass into a toy top and played with it for many happy hours before it was lost or discarded and found its way into the archaeological record.  We can only assume the child would laugh if they knew that archaeologists would be brooding over their whimsical plaything hundreds of years later.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist