This long, beautifully carved hair comb was created from a dark finely grained wood in Africa in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. Vertical combs like this one with long teeth originated about 6000 years ago in Egypt and what is now called Sudan, which is the area this comb is attributed to. No ancient culture other than African people appears to have used combs like these. They were of course used to clean and groom hair but were also worn in the hair for decoration and often reflected the status of the owner, as well as tribal affiliation and religious beliefs.
This comb is 18 1/4 inches long and 4 1/2 inches wide at the top, tapering to a little less than 4 inches across the teeth. It belonged to a woman, probably of the Beja tribe, since men wore ones with only two or three teeth and this comb has ten. The upper portion has raised carvings with what we believe to be representations of children, two boys and one girl, possibly those of the owner or carver. The middle portion depicts hanging round fruit and clover-like leaves on a tree trunk growing from a curved piece of land; references to nature are typical on African carvings. The two panels are separated by a row of carved scallops like teeth and the backgrounds on the panels have raised rows of miniature teeth. At the very top is a tab with a carved hole that was used to hold an ornament like a feather or a string of beads when it was worn in the hair. The hole makes it easy to hang it on the wall, unlike many of these combs that must be propped up, put on a stand or framed, all alternatives which can be used with this comb, also.
The comb is in very good condition, having only the tips of two teeth missing and no chips or cracks. The wood has retained its natural gloss and the undecorated back shows the marks of the hand tools used. Combs like this one were the focus of a major exhibition at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum in 2003, demonstrating their acceptance as true works of art.
***The rare "mummified" figure from Tanzania shown in our photo is available here: