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Horn Combs

Horn Combs

Horn comb making in near terminal decline

Having determined that just two master horn comb makers are left in Morocco and with the idea that there must be better to comb the hair with horn rather than plastic, I set my tireless Moroccan agent, the challenging task to track the makers down. After some months I was sent photos of the oldest comb maker, Master S. aged 79 and pictures of his combs. It was the photograph of the horn combs which took my breath away.

Living heritage from the Palaeolithic?

The animal shaped combs were uncannily reminiscent of Ice Age art, so well known from the painted French caves and from the intricately carved bone, horn and mammoth ivory aretacts fashioned by Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers living on the Russian plains. It was as if I had actually stepped into the past. The techniques necessary for comb making, the groove and splinter technique was first developed some 18,000 years ago and we can suppose that the first manufactued combs began to be made from that time. I regained my sense of time and took a deep breath. I wanted to work out why the combs seemed so archaic and wanted to meet the maker and find out how I could help preserve this nearly lost tradition.

Reversbale combs. Do they represent rabbits or birds? Although each comb has the same contour, the degree of rotation influences whether a rabbit or bird can be recognised.
Reversable combs. Do they represent rabbits or birds? Although each comb has the same contour, the degree of rotation influences whether a rabbit or bird can be recognised.

Animal types represented

Many of the combs were animal shaped, camels, horses, birds and fish. Certainly not what I had expected so see from a Muslim country - where animals and humans are rarely depicted. However in the Palaeolithic, animals were the dominant theme in art. Was this comb maker actually transmitting imagery earlier than the spread of Islam?

Style features of horn combs

The combs portrayed a particular animal species conveyed with an economy of means by the shaping of the outer contour and by the careful positioning of the eye. However, as the tines nearly always equate to the underbelly of the animal, it is the dorsal line and the profile of the head which enables recognition of the animal species portrayed. This again is the way animals were recognised across the open landscapes of the Ice Age and this is how animals were represented in Ice Age Art. Many of the animals painted in the French caves are little more than a dorsal line and profile head and these combs were using a similar means of expression.

Ambiguity in the deep past and now

One comb type which fascinated my was the fish, half eaten where the ribs exposed along the belly acted as the tines of the comb, and the uneated part served as a handle. This was clearly a joke on the visual play between the ribs of a fish and the tangs of a comb. While the comb is suitable for combing the hair, a fish skeleton would clearly give a very bad hair day. This sort of visual humour was abundant in the Palaeolithic, and was not revived in Europe again until the Surrealists and Dadaists made their impact less than 100 years ago.

I made the arrangement to visit the comb maker with my husband and an interpreter, to buy a collection and to conduct more research on the comb making process. For now I must skip what happened during our visit, although it was full of activity and laughter, to continue with the analysis of the combs.

The fish half eaten make a humourous idea for a horn comb
The fish half eaten make a humourous idea for a horn comb

Ambiguous Combs, Rabbits or Birds?

With the comb collection in hand, I have been able to take a closer look. I had several more surprizes. I began to sort the combs into piles of similar animal forms, and found that I had created two stacks out of what appeared to be the same shape. One stack was of rabbits with the tines along the belly and one of birds with the tines along the back. They were infact the same comb shape, but just took on the appearance of the other animal when the comb was rotated. This is another form of ambiguity, also stemming from the Palaeolithic yet very present in this comb makers mind. It was as if I was handling fresh Palaeolithic work.

Animation present in handmade combs

On closer examination, again two more elements stood out, firstly the fine regard the comb maker had brought the hon to life by using the natural changes in colour and pattern of the horn within his composition to render flowing fur, to define the eye and facial expressions of the animal and to render a sense of realism and personality to the comb.

Naturalistic Observations

Often the figuring of the horn on the animal combs corresponded directly with natural observations. Wild mammals usually have a dark dorsal line and light coloured fur on the under belly. So many of the animal combs have the darker figuring close to the dorsal line, and lighter tangs. Again I had seen some of the Ice age paintings shaded in this manner.

So many resemblances to the Palaeolithic contours decoupees

Even the actual animal, cut out from the horn plate, an animal contour, was a type of object pioneered in the Upper Palaeolithic. The original Palaolithic artefacts are known as contours decoupees.

Mammoth or elephant?

While every comb fascinates me, one form is just captivating. The maker called the comb type the elephant, but this might have been for ease of translation. The portrayal is far more a mammoth than an elephant. The tines are on the belly of the animal and look like the long shaggy coat and on some combs, the natural figuring of the horn adds a sense of movement, seeming to make the belly hair swing as the beast runs, or as the hair blows in the wind. Only one comb portrayed any part of an ear on the contour, but more generally the figuring of the horn suggested a small ear, much more like the small ears of preserved mammoths. Both mammoth and elephant had in the past lived in Morocco in the wild and folk art often continues to portray extinct animals which take on a mythic status.

Let's save this heritage together

One final note which attests to the long experience of this comb maker who began his apprecticeship at the age of 13, the eyes of the animal were always positioned to give each comb, or rather each animal it own distinctive character. Each one of these combs is special, and it is imperative that this horn comb maker pass on his knowledge to an apprentice. This can only happen is the demand is sufficiently increased and I hope that this company can help before it is too late.

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