The Nordic Razor and the Mycenaean Lifestyle

By Kaul, Flemming | Antiquity, June 2013 | Go to article overview

The Nordic Razor and the Mycenaean Lifestyle


Kaul, Flemming, Antiquity


Introduction

Two types of razor are found in the European Bronze Age: one with a two-edged blade, which appears in the sixteenth century BC and the other with a single-edged blade, smooth back and horse-head handle, which appears in the fifteenth century BC--but only in Scandinavia. Both can claim to derive from earlier exemplars in the Mediterranean region. In this paper I examine the effect the idea of the razor had on Europe, with particular focus on the second type. My intention is to demonstrate that although the design of this Nordic razor and its social message originated in the Aegean, no actual objects were imported into Scandinavia, and Scandinavians developed their own version of a Mediterranean warrior lifestyle.

The two-edged razor

The first type of razor to reach central Europe was two-edged, both sides of the blade being sharpened, and with a central handle. Its roots have long been seen to lie in the Mycenaean-Minoan world. Petrie (1917:50-51) suggested that it spread from Crete via Sicily to central and western Europe, including Britain and Ireland. Most of the Aegean razors have a short fastening plate with rivets (Figure 1), while most of the European examples have a tang or a tang-like handle (Figure 2). However, there are some British two-edged leaf-shaped razors without a tang and with one of two rivet-holes at the base of the blade, resembling Aegean razors (Figure 3) (Hood 1956: 97; Jockenhovel 1980: 33). The earliest razors belong to the earliest phase of the Middle Bronze Age, the Lochham phase (Reinecke B 1). They have been found in relatively rich barrow burials, such as Onstmettingen in Baden-Wurttemberg and Weichering in Bayern (Stroh 1952; Butler & Smith 1956: 20-32; Hachmann 1957: 209; Jockenhovel 1971: 34-41). The earliest English razors seem to belong to a late stage of the Wessex culture related to daggers with curved blade of Snowshill type (Butler & Smith 1956; Jockenhovel 1980: 47). The beginning of the European Middle Bronze Age may be placed between 1600 and 1500 BC. Some Scottish razors, as a razor from Arbroath, might be dated somewhat earlier, that is 1700-1600 BC (Sheridan 2009).

Generally the two-edged razor is related to shaving, and has been held to reflect new ideas on fashion and body care ultimately deriving from the Mediterranean (Hood 1956: 97; Jockenhovel 1971: 25, 1980: 27). The idea seems to have spread so swiftly that it is difficult to separate chronological-geographical steps in its dissemination. It should not be totally excluded that an early spread of razors reached Scotland (Ireland), where the closest resemblance to Aegean prototypes are found. The long research history regarding the function and use of symmetrical and two-edged razors has been summarised elsewhere (Jockenhovel 1971, 1980; Weber 1996). In this paper I focus on the later horse-head razor and its associates, and propose an origin for the adoption of its design.

The Nordic razor

The one-edged and asymmetrical razor occurs only in Scandinavia, and is termed, for that reason, the 'Nordic' razor. The earliest of these have a back that is straight or slightly concave, and are characterised by a handle terminating in a horse's head (Figure 4). Some other of the earliest razors carry a spiral-shaped handle resembling a tail (Figure 5). The Nordic razor appears during Montelius Period II of the Nordic Bronze Age, which recent chronological studies, based on absolute dendro-dates of Danish oak coffins, place around 1400 BC (Randsborg & Christensen 2006: 21). However, a few specimens could be one or two decades earlier, belonging to the so-called Love-horizon (Lomborg 1969: 109-19).

The Aegean connection

The shape of the Nordic razor differs (with one exception) from all others known from the European Middle Bronze Age: it is similar to examples found in the Aegean. The resemblance is not exact: in the Nordic razors the handle with its horse's head is cast in one piece with the blade, while in the Aegean razors the handle is made of wood, bone of ivory and secured by rivets (Figure 6). …

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