Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Iron and Oak

Iron Gall Ink!

This is probably one of the most widely used historic inks we know about.  The earliest surviving manuscript using iron gall ink is the Codex Sinaiticus, dating from the 4th Century! It was used by Da Vinci, Shakespeare, for the Declaration of Independence, and in countless versions of the Bible.  There were slight variations, but this ink was so prevalent because it's so easy to make with ingredients that are widely available.

This ink is superior to the carbon ink that predates it in that, because of its acidic nature, it etches itself into the parchment, becoming permanent and will not smudge.  However this very benefit can also cause long term corrosion. There were actually many iterations of this general recipe.  Essentially, scribes would use what was available to them.  Instead of apple cider vinegar like I used, they may have used wine or beer, or even just allow the gall solution to ferment!  (4)


1. Iron: just a little chip would do.  Traditionally this could have been picked up from any old, bent nail or perhaps filings from the blacksmith's shop.  Today we can even use the iron component in steel, but never use anything galvanized for this process!  The chemical reaction we're after would cause harmful off gassing with galvanized steel. 

2. Vinegar: any vinegar will do.  We want the acidity that the iron can dissolve into.

3. Oak Galls:  These look like thin, paper-like balls attached to leaves that are very brittle.  You will often find them on the ground under oak trees, though there are varieties that grow on rose, blackberry, or raspberry vines.  They are produced by the gall wasp as part of their incubation process.  By the time you find the galls on the ground, the wasp has long since left.  Oak galls contain very concentrated tannins (tannic acid). (1, 2)

4. Enough water to cover the galls in a pot.


1. In a jar, cover the iron with vinegar and allow to dissolve and create iron acetate for two to three weeks.  This is sometimes called "vinegroon" or "coperose".  

2. When your iron vinegar is ready, put about a handful of galls, slightly crushed in a pot and cover them with water.  Allow to simmer on the stove from 20-30 minutes.  Once this has cooled you can strain the remaining gall from the liquid.  

3.  In a small jar, combine equal parts (this ratio may vary) vinegroon and gall tincture.  As soon as they come into contact, you can see the chemical reaction of the iron acetate with the tannic acid to create the deep black ink from the phenolate complexes! (3)  Below are three clips: the first is the iron vinegar, the second is the gall solution, and the third is the magic (chemical reaction) when you combine!

4. Ready for use in your painting or calligraphy!  Most scribes will thicken this solution with a little gum arabic.

But the thing that makes this recipe even more versatile?  You can use almost any tree product for this, because almost anything a tree produces contains concentrations of tannins!  You could use nuts, cones, bark, roots, or seeds!  

There is a recipe in the National Archives of the UK from 1483 (C 47/34/1/3). While the resource (5),  it basically calls for equal parts water, iron vinegar, galls, and gum arabic.  Another from the early 15th C. resides in the Cambridge University Library (MS E.e.i.15) and describes an ounce each of galls, "coperose" (Iron acetate), and gum arabic crushed and added to a pint of rain water, stirring daily for three days.  


1. Day, E. and Dellinger, T. (5-16-2022) "Galls Made by Wasps" VCS Publications/Virginia Tech.  Last Visited 4-1-24 from,are%20attacked%20by%20gall%20wasps.

2. U.S.F.S. "Tannins" United States Forest Service.  Last Visited 4-1-24 from

3. Thompson, R. (8-8-2022) "Iron Acetate Solution Prepared from Steel Wool and Vinegar for Ebonizing Wood" Research Square.  Last visited 4-2-24 from

4. Gupta, A. (2-25-2021) "The Ins and Outs of Iron Gall Ink" American Philosophical Society.  Last visited 5-2-24 from,is%20blue%2Dblack%20and%20permanent.

5. Peverley, S. (2024) "Iron Gall ?Ink: A Medieval Recipe" Professor Sarah Peverley.  Last visited 4-3-24 from,it%20is%20ready%20to%20use.

6. White, T. (1-27-2021) "A Medieval Ink Recipe."  St. Edmund Hall, University of Oxford.  Last visited 4-3-24 from

Monday, March 11, 2024

Tenth Century Bone Comb Recreation with Period Paint and Bag

 Bone Comb

Muirenn inghean Uí Cléirigh


Where combs are found, archaeologists and historians find the society of a culture: they  interpret that the previous owner cared about their appearance.  While combs have been made from several materials (antler, horn, wood), bone is common for its strength and carvability. (3)  The comb created for this display was inspired by a find from Knowth, Co. Meath (fig.1), and is a single piece comb (“ci”) with no side plates.  This style comb had dimensions of 41-56 mm in length. 35-43 mm in depth and between 4-5mm thickness with short tines. (1). Based on similar finds, it is estimated to be from the 7th-10th C. AD. (2) In early period (before the 11th C.) there were also references to comb bags (ci orbholg, “keer-wolg” {7,9) and these were highly prized among women along with their distaffs.  (1)  

Process:  This bone was acquired from our local butcher and after the dogs had cleaned the flesh and marrow to the best of their abilities, the rest was placed in the ground to let worms and grubs finish the cleaning process.  When I was ready to carve, I retrieved it and cleaned the remaining dirt.  In the “Trials of Ireland” mentioned by Dunlevy, comb-makers were known to leave their materials in the dung heap to keep it soft until it was time to carve. (1) Only the outside of any bone or antler can be used for this type of carving as the center is either too soft or porous. (3)

Since I don’t yet have hand carving tools (period files and saws), I did use a Dremel (and  modern eye and lung protection) to carve the comb.  This took several hours with an electric tool, so I can only imagine how long it took  with hand tools.  While a pronged drill would have been used to get the circle engravings, I did as similar shapes and designs as I could based on the findings in Ireland.  The length of the tines are curious to me, but after some experimentation, we found that it worked perfectly as beard comb.  It could function for long hair, but not as well as a comb with longer tines.    I utilized motifs from Irish comb finds in my design. (Fig 2.)



After carving, I polished all edges of the bone and gave it a thorough cleaning.  To further decorate, I prepared pigments.  The ochre was harvested from the ground near our home. This was one of the earliest pigments used, and is found as a silicate compound in clay beds. (6) The verdigris was made by suspending copper wire over a basic (high pH) solution.  I used ammonia, but stale urine was often used in period.  Alternately, a more green pigment can be produced by following the same process over an acid like vinegar.  (5)  After left for a few weeks, I could scrape the pigment powder from the wire.  And finally the bone black was made from the trimmings from the comb.  After fully sealing them from air, I left them in the fire for a few hours.  This charcoalized the bone and I could then crush it into a pigment powder. (4) All pigments were then mulled with quail egg white.  This strengthens the paint and allows it to seal to some extent.  Although some bone from historical artifacts has been stained, I was unable to locate examples of painted bone.  However, the carved wells hold the egg tempura so perfectly, it seemed the logical next step in decor.

With the comb completed, I cut and sewed a simple comb bag, or ciorbholg, for it from leather and sinew. I created it very simply so the comb would fit snuggly into it.  Since none of the comb bags have been identified in archaeological excavations, I did some assuming with this design.  I wanted it snug enough that the comb would not easily fall out.  Many pouches of this time included a drawstring or a flap, but there are some examples of open topped bags from Gokstad and Birka.  (8,9)

Now I can add this as part of my eleventh century Irish garb. Or, perhaps since it seems to work better as a beard comb with its short tines than long hair, my husband Eoghan will wear it with his kit, as these combs were known to be worn by both men and women.  In the future I would also like to attempt a longer comb, perhaps with scales or folds.  Possibly, eventually I could graduate to more period tools as well.   



  1. Dunlevy, M.  (1988) JSTOR.  “Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History, Literature.  Vol. 88C, pp. 341-422.  Last visited 2-29-24 from
  2. Bermingham, N “Fermanagh in 100 Objects: The Drumclay Bird Headed Comb.”  Last visited 2-29-24 from
  3. Levin, B. (3-31-2003) Regia Anglorum Publications.  “Bone and Antler Working”. Last viewed 2-29-24 from
  4. Cochran, C. (2024) “Bone Black: The Deepest Black” Last viewed 2-29-24 from
  5. Douma, M.  (2001).  “Pigments through the Ages: Verdigris”. Last viewed 2-29-24 from
  6. Douma, M.  (2001).  “Pigments through the Ages: Yellow Ochre”. Last viewed 2-29-24 from
  7. Archaeological Consultancy Service (2024), ACSU in Archaeology Ireland.  Last visited 3-6-24 from
  8. Vikings Wiki (5-22-2020) Pouches.  Last visited 3-7-24 from *** Not that this had references to the Swedish History Museum whose page I could not translate or search in English
  9. Bartlett, S. (2006)  “Early Gaelic Dress: An Introduction”— pg 17.  Last visited 3-7-24 from
  10. Riddler, I. and Trzaska-Nartowski, N. (2013)  “The Insular Comb” (from Early Medieval Art and Archaeology in the Northern World.). last visited 3-7-24 from Irish comb&f=false