Textile Tools in Archaeology

Archaeological textiles is a difficult specialty since most of the material deteriorates rapidly. It is rare when prehistoric textiles are recovered. However, what textile archaeologists do have for study are the tools used in making textiles: spindle whorls, loom weights, combs, and other tools. When I go to museums, I often look at objects outside of my own area of interest and in the following pages, I’ll be providing some support for my friends who work in textiles.

Some resources for those of you who are interested in historical and ancient textiles include the European Textile Forum whose mission is “…to give academics and craftspeople working with historical textile techniques a place and opportunity to meet with each other. This is the perfect surrounding and the perfect place to solve technical questions regarding your textile and to get input from others working on similar pieces – both on the academic and on the craft side.”

Please note that many of these photos are taken from outside glass cases and can’t provide measurements and weights. However, I will do my best to provide as much information about the context as possible. Click on the thumbnails below for a larger image.

For more information about textiles in archaeology and history, I can recommend the books below. Click on the image for a direct link.


Elizabeth Wayland Barber Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years - Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times

Craft Specialization and Social Evolution: In Memory of V. Gordon Childe edited by Bernard Wailes

Marie-Louise NoschC. Gillis Ancient Textiles: Production, Crafts and Society

Fanfani, GiovanniMary HarlowMarie Louise Nosch (Editors) Spinning Fates and the Song of the Loom: The Use of Textiles, Clothing and Cloth Production as Metaphor, Symbol and Narrative Device in Greek and Latin Literature

Lilli FransenShelly Nordtorp-MadsonAnna NorgardElse Ostergard Medieval Garments Reconstructed: Norse Clothing Patterns 

Marianne Vedeler Silk for the Vikings

A brief selection of articles and other resources:

Chittock, Helen 2014 Arts and Crafts in Iron Age Britain: Reconsidering the aesthetic effects of weaving combs. Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 33(3) 313–326

Gleba, Margarita 2012 From textiles to sheep: investigating wool fibre development in pre-Roman Italy using scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Journal of Archaeological Science 39 (2012) 3643e3661

Mårtensson, Linda, Marie-Louise Nosch, and Eva Andersson Strand 2009 Shape Of Things: Understanding a loom weight. Oxford Journal Of Archaeology 28(4) 373–398

Rast-Eicher, Antoinette, Lise Bender Jørgensen 2012 Sheep Wool in Bronze Age and Iron Age Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 40

Shishlina, N.I., O.V. Orfinskaya And V.P. Golikov 2003 Bronze Age Textiles From The North Caucasus: New evidence of fourth millennium bc fibres and fabrics. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 22(4) 331–344

Standley, Eleanor R. 2106 Spinning Yarns: The Archaeological Evidence for Hand Spinning and its Social Implications, c ad 1200–1500. Medieval Archaeology, 60/2

Webb, Jennifer 2002 New Evidence for the Origins of Textile Production in Bronze Age Cyprus. Antiquity 76

Italy

Textile tools in the Bologna Museum of Archaeology

Museum Website (in English)

I took some photos of textile tools while on a recent trip to the Museum of Archaeology in Bologna. The cases were nicely organised by context. That is, rather than group all the spindle whorls together and all the beads together somewhere else, the objects were grouped according to where they were found. For example, if they were found in a burial, all the grave goods were displayed together, so all the beads, spindle whorls, and other objects were on the same shelf with a card explaining the context and how the objects relate to each other. I have undone this a bit because the focus here is on textile tools. However, I will provide as much information as possible so that you will be able to do further research if you wish.

Spindle Whorls and Weaving Weights

Bobbins (Rocchetti)

Spindle whorls and Spindles (Conocchie)

Representations of the Textile Industry

This object, a Tintinnabulo, described as a ritual pendent was part of a lavish burial in Tomb 5 of dell’Arsenale Militare (700-675 BC, Villanovan III) and depicts the steps in wool processing. Drawings show the engravings that are on the front and reverse of the tintinnabulo. More about the tintinnabulo and the burial can be found here.

 

Textile tools in the The Civic Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Modena

Museum website (in English)

Textile tools in the The Civic Museums of Reggio Emilia

Museum website (in English)

Reggio Emilia is a small city to the northwest of Modena, along the via Emilia heading towards Milan. Like Modena the exhibits are chronological and just about everything is on display. It’s interesting to note the similarities and difference between the textile tools given how close Bologna, Modena, and Reggio Emilia are.

Textile tools in the The National Archaeological Museum in Naples

Museum Website (in Italian, the English version doesn’t appear to be working)

Norway

Historical Museum, Oslo

Museum website (in English)

The Viking Ship Museum

Museum website (in English)

The textiles and tools come from the Oseberg boat burial. The boat was built in AD 820 and was in use until AD 834 when it was used for the burial of two women. The burial includes two chests that contain textiles woven from linen and wool, tapestries, and textile tools including a swift, distaffs, weaving tablets, shears, and looms. Raw materials, such as bundles of unspun flax were also a part of the goods interred with the women.

England

Unlike Italian museums, the ones in the UK display only their finest examples with much of the collection in storage. The museums here are arranged by city, roughly from north to south.

Arbeia Roman Fort & Museum, South Shields

Museum website

Segedunum Roman Fort, Baths & Museum, Wallsend

Museum website

Hancock Museum, Newcastle

Museum website

Bede’s World, Jarrow

Museum website

Museum of Archaeology, Durham

Museum website

Wiltshire Museum, Devizes

Museum website

The Museum of Somerset, Taunton

Museum website

The Meare Lake Villages near Taunton was a major craft manufacturing site during the Iron Age in Britain (800 BC – AD 100) and more bone combs were found there than in the rest of Britain combined. It would be interesting to find if anyone has done a study to see if other bone combs in Britain and neighbouring regions can be traced back to Meare or Somerset. The combs are distinctive and carved from whalebone.

Royal Albert Museum, Exeter

Museum website

Iron Age Spindle whorls Royal Albert Museum, Exeter, UKIron Age Spindle whorls

Iron Age Spindle Whorls.  Royal Albert Museum, Exeter, UKMedieval spindle whorls made of bone and lead

Northern Ireland

Ulster Museum, Belfast

Museum website

Bone weaving tablets (the large one looks like a scapula), spindle whorls, a distaff, and shears. AD 8th-10th Century. Ulster Museum, Befast, Norhtern Ireland.
Bone weaving tablets (the large one looks like a scapula), spindle whorls, a distaff, and shears. AD 8th-10th Century.

 

 

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9 February 2015 – Tin spindle whorls for the kids!

My new furnace got its first workout when 63 Year 3 (eight year old) students from Gleadless School came to Heeley City Farm for an archaeology day. I arrived early and we got the fire going and set up the bag bellows. The project was to give the kids an idea of life in the Iron Age, so they had a brief lecture by Ken Dash about archaeology, followed by a talk at the roundhouse. They visited the farm’s soay sheep, a breed that is supposed to go back to the Iron Age, and some of the other animals at the farm. Then they came to watch me cast a spindle whorl in tin (lead might be more authentic, but the risk assessment forms are detailed enough without that). We talked about what life in the Iron Age would have been like for kids their age and what they might have done for fun with no televisions, computers, or video games. I handed around a lump of tin, put it in the crucible, and then they could see it melt like magic. I poured the tin into a mould and after it cooled, I fit it onto a wooden shaft. Once they had their spindle, they took it to Sally Rodgers, the heritage officer for the farm, who showed them how to spin the wool from the soay sheep and use the spun yarn to make a simple bracelet.

I also had some of my tools for them to handle:  bronze hammers and palstaves, chisels, a pig scapula (perfect for scooping charcoal), along with the tools and equipment needed for casting.

This was the first school group of the year and the first time a visit had been organised thematically. It worked well with the classes broken down into groups of 15 with two adults for each group. Since archaeology has been added to the National Curriculum, events like this do a good job of giving students a hands-on lesson that is engaging and memorable. Each group got a spindle as a souvenir of the event. They might have a go at spinning in their classrooms, but the spindle also serves as a reminder of the the day out and the things they did when they visited the farm.

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