We ran a workshop about North European, Bronze Age textiles and clothes in the Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum on Saturday.
To get some idea of what at least some people wore we looked at images of a group of amazing Bronze Age, Danish burials in hollowed log coffins. Oxygen free conditions have prevented fabrics from rotting, preserving a variety of woollen clothes.
One of the most famous burials, excavated in the late 19th century, is known as the Egtved Girl burial, named after the location of the burial mound in which a young woman was found.
Recent research has revealed that the Egtved young woman, along with the clothes in which she was buried, originated in southern Germany and that she died at most just a few months after arriving in Denmark.
Her woollen clothes really don’t match up to stereotypical images of simple, and primitive prehistoric clothing. She was buried in a cropped blouse and “string” miniskirt that would have looked very cool when she danced at Bronze Age music festivals, especially with the bronze disk over her tummy.
It’s probably just a matter of time before archaeologists identify Bronze Age hand luggage and duty free shopping bags.
You may not be surprised to learn that the clothing recovered from the graves of males tends to be less skimpy and apparently more practical. Archaeologists and re-enactors have put together complete costumes based on items found in different burials in Denmark to give us an idea of what the well dressed Bronze Age man liked to wear.
Once again pretty much everything is woollen, with leather shoes and accessories. The cosy and very fetching hat, of which a few examples have survived, is made of felt; wool that has been pressed rather than woven.
Anyway, back in Dunfermline we had a look at the ancient and pretty much universal spinning technology known as drop spindle spinning.
Spinning is the process of taking a raw material, such as wool and turning it into thread that can be woven into cloth. Drop spinning is about as simple as it gets. All you need is:
- The raw material for your cloth;
- A stick for your drop spindle;
- Some kind of weight for the whorl fixed at one end of your spindle;
Lacking the last requirement, we tried enthusiasm instead, with limited success, but much fun.
Archaeologists tend to find just the spindle whorls; they were often made of clay or stone and so survive well. Today it is common for wooden whorls to be used and this may have been so in prehistoric times too.
Whorls survive in various shapes and sizes and sometimes decorated to produce attractive patterns when spinning. So it was out with the air-drying clay, bits of dowel, lolly sticks and cutlery items (used as tools to incise decoration) as members and visitors settled down to making their own spindle whorls.
Once some whorls had been produced it was time to attempt to spin some Jacob sheep wool that we happened to have.
The legend goes that these sheep first came to Britain with the Spanish armada in the 16th century. Recent research by the University of Edinburgh suggests that they are descended directly from sheep breeds in Africa and South West Asia rather than Britain.
The wool felt lovely and soft, but proved tricky to work with. We tried to gently tease out the fibres with fingers as the spindle spun to produce woollen thread.
We watched a video on YouTube that demonstrates how to make thread, but clearly the lady in the video has practised beforehand, probably multiple times. We managed only to make what she makes look easy, seem very hard indeed.
The experience, apart from being fun, raised questions about the effects of using whorls of different weights or shape and impact of the properties of different kinds of wool on spinning technique and drop spindle design.
What about the decoration, or lack of decoration on whorls at different times and places? Were decorated whorls just intended to look pretty, or were they ever intended to have deeper significance when they were set to spin?
Lots to investigate and think about!