Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles

Welcome to our second instalment of Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles. This month we are taking our first steps outside the early medieval period, further back in time to the Hallstatt period (800-400 BC). Enjoy!

Ronja Lau (MA): Working with mineralised textiles: Textile analysis of Hallstatt period burials from Magdalenska Gora, Brezje and Podzemlj

Today I am delighted to introduce Ronja Lau. She is based at the Freie Universität in Berlin, where she works with the archaeological textiles. Previously, Ronja spent time researching her Master’s thesis at the Natural History Museum Vienna, where she analysed mineralized textile fragments from an early Iron Age Slovenian necropolis, which dates to the Hallstatt period. Ronja also specialises in Structure from Motion (SfM). She uses the method frequently in her research of textile tools and on larger projects such as that of the Bronze Age settlement of Asva in Estonia (University of Rostock). Over the last four years she has worked with Uwe Sperling, excavating in Estonia and contributing to the project’s forthcoming publications (Heinrich Schliemann Institute). Here she discusses her Master’s research.

Introduction

Multiple Slovenian cemeteries of the early Iron Age/Hallstatt period (800-400 BC) offer the opportunity of mineralised textile finds. Due to preservation on metal objects, they need to be contextualised and analysed using a variety of methods. The following article discusses what methods are important and what can be learned from very small textiles fragments. Gaining information from Experimental Archaeology, nationwide overview and textile tools are just a few methods shown within this research. The work was a collaborative project with Karina Grömer and the National History Museum and formed part of my Master’s Thesis.

Research history

The archaeological sites of Magdalenska Gora, Brezje and Podzemlj represent settlements and cemeteries of the so called Dolenjsko group in south east Slovenia. The geographical area is advantageous due to iron deposits, rivers and valleys. Settlements likes Magdalenska Gora, Stična or Vače developed into wealthy centres, reaching their cultural climax between 725-600 BC or HA C1 to HA C2. Most of these Hallstatt period sites were excavated from the end of the 19th century into the early 20th century. Private excavators or noblewomen from Germany and Austria focused on the large burial mounds, where they expected to discover lots of jewellery and weapons. The mounds contained multiple burials that were evenly split into cremation urn graves and inhumations, dating to the early La Tène period. Unfortunately, the acidic soil destroyed most of the skeletal material and other organic objects.

The excessive late 19th-century excavations were insufficiently documented. As Slovenia and the sites were part of the Austrian Monarchy, most of the objects were transferred to Vienna and are now part of the Natural History Museum’s collections.

All three sites Magdalenska Gora, Brezje and Podzemlj were published between 1960 and early 2000. Those publications build a strong base for the interpretation of the textile finds. Lise Bender Jørgensen analysed some of the textiles in the 1980’s, publishing her results in 2005. During my research more textiles were identified inside the Museum’s storage facilities.

Figure 1: artefact number 66808, chain with textiles, copyright Ronja Lau

Analysing Textiles

In grave 4 (d) at tumulus XXVIII in Podzemlj Grm, were discovered 16 bronze foot rings, two belt plates, a heavily corroded bronze chain with textile fragments attached to it and a clay bead. Unfortunately, there is no more information about the grave’s measurements, stratigraphy or the condition of the deceased. The grave inventory suggests it was probably a wealthy female burial. The corroded chain with textile fragments (artefact number 66808, figure 1) was discovered in storage and first analysed as part of this project.

Figure 2: Podzemlj, grave 6, artefact 66808, chain with textile. Microscopic image, 50x copyright Ronja Lau

Photography and microscopy (figure 2) are essential for further documentation. With a digital microscope it is possible to achieve fast and sufficient pictures of the textile and single threads. All the technical details can be collected on the basis of a digital microscope picture. Information like yarn/ply, thread twist, twist angle, yarn diameter and thread count were tabulated (figure 3). Most of the time it is not possible to clearly identify warp and weft, as the textile fragments are to small and no starting borders can be seen. Therefore, system 1 and system 2 are synonyms declared by the researcher. This small table creates a quick visual overview and makes it possible to compare textiles.

Figure 3: table of technical data for textile 66808 copyright Ronja Lau

The next step is easily shown with a different example. 86602 is a bronze belt plate from Magdalenska Gora, Preologe, tumulus II, grave 57. It was found in an inhumation burial orientated east-west. A horse had been buried half a metre above the human. Multiple objects were found together with the belt plate: bronze helmet, two fibula, two belt plates, a “Kelt”/axe, two lances, a knife, three bronze lids, multiple bronze buttons, bronze fittings, bronze divider, an iron hook, an iron axe, multiple iron and bronze rings (probably from a horse, as there is fur attached to it) and four clay vessels.

Belt plate 86602 has a number of interesting textile fragments attached to it and is therefore a good example to show the microstratigraphy of textiles and other objects. Bavarian Cultural Heritage Office PlugIns mean Photoshop can be used for free. This guarantees a uniform mapping of information like structure, material and technical data directly onto the picture of the archaeological object.

Figure 4: Mikrostratigraphie, artefact 86602, belt plate copyright Ronja Lau

Microstratigraphy visualises the behaviour of the textiles in combination with the object they are associated with. Using the same colours and structures seen in the map (figure 4) organic fragments can be identified. As seen in figure 4 the blue part was a layer of fur with textile layers on top. Some fabrics tend to bend over the edge of the belt plate, which is shown on the left-hand side, with textile 86602-D and A. This method is very useful for interpretation and proving your hypothesis.

Figure 5: mineralised fur on metal ring, artefact number 86608 copyright Ronja Lau

Usually no other samples can be taken from mineralised textiles, as they are no longer flexible or already persevered. To identify the fibres of a mineralised textile, the whole object needs to put inside a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Belt plates and other bigger finds are not suitable for this. But there is a special object, which did fit inside the SEM and offered fibres, which can be seen in figure 5. Mineralised fur was discovered on multiple rings that came from the same burial as belt plate 86602. The excavator said it was found within the male burial, but the fur was clearly from a horse. With the help of the Natural History Museum’s zoological department, samples of a Przewalski horse were analysed (figure 6). The results from the head of the Przewalski horse showed significant similarities to the original sample (figure 7). It is plausible that all the rings were actually part of the horse harness, which was buried just half a meter above the human. Due to erosion and collapsing cavities it is possible that the harness moved.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is figure-6-sample-of-the-przewalski-horse-head-hair.jpg
Figure 6: sample of the Przewalski horse-head hair copyright Ronja Lau
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is figure-7-sample-of-horse-hair-from-86608.png
Figure 7: sample of horse hair from 86608 copyright Ronja Lau

Experimental Archaeology

The collected data from the previous methods need to be interpreted and contextualised. Textile archaeology benefits from interdisciplinary work with archaeozoologists, zoologists, archaeobotanics and the natural sciences. Experimental Archaeology can shed light onto crafting techniques, skills or procedures. Usually single experiments are made to recreate woven fabrics to show how long it takes and what the finished fabric looks like.

During the project the Natural History Museum Vienna and University planned a cremation experiment (figure 8) to answer a number of different questions including the behaviour of metal objects in a fire, textiles, pottery and anthropology. The experiment was designed to observe as much as possible.

Figure 8: cremation experiment copyright Ronja Lau

For the experiment with textiles questions like: how does a textile behaves during a cremation, what is left of the textile and how can we connect this with existing archaeological finds, can be asked.

During a long hot fire like a cremation the common opinion is, that textiles burn completely and nothing is left. Previous cremation experiments have already proven this wrong. Charred textiles can survive particularly well when attached to a metal object and then put into an urn (archaeological finds like this, were already be identified by Karina Grömer). As there are also textiles from urn graves in the context of the Slovenian burials, this knowledge is part of the interpretation of those textiles.

Interpretation

For the interpretation I collated technical data gathered from all the textiles from the Slovenian burials. Slovenia is part of the so-called eastern Hallstatt territory and can be compared with other sites. As there are only 26 textiles (figure 9), only a statistical trend can be compared with the 296 finds from the Hallstatt salt mine in Austria also dating to the Hallstatt period (figure 10). The similarities are probably no coincidence, as the main use of twill, twist patterns and quality are seen throughout the eastern Hallstatt regions.

Figure 9: weaving patternsin Slovenia (Magdalenska Gora, Brezje, Podzemlj) copyright Ronja Lau
Figure 10: Weaving patterns from the Halstatt salt mine copyright Ronja Lau

Another interesting observation is the existence of plied yarn in woven textiles in the three Slovenian sites. Just a few fragments build a connection to the western Hallstatt region, where plied yarn was frequently used. Sites like Hochdorf and Hochmichele (Germany) are examples for western Hallstatt textile preservation. Precious plied yarn fabrics could have been part of a contact and exchange network from west to east and were therefore placed in wealthy burials.

Of course, the small textile fragments of the Slovenian burials cannot be used to construct a whole garment, but the placement of objects inside a grave can lead to an interpretation. As Magdalenska Gora, Brezje and Podzemlj lack sufficient documentation; other sites like Stična and Molnik were used as corroborative evidence to find the position of objects in the graves. The belt plates were a surprise, it is commonly thought that they were positioned on top of the pelvic bones or belly but this wasn’t the case (figure 11). Multiple belt plates were laid at the feet of the deceased or next to body. Belt plate 86602 is one example of a belt plate placed next to the feet. The reverse of the belt plate is covered with different high quality textiles.

Figure 11: belt plate position of Magdalenska Gora, Brezje, Podzemlj. Molnik and Sticna copyright Ronja Lau

Most of the time textiles from burials or other contexts are interpreted as clothing, but fabrics suit different purposes, for example as a cover, shroud, container or just a grave good. Identification can be difficult and has happened only a few times, for example in Hochdorf.

The belt plates with mineralised textiles hint that textiles went into the grave, which were not clothing.

Objects like fibulae (brooches), buttons, belts or needles are connected with dress when found in a typical position (figure 12) and therefore textiles are also connected to it. But if those objects are found somewhere else, other interpretations are possible and should always be considered.

Figure 12: fibula positions in graves from Magdalenska Gora, Brezje, Podzemlj. Molnik and Sticna copyright Ronja Lau

Structure from Motion as a method in textile archaeology

In addition to the textile finds from the Iron Age burials in Slovenia, are a large collection of textile tools. Spindle whorls are generally part of female burials. They were analysed following the Centre for Textile Research Copenhagen (CTR) guidelines (L. Bender Jørgensen 2005; and https://ctr.hum.ku.dk/about/). This makes it possible to compare single finds and whole complexes from different cultural regions. The data bank will be available for different research, experiments or questions in the future. Unfortunately, the spindle whorls are fragile, fragmented and suffer from every touch. This makes it difficult to work with them. As a lot of the whorls are individually decorated or polished, the surface is always interesting to examine. Photography can help, but 3D modelling, a fast developing method for digitally preserving archaeological finds, is proving extremely versatile and popular.

The 3D modelling method, Structure from Motion (SfM) was tested with a few very small objects, like spindle whorls, during this project.

I’m skilled at using SfM for bigger objects like pottery or stone structures. SfM is cheap, as you do not have to buy expensive software, equipment or scanners; the time taking the photos and building up the 3D model on the computer is affordable. Figure 13 shows perfectly the surface, colour and damage of the spindle whorl. A personal aim would be, to do this with every object and add it to the already made data bank. Unfortunately, this was not the focus of the Master’s thesis, so I wasn’t able to model every spindle whorl. This is a task for future projects.

If your browser does not render the 3D image, you will need to download and view it as a pdf. Once downloaded, use the curser to move the image around.

Conclusion

Woven fabrics of all kind have always been part of prehistoric, historic and present societies. This sounds trivial but it is necessary to point it out, as textile archaeology is not always taught or in the minds of archaeologists. One of the goals of this work is to strengthen the perception and acknowledgment for textile archaeology and archaeological finds from old excavations. It is not only modern excavated material that can be meaningful; finds from the late 19th century are worth re-examining.

Interdisciplinary work is necessary to research, analyse and interpret organic finds, especially combining humanities and the natural sciences. I’m an archaeologist and can learn most of the natural science methods, but that is not enough to understand the whole potential.

Another important aspect is the use of uniform terminology and guidelines for all the analysis, giving other researchers the opportunity to work with the material, understand working methods and develop new questions to investigate. Scientific results should not be kept by one researcher, as knowledge can only grow with the work of others.

This leads especially to experimental archaeology and its great potential, to observe for example, behaviour, intentions and techniques. To help us gain a better understanding of prehistoric human skills.

Thank you

I would like to thank Ronja for taking the time to write such an interesting and detailed account of her research. If you would like to hear more from Ronja why not tune in to EXARC’s next FinallyFriday, ‘Sew Much to Do, Sew Little Time’, when Ronja and I will be discussing our work and interests in archaeological textiles. It takes place on 7th August at 17:00hr AMS time. Information can be found here: exarc.net/finallyfriday.

Next month we will be stepping back into the early medieval period to focus on one aspect of recreating an early medieval embroidery. Dr Katrin Kania (textile archaeologist and researcher), Dr Margit Hofmann (a specialist in natural dyeing techniques) and I will be discussing what colour actually means when dyeing silk threads for the St Cuthbert Maniple Recreation Project.

Contact: If you would like to contact Ronja about her work, please use one of the links below:

Email: ronja_lau@web.de

Instagram: _ronja_lau_

Facebook: Ronja Lau

LinkedIn: Ronja Lau

Bibliography / Further Reading:

F.E. Barth, Die hallstattzeitlichen Grabhügel im Bereich des Kutscher bei Podsemel, Antiquitas 3, Bd. 5, 1969.

L. Bender Jørgensen, Hallstatt and La Tène Textiles from the Archives of Central Europe. In: P. Bichler/K. Grömer/R. Hofmann-de Keijzer/A. Kern/H. Reschreiter (Hrsg.), Hallstatt Textiles (Oxford 2005) 133-150.

S. Bökönyi, Mecklenburg Collection, Part. Data on Iron Age horses of central and eastern Europe (Cambridge, USA 1968).

L. Douny/S. Harris, Wrapping and Unwrapping, Concept and Approaches. In: L. Douny/S. Harris (Hrsg.) Wrapping and Unwrapping Material Culture (Kalifornien 2014) 14-42.

J. Dular, Podzemlj (Ljubljana 1978).

J. Dular, Halštatske Nekropole Dolenjske. Die hallstattzeitlichen Nekropolen in Dolenjsko (Ljubljana 2003).

B. Fath, Spinnen und Weben-Verhüllen und Verknüpfen, Textilherstellung und deren Darstellung in Gräbern der Frühen Eisenzeit Oberitaliens und im Ostalpenraum, In: A. Kern/J. Koch/I. Balzer/J. Fries-Knoblach/K. Kowarik/C. Later/P.C. Ramsl/P. Trebsche/J. Wiethold (Hrsg.) Technologieentwicklung und –transfer in der Hallstatt- und Latènezeit (Langenweissbach 2012) 71-81.

L. Fischer, „Structure from Motion“ in der Praxis. 3D-Visualisierung mittels Digitalfotos. Netzpublikationen zur Grabungstechnik, Nr. 6 (Westfalen-Lippe 2015).

M. Fritzl/M. Konrad/K. Grömer/A. Stadlmeyr, Rituale in der mitteldonauländischen Urnenfelderzeit: Eine Annäherung durch experimentelle Kremationen. In: F. Pieler/P. Trebsche (Hrsg.) Beiträge zum Tag der Niederösterreichischen Landesarchäologie 2019 (Asparn/Zaya 2019) 42-54.

S. Gabrovec, Magdalenska Gora V. Arheološka najdišča Dolenjske. Ob 100-letnici arheoloških raziskovank v Novem mestu, Arheo-Dossier Dolenjska (Ljubljana 1990) 39-42.

M. Gleba, Wrapped Up for Safe Keeping: „Wrapping“ Customs in Early Iron Age Europe. In: L. Douny/S. Harris (Hrsg.) Wrapping and Unwrapping Material Culture (Kalifornien 2014) 135-146.

K. Grömer, Eisenzeitliche Hügelgräber im Attergau. In: P. Trebsche/M. Pollak/H. Gruber (Hrsg.) Fundberichte aus Österreich Materialhefte Reihe A, Sonderheft 5 (Wien 2007).

K. Grömer, Römische Textilien in Noricum und Westpannonien im Kontext der archäologischen Gewebefunde 200 v.Chr.-500 n.Chr. in Österreich (Graz 2014).

K. Grömer, Kremationsexperiment „Inzi 18“ in Asparn an der Zaya, 28.6.-1.7.2018 – Fragestellungen und Beobachtungen zu den Textilresten. Report Textil Archäologie 2018 / 13. Unpublizierter Untersuchungsbericht, Naturhistorisches Museum Wien (Wien 2018).

B. Nowak-Böck/H. Voß, Standardised Mapping System for Digital Documentation of Organic Materials on Metal Finds an In-Situ-Blocs, Archaeological Textiles Review 57, 2015, 60-69.

A. Rast-Eicher, Fibres. Microscopy of Archaeological Textiles and Furs (Budapest 2016).

S. Tecco Hvala, Magdalenska Gora. Družbena struktura in grobni rituali želesnodobne skupnosti (Ljubljana 2012).

V.O. Vitt, Loshadi Pazyryk shikh Kurganov, The horses of the kurgans of Pazyryk, Sovjetskaia Archeologia vol. 16, 1952, 165-179.

Publications:

In progress: The value of old collections – interdisciplinary research on the Hallstatt Period grave Tum. II/gr. 57 from Magdalenska gora in Slovenia, Lau, Grömer, Rudelics, Kroh, Winkler, Annalen des Naturhistorischen Museums Wien 2021.

In progress: R. Lau, Mineralisierte Textilreste Aus Hallstattzeitlichen Gräbern In Slowenien

Textilarchäologische Analysen Anhand Der Funde Von Magdalenska Gora, Brezje Und Podzemlj (Wien 2020).

In progress: Ausgrabungen in der Bronzezeitsiedlung von Asva im Jahr 2019Uwe Sperling, Hans-Jörg Karlsen, Valter Lang, Andres Kimber und Ronja Lau (Rostock 2020).

Useful Resources:

https://www.nhm-wien.ac.at/forschung/praehistorie/forschungen/textilforschung/textilgeraete

https://www.altertum.uni-rostock.de/forschung/forschungsprojekte/asva-bronzeverarbeitung/

https://exarc.net/members/ind/ronja-lau

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