Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #9

Welcome to the March 2021 post. This is the second of the two-part installment about Viking textile production, Weaving Identities II. In this post Dolores Kearney continues where Mary Valente left off. Dolores focuses entirely, on Viking Dublin, approaching the women of that settlement and its textile production through the concept of the châine opératoire and informed by an object-based analysis. This post offers tus a different style of archaeological perspective on women and textile production in Viking Dublin.

Dolores M Kearney | University College Dublin - Academia.edu

Dolores is at the mid-stage of her PhD Irish Research Council funded scholarship, which is entitled “Weaving stories: reconstructing the manufacture, uses and discards of textiles in Early Medieval Ireland and beyond 500-1100 AD”. Her research topic is using a fusion of archaeology, history, and the methodologies of experimental archaeology to investigate the stories of textile production, not seeking to define the women of the early medieval period but rather to explore their materiality through textile production.

How can we see the women of Viking Dublin and its hinterland?

Seeing the past, seeking the past, in tune with the past, these are, just some, of the signpost terminology, we all use to spark an interest and engagement with our recent and distance histories. However, a signpost, literally and metamorphically, is a fixture. Therefore, to progress any interest and to enrich our understanding of this past, we need to add on, a map of concepts to assist us on the journey. In this sequel to Professor Mary Valente’s “Weaving Identities” women and textile production in Viking age settlements, I want to intersect with Mary in Viking Dublin. A town of cultural fusions where Mary introduced us to the population, a blend of Irish and Scandinavian ethnicities which attracted labels such as ‘Hiberno-Norse, and Viking-Irish’. My focus is, entirely, on the textile production of Dublin and its hinterland and I intend to explore it by a conceptual map which involves the châine opératoire model informed by an object-based analysis.  I will outline, briefly, the history of the châine opératoire in archaeology and how its use with an object-based analysis, in case study form, can allow you, the reader, to see if we can see traces of the textile actions of the women of Viking Dublin.

The châine opératoire is an analytical and interpretative conceptual model, it emerged from French anthropology and ethnology in the 1960s and 70s and credited with its invention was André Leroi-Gourhan, anthropologist, archaeologist, and ethnologist. Leroi-Gourhan, in the 1960s, had developed, what was termed, ‘conceptual toolboxes’ from which emerged innovative; theoretical and methodological analysis models of which the châine opératoire was one. Subsequently, it was Claudine Kalin (1986) who linked its French origins and its use in archaeology to English-speaking countries. Archaeology, initially, applied it to the investigation and understanding of lithic assemblages. It is a model of analysis and interpretation which focuses on adding enhanced visibility to the continuous past processes of cognition which manifests as embodied knowledge, skills, and creative choices in archaeological artefacts.Its end goal is to study the operations of technical, creative, and social actions or patterns that surround procurement of, production of, usage of and finally, discard or deposition of past material culture (Lemonnier1993,2).

The original châine opératoire (Locutus Borg public domain)

Criticism of the châine opératoire was levelled at its subjective approach, its control and range of variables and the need to define its descriptive terminology in a tighter framework (Monnier and Missal 2014,61).  Commentary, of recent years, is levelled at the over-reliance on the study of technical skills without the balance of the perceived basic individual cognitive methods of procurement; production; use and discard surrounding the artefacts or sites which used the châine opératoire model (Farlie and Barham 2016,644). However, research in this decade, has sought to offer a more balanced application. A pilot study (Farlie and Barham 2016,641) proposed to re-model the epistemological thinking and methodology of the châine opératoire, using a psychology theory called specific action perception along with embodied cognition theory, it sort to render more visible balance and to highlight the individual choices and changes over time in the châine opératoire. 

Despite these criticisms, the concept makes an excellent ‘transfer-over model’ as evidenced from its use in textile archaeology.  Eva Andersson Strand (2012) put forward a framework for a textile châine opératoire and she stressed if the model is used for archaeological textiles, it needs a list of analytical companions from the written to art sources, from ethnology to the scientific rigour of experimental archaeology. 

The châine opératoire incorporating the object-based approach

Bearing all this in mind and, while it is beyond the scope of this blog post to investigate in detail any experiential exploration and experimentation on textile production in Viking Dublin using the full châine opératoire, it is proposed to provide a basic, general framework of this concept in tandem with an object-based research approach. The châine opératoire model, in general, acts as an analytical checklist of operational sequences and the object-based approach has three investigative aspects to it:

  1. Observation (reading the artefact)
  2. Reflection (considering the embodied experience of creation)
  3. Interpretation (‘collecting it all together’)

 It is intended to add some of these titles into the châine opératoire to offer snapshot traces of the textile actions of the women of Viking Dublin.

Sequence One: Procurement and Observation

In the first part of this collaborative post, Mary Valente wrote of the specialised, organised, and vital textile production in, both, rural and urban Scandinavian settings and we can see a similar pattern of production in Dublin, as evidenced through the Viking Wood Quay excavations of the 1970s and 1980s. These excavations were detailed in numerous reports, several of which we will look at now. The palaeoentomologist, Eileen Reilly noted numerous animal pen style arrangements near the human structures (think small holdings), but she commented on the scarcity of evidence for sheep bones in this setting, concluding that sheep were primarily raised for wool and in the hinterland, as dictated by seasonality for fleece requirement rather than for meat (Wallace 2016, 201-220). The sheep of Dublin, through their surviving anatomical evidence, indicate a shared similarity with the Soay breed of sheep which sported a fleece that had evolved away from the hairy fibres types towards a more medium diameter of wool fibres (Ryder 1984,19).

Soay sheep, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, Ireland (Photo:Kearney, D. 2017)

Another animal fibre, that of silk was procured, far outside, the town and its hinterland. Historical evidence exists for silk cloth and unworked silk thread imports into Dublin rather than cocoons.  For plant fibres, Siobhan Geraghty’s analytical work on the botanical evidence of the site provided proof of small-scale flax cultivation alongside evidence of a mid-late 10th century retting pit inside the town (Wallace 2016,201-220).

What I have outlined so far is just a tiny fragment of how the procurement stage of the châine opératoire operates. However, if we consider the object-based approach of observation, known as ‘reading the artefact’, the possibility exists for opening new avenues of research and interpretations. If, for example, we applied microscopy on the sheep fibres, could we link the breed type to Michael Ryder’s classification of ancient breeds? Microscopy work, as far as I am aware, is not published on Dublin Viking wool fibres or the silk and linen fibres.

Sequence Two-The Production

Once learned a skill becomes embodied, committed to mental and muscle memory, developed, and improved over time and practice. Alongside these skills, we need to consider the cultural influences, universal and insular, on these practical, selected actions and cognitive choices (Roux 2015, 4). Another aspect to skills, is its intangible portability through the minds and hands of practitioners. In other words, these are the acquired skills and creativity often known as talent, which is required to produce fine levels of decorated cloth/clothing.  Indeed, textile production in Dublin town were of a high-quality output, as reflected through the archaeological textiles, ranging across a creativity spectrum of spinning, weaving, and sewing. Equally, the find locations of tools and textiles indicated household production expanded into workshop production over time.

Here in this production sequence, I want to narrow down our focus to an item of clothing which may have originated from one of these houses/workshops. This item is a silk veil with the catalogue number DHC12 (part of sixteen similar types) which was excavated from a central location called Fishamble St, Dublin and dates to c. mid-10th to late 11th century. Under analysis, this veil of silk had a Z directional spin, or twist, on the warp threads and an S directional spin on weft threads (Wincott Heckett 2003, 22). Peter Wild (2003) writes that the spin directions of Z (clockwise) and S (anti-clockwise) were technical standards, not choices, in spinning. The S-spin is recorded from the textiles for Late Bronze Age Scandinavia. However, during its Iron Age, the Z became the selected standard spin with ply spins using the Z/Z spin for warp threads and Z/S for weft threads (Wild 2003, 29). The Roman Empire, it would appear, split the spins with Z to the West and S to the East (Wild 2003, 29, Bender Jorgensen 2013, 128).

What does this mean for DHC12? When we read it, technically, we see its silk was spun according to Western Empire standards. Its Z/Z spin produced a smooth, quality surface finish which would have added to the sheen of the silk (Crowfoot 1931, 31-32). According to Elizabeth Wincott Heckett, who analysed all the head coverings from Dublin, DHC12 was of an excellent quality (2003,111). Another factor to reflect on is that the Byzantium Empire-East held strict control on the standards and access to silk cloth (Geijer 1979, 128) with a proviso that, in general, a merchant trading in silk with Barbarians offered to them, a poorer quality silk. If we combine the Z spin and the historical information on cloth quality and perhaps, further scientific analysis on DHC12, would it be possible to confirm, categorically, that it was not of Eastern origin?

DHC12 Knotted silk scarf/veil
Reproduced by kind permission of National Museum of Ireland
(copyright National Museum of Ireland)

Sequence Three-The Use

Clothing have multifaceted tales and messages embedded on and within them, which are reflected towards the viewer. So, does DHC12 have any tale or messages which were reflected to the women of Dublin, the Viking hinterland and now, us? Of the Viking burials excavated in Dublin, the ratio is ten males to one female; hence, one reason for the evidence indicating more than a working relationship between the indigenous population and the Viking newcomers. These were relationships which resulted in their shared identity of Hiberno-Norse. Although, like the Icelandic settlements, small numbers of Scandinavian women were probably among the first settlers into Dublin. We have evidence of traditional, Scandinavian focused textile techniques such as sprang and nalebinding present in Dublin but let us not be guilty of believing that weapons equal men and textiles equal women. Techniques such as nalebinding and sprang can be produced by men, especially male mariners. It is the finer, more skilled time-consuming textile products, such as DHC12 that can reveal female visibility in their making and wearing. In her analysis, Elizabeth Wincott Heckett identified under the microscope human hair in several of the Dublin head covering weaves, but deterioration did not allow for further investigation.

There are no recorded hair traces in DHC12. This silk veil is of tabby or plain weave with the remains of fringed ends and with no evidence of sewing.  The estimated size of DHC12 is 670mm x 240mm including fringes and it resembles more a scarf that could be secured under the chin, worn as a headband or across the shoulders, rather than a veil. It shares similarities with finds from York and Lincoln. If we add the reflection aspect of the object-based approach, it gives us the opportunity to consider questions of DHC12 such as:

  1. What is the texture and weight of this veil/scarf?
  2. When this covering was worn on the head, how did it feel on the hair? Was it successful in holding hair in place, did the sheen of the silk catch the natural light?
  3. Think about personal reactions: would you wear this artefact? How would you wear?
  4. Think about cultural influences, social trends and of course, fashion.

Fashion theory is the “cultural construction of embodied identity”. If we apply this to a research frame for DHC12 and we read it with the application of scientific accuracy through microscopy, can we reveal female visibility in its making and wearing? Let me draw your eye to a small amount of DHC12’s material which is gathered into a tiny knot.

Line drawing of DHC12 with knot
Reproduced by kind permission of National Museum of Ireland (copyright National Museum of Ireland)

Sequence Four-Discards-Recycling fashion

I have chosen to think about this tiny gathered knot in this sequence because it appears to be part of a decision-making process and action, maybe for style associated to social or cultural agency. Examining the other veil/scarves analysed by Heckett, none have knots that we may consider to be a result of action undertaken for personal reasons. Perhaps, we can look towards the ground-breaking work of Janet Spector(1993) where she offered a combination of archaeology, Native American history, and women’s studies as models of investigation and interpretation. Her work was ground-breaking in bringing the agency of women to the fore. She argued against gender binary concepts of ‘her work’ and ‘his work’ and she used the artefacts as portals to past peoples (Spector 1993, 17). Let us think about DHC12 as a portal when I ask why the knot was made.

Science tells us nothing about the knot, but it does open another portal because it indicates possible evidence of indigotin dye in DHC12. Indigotin is the chemical for the blue colour made from woad. There is strong archaeological and historical evidence or the use of woad in early medieval Ireland, even pre-dating the Viking presence. There is no evidence for the cultivation of woad in Dublin town so, perhaps, we need to look to the movement of dyed cloth, not through the port of Dublin, but rather from the hinterland and again, we return to those emerging, inter-related links between settlers and indigenous people of Ireland.

In part I, Mary Valante wrote of descriptions from historical sources which are dated to the latter years of the Viking age in Dublin and describes the cloth as, “cloth of all colours and of all kinds; their satins and silken cloth, pleasing and variegated, both scarlet and green, and all sorts of cloth in like manner” “silken… with a border of gold around it and silver buttons”. A poem about Dublin from the Book of the Uí Mhaine says that the leader of the foreigners of Dublin “will never be wanting for satin or silk or sendal.”

DHC12 is part of this cornucopia of coloured silks. If we think about the historical descriptions of cloth in Viking Dublin, can we imagine, what may have been written about DHC12 based on the recent past technical analysis? An ancient scribe may have described DHC12 as, ‘a blue; fringed; light silk scarf of gossamer quality used to enhance the womanly beauty found in Dublin town’.  There would be no mention, I imagine, of that tiny knot, if it was there at the time of writing and even if it was, the tendency, in general, is to discard imperfections. I cannot offer any objective interpretations on why it was there. Although we can think critically and creativity about repairs to DHC12, about its use by children, about trickledown economics, and about shared identities. These thoughts, while still subjective, may become considerations used to broaden out and develop new avenues of research for revealing the ‘hidden in plain sight’ women and textile production of Viking Dublin and its hinterland.

DHC12-An artist interpretation (Donnelly, M. 2021)

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

Email: dolores.kearney@ucdconnect.ie

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Textilesinarchaeology

Twitter: @UCDExperimentex

Instagram: @doloreskearney




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Author Publications:

‘The Search for Abel Ram’s Settlement of Gorey Palatines’ in Trowel XV 2014-15 in https://trowelucd.wordpress.com/portfolio/trowel-xv/

  ‘A tale of the Wexford Knight Templars and their medieval settlements at Kilcloggan and Templetown, Hook Head, Co Wexford’ in http://www.thestandingstone.ie/2015/07/guest-post-tale-of-wexford-knight.html

5 thoughts on “Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #9

Add yours

    1. Hi, I’m so glad you enjoyed the article.
      I’ve asked the author about the reference. Apparently, the artist Margaret Donnelly gave her that picture as a personal gift. I hope this helps, Alex


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