Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #13

Welcome to the latest post for the Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles blog. This month I am excited to announce that the post has been written by (Dr) Charlotte Rimstad of the National Museum of Denmark, who is discussing the Fashioning the Viking Age project.

Charlotte Rimstad is a textile archaeologist with more than 10 years of experience in the field. Currently working as project coordinator of the three-year project Fashioning the Viking Age, she has conducted textile analysis on many levels and facilitated cooperation between archaeology and several other scientific fields. She has frequently given papers on national and international conferences, many of which have later been published.

In September 2018, a research project funded by the VELUX FOUNDATIONS, was launched at Department for Ancient Cultures of Denmark and the Mediterranean at the National Museum of Denmark. The general aim of the project Fashioning the Viking Age is to create new and well-founded archaeological interpretations and reconstructions of Viking Age textiles, textile tools and clothing. The project leader is Research Professor Ulla Mannering and the project coordinator is Post Doctoral Researcher, Charlotte Rimstad. They collaborate with Associate Professor Eva Andersson Strand from Centre for Textile Research, University of Copenhagen and Archaeologist Ida Demant from Land of Legends in Lejre, Denmark as well as many skilled researchers and crafts people. The project will run until the end of 2022.

In Scandinavia, the Viking Age is generally defined as the last period of the Late Iron Age, ranging from AD 800 to 1050. Even though the Viking Age is often treated and understood as a period with its own unique cultural development, its textile production was deeply rooted in the process and design traditions of the preceding periods. The majority of the population lived and worked as farmers, fishermen and craftspeople in small-scale societies that depended on self-sufficiency. In such a society, the production of clothing, textiles and skin items were an integrated part of agriculture and the daily life. Viking Age society was further divided hierarchically, defined by status and profession, and this structure is also visible in textile and skin production. Textiles were needed and produced in many different qualities and for different purposes; clothing, the household, warfare, transportation and trade. The display of status and wealth played an important part, expressed by the use of gold, silver and silk, which were traded from the south. It is the meaning of all these data, which will create a new and clearer perception of Viking Age textile, skin and clothing production.

Most archaeological materials and finds relating to the Scandinavian Viking Age cloth culture are unequally represented in different contexts and geographical areas. In this project, the team is primarily working with finds recovered from southern Scandinavia and present-day Denmark. The project is divided into three interlinked sub-projects, each with its own primary focus.

Fig. 1. Ida Demant spinning. Photo: Roberto Fortuna, the National Museum of Denmark.

Part 1: Viking Age Textile Production The first sub-project started in autumn 2018 and is focusing on the visual and tactile differences of Viking Age textiles and clothing. By reconstructing textiles with exact copies of Viking Age textiles tools and by using wool fibres that are as similar to the original finds as possible, we aim to reach their original look and feel. Wool combs, spindle whorls and loom weights for the warp-weighted loom are some of the most important tools in this process and these tools were therefore reconstructed by skilled crafts people. The wool combs are based on archaeological finds of iron teeth from Norway and Sweden, whereas the spindle whorls and loom weights are replicas of finds from Haithabu (Hedeby). Different weights were needed, as a light weight spindle whorl will produce a thin thread and a heavier spindle whorl a thicker thread.

Similarly, the weight of the loom weights decides how many threads – thin or thick – that can be attached to them, while the loom-weight thickness controls the thread density in the finished textile.  After sorting and combing the wool, it was hand spun and the warping and weaving could begin.

Fig. 2. Loom weights used for Project Part 1. Photo: Roberto Fortuna, The National Museum of Denmark

Textile samples

Three textile fragments from the Haithabu (Hedeby) Harbour were chosen for reconstruction, all dated to the 10th century AD.

The first two samples were produced in winter 2018-2019 and the last in winter 2020-2021. As a starting point, fibre samples were taken from the original finds in order to determine their fibre quality and find a matching modern sheep fleece. Sampling was kindly allowed by Schloss Gottorf in Schleswig that houses all the archaeological finds from Haithabu. The analysis showed that the wool from well-bred Spelsau sheep was quite similar to the one found in the archaeological finds and Spelsau fleeces were therefore obtained for the project.

In the archaeological record, there is a huge variation, particularly in size and weight, of both spindle whorls and loom weights. This is believed to reflect the variation in textiles that were produced. As the three samples that were produced in the present project were different in fleece quality and weave, different spindles and loom weights were chosen for each sample. All spindles, spindle whorls and loom weights were copies of finds from Haithabu.  Textile sample 1 is based on Fragment H14, a tabby with 15/9 threads/cm, Z/S spun. The warp and weft was spun on two different spindles. The warp had a very high twist, so the spinner chose a 20 grams whorl on a short 21 cm spindle. The weft needed less twist, so for this the spinner chose a lighter spindle of whorl of 15 grams on the same spindle. The warp was setup with 56 loom weights, which was based on a 400g loom weight from Haithabu.

Fig. 3. Weaving of sample 1. Photo: Roberto Fortuna, The National Museum of Denmark

Textile sample 2 is based on Fragment H2, a 2/2 twill with approximately 12/7 threads/cm, Z/S spun. The twist of the warp was also relatively high, however the weft was very lightly spun and almost impossible to measure. The warp was spun mostly in outer coat hairs, so for this the spinner chose a heavier spindle whorl of 26 grams but still on a 21 cm spindle. The relatively thick and lightly spun weft consisted only of the soft undercoat. It was spun on a spindle of 20 g, but on a longer spindle to avoid it getting much twist. The coarse warp yarn, needed more weight, so for this set-up on the warp-weighted loom, 4 rows of loom weights of 600 grams were used.

Textile sample 3 is based on Fragment H39, a diamond twill with 15/11 threads/cm, Z/S spun. This warp yarn was also spun on a spindle of 20 grams, but it was decided to test the use of lighter loom weights of 200 grams in this setup.

The fragments reconstructed here, must be considered coarse, everyday textiles. They all have a rustic feel, not for the sensitive skin, but they also give you sense of clothing which was hardwearing and would last for ages.  However, all three textile samples grew rather slowly during the making progress, as it was only possible to weave a few cm/hour but this gives important insights into how to time demanding it was to produce clothes in the Viking Age.  The textile samples, the reconstructed textile tools and different fibre samples are now stored in a wooden “Textile & Tool Box”, which will be used for outreach purposes at universities and museums, in order to give a “hands-on” experience of Viking Age textiles and textile production. Besides the spindle whorls and loom weights, the tools comprise among others a weaving swords, a wooden club and a scutching sword.

Fig. 4. The textile tool box. Photo: Ida Demant

Part 2: Viking Age Male and Female Clothing

In the second sub-project, reconstructions of complete outfits for both a man and a woman were produced. The reconstructions are primarily based on data selected from two Danish high-status burials, the male burial “Bjerringhøj” and the female burial “Hvilehøj”, both situated in Jutland, and dated to the late 10th century.

The two burials The Bjerringhøj burial (also known as the Mammen burial) was excavated in 1868 by local farmers. It was a chamber burial under a large mound, containing exceptional Viking Age finds, such as an iron axe with silver inlay, bucket, a large candle of bee’s wax and many well-preserved textiles, including one with embroideries on. The grave is interpreted as a male grave. Due to the rough and unprofessional excavation, the precise location of the textiles is unknown, so there is no certainty as to how the different textile fragments were used or related to each other.

Fig. 5. Fragment of the embroidered textile from Bjerringhøj. Photo: Roberto Fortuna, The National Museum of Denmark
Fig. 6. Tabby woven textile with cross decoration from Hvilehøj. Photo: Roberto Fortuna, The National Museum of Denmark

The female burial from Hvilehøj was excavated by the National Museum of Denmark in 1880. The grave goods consisted of a wooden bucket, a wooden casket, a spindle whorl, a pair of scissors, two knives, a whetstone, a bead necklace as well as several well-preserved textiles, including a red tabby, dyed with kermes and decorated with in-woven cross decorations.

No dress fibulae or other dress related accessories that could be connected to the construction of a female dress were found, such as the well-known Viking Age spencer dress. The grave goods in the burials clearly show that both individuals held high status in Viking Age society, but this is not the reason why they were chosen for reconstruction.  The two graves contain the largest and most complete textile fragments recorded from any Danish Viking Age burial. Usually, textiles in Viking Age burials are small – if present at all – and poorly preserved, so the information about textiles and garment types is often very limited. The fortunate preservation conditions in Bjerringhøj and Hvilehøj have ensured that a large range of textile types and decoration features are preserved in these two graves. The presence of silk fabrics, tablet-woven bands in silk, gold and silver threads, as well as fur (see images below) underlines the high status of these two burials, which are clearly different from the everyday clothes known from for instance Haithabu. The two final outfits are therefore not examples of typical Viking Age outfits, but rather of the exceptional capacity and skill of Viking Age textile craftsmanship.

Fig. 7. Silk pendants from Bjerringhøj. Photo: Roberto Fortuna, The National Museum of Denmark
Fig. 8. Fragment with fur and tablet woven bands from Hvilehøj. Photo: Roberto Fortuna, The National Museum of Denmark

Before the reconstruction processes could begin, it was essential for the project that all original finds were thoroughly analyzed by various specialists. Fiber analyses guided the drape and feel of the textiles, and the best match between original fiber and the reconstruction. Dye analyses of more than 60 samples from the two graves guided the selection of colours chosen for the many different clothing items. When no dye results were available, the choice of colour was based on best match with the overall design, adjusted to what colours could have been present under the specific preservation conditions. The archeological and scientific analyses are the base upon which the reconstructions are made. Luckily, many skilled researchers agreed to assist along the way, both from the National Museum of Denmark as well as collaborating institutions in Denmark and abroad.

Reconstructions

Fig. 9. Finished male outfit. Photo: Roberto Fortuna, The National Museum of Denmark

Reconstructions can be made to different qualities, depending on how closely they should resemble the original finds. In Project Part 2, it was decided to focus is on the garment shape and visual details. The production processes were optimized by using modern tools because many different garment types were to be reconstructed. The fibres and other materials used for the reconstructions match the original ones. As the textiles and fur/skin objects from Bjerringhøj and Hvilehøj are so fragmented and only contain few construction details, it was decided to use known Scandinavian and more or less contemporary complete clothing finds as inspiration for the design and pattern of the outfits. The male outfit includes the following items: A beaver fur caftan, a linen tunic, a wool kirtle with embroideries, a belt in wool and silk, a wool belt, a pair of trousers, two silk wrist cuffs and leather boots.

The female outfit includes the following items: A linen dress, a red wool tabby dress with in-woven decorations, a pine marten fur cape with beaver edges and decorations in padded red tabby silk, red samite, a purple 3/1 twill band and a blue silk/silver/gold tablet-woven band and goat skin shoes with the fur still on the outside. The leather boots and the linen undergarments are not based on physical finds, but are made for comfort during wear. No headwear was made for the outfits either.

Fig. 10. Finished female outfit. Photo: Roberto Fortuna, The National Museum of Denmark

Even though the textiles from Bjerringhøj and Hvilehøj are some of the most well-preserved from a Danish Viking Age burial context, there is still quite a gap between the archaeological finds and the finished reconstructed outfits. The analysis results have been a great help and guide for the different production processes and the final design – but also somewhat of a millstone around the neck. Once the results of the fibre and dye analyses were ready, they could not be disputed and had to be incorporated in the design of the outfits, no matter what modern aesthetics would say. Although a lot of research, analysis and craftwork has been put into each outfit, they are possibilities, not final truths. This is important to remember. The details and exquisite execution of Viking Age textile work, as exemplified by the selected finds, is striking and it is clear that materials were valued over working hours. Much experience was needed to produce items of this quality. Finding modern crafts people with the same skills therefore proved to be a challenge, though luckily not impossible. Experts were found in Denmark and the rest of Europe and we are very grateful for the expertise of all the people that became a part of the project. The two outfits will be exhibited in the new Viking Age Exhibition at the National Museum of Denmark from late June 2021

Fig. 11. The finished outfits together. Photo: Roberto Fortuna, The National Museum of Denmark

Part 3: Viking Age Clothing Catalogue

In the third sub-project, the team will review the many different sources linked to Viking Age clothing design, including archaeological, iconographic and written sources. The database will be an online open-access catalogue, presenting data for making interpretations and reconstructions of Viking Age clothing in different societal groups.

In today’s digital world and with the speed of information circulating in various international media, it is important that research institutions provide up-to-date information and help the scientific world as well as the general public understand the importance and use of archaeological finds and materials. Our past is fragmented and incompletely preserved and it is our responsibility as researchers to make sense of this data. This is definitely not an easy task and it is difficult to answer in a single sentence the frequently posed question: What did the Vikings wear? Through the three sub-projects, we aim to provide scientifically well-founded and robust answers with new data to support our textile and clothing interpretations.

Thus, Fashioning the Viking Age will, through its many different parts, give Scandinavian Viking Age research renewed focus and impact, and hopefully, result in a new visual and tactile understanding of textile production and clothing, which can be used in museums, media, research and by the broader public.

Follow the project on the homepage of the National Museum of Denmark: https://natmus.dk/historisk-viden/forskning/forskningsprojekter/fashioning-the-viking-age/ or on Instagram: @fashioningthevikingage

Thank you to Charlotte for telling us about this fantastic project. I can’t wait to hear and see more and, hopefully, get to see the exhibition!

Next month Isabella Rosner will be discussing one of my favourite embroidery techniques, Blackwork, in her post She goes through-stitch with her Black Work.

Contact: If you would like to contact Charlotte about her work or follow the project, please use one of the links below:

Email: charlotte.rimstad@natmus.dk

Media Handle: @fashioningthevikingage

Bibliography:

  1. Rimstad, C. 2009. Vikinger i Uld og Guld. MA thesis at Prehistoric Archaeology, University of Copenhagen. Online publication at: www.dragt.dk/litteratur. (143 pages, incl. catalogue).
  2. Rimstad, C. 2013. Danske vikinger med egen tøjstil? In: Lyngstrøm, H. ed. Vikingetid i Danmark. Seminar at University of Copenhagen 22nd of Feb. 2013. University of Copenhagen. Pages 39-42.
  3. Rimstad, C. 2014. Strikket, skattet, stoppet, smidt ud. Dragtjournalen no. 11, 2014. De danske museers dragtpulje. Online: http://dragt.dk/assets/PDF-filer/dragtjournalen11WEB.pdf
  4. Rimstad, C. 2014. Three CCCC International Workshops. Archaeological Textiles Review, no. 56. Friends of ATR, DNRF CTR. BFI level 1.
  5. Rimstad, C. 2015. Hedebytekstilerne: Ny inspiration til rekonstruktion. In: Lyngstrøm, H (ed.) 2015. Stof til eftertanke – rekonstruktion af vikingetidens dragt, p.31-34. University of Copenhagen.
  6. Rimstad, C. and Ojantakanen, M. 2015. Et udvalg af dragtfund fra den danske vikingetid. Facts & fotos. University of Copenhagen. Online publication at: https://ctr.hum.ku.dk/conferences/2015/DRAGTKOMPENDIUM_til_print.pdf
  7. Dahl, C.L. and Rimstad, C. 2015. A Renaissance Woman’s Silk Coif from a Copenhagen Moat. In: Grömer, K. and F. Pritchard (ed.) 2015: Aspects of the Design, Production and Use of Textiles and Clothing from the Bronze Age to the Early Modern Era. NESAT XII. Archaeolingua Main Series 33. Budapest. Pages 187-192.
  8. Rimstad, C. 2017. Håndtryk fra fortiden. Dragtjournalen no. 13. De danske museers dragtpulje. Online: http://dragt.dk/assets/PDF-filer/Dragtjournalen-rg-11-Nr.-15-2017.pdf
  9. Rimstad, C. 2018. 1600-tallets barnestrømper. SKALK no. 4, August 2018. Page 34.
  10. Rimstad, C. 2019. En komfortabel, evig søvn. SKALK no. 5, October 2019. Pages 12-15.
  11. Rimstad, C., U. Mannering & M.L.S. Jørkov (forthcoming) Lost and Found: Viking Age human bones and textiles from Bjerringhøj (Mammen), Denmark. Antiquity. 17 pages. BFI level 2.
  12. Rimstad, C. (forthcoming). Bedding Equipment in Scandinavian Viking Age Burials. In: Andersson Strand (ed.). Household Textiles. University of Copenhagen. 8 pages.
  13. Mannering, U., I. Vanden Berghe & C. Rimstad (forthcoming). New dye analysis of Danish Viking Age textiles. Journal of Archaeological Science. BFI level 2.
  14. Rimstad, C. (forthcoming). Bog body coiffures. In: Mannering, U. & M. Gleba. Designed for Life and Death. Oxbow Books. 20 pages.

Further Reading:

Brandt, L. Ø., Mannering, U. 2020, Taxonomic identification of Danish Viking Age shoes and skin objects by ZooMS (Zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry), Journal of Proteomics 231, 104038. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jprot.2020.104038

Iversen, M., Näsman, U. & Vellev, J. Mammen. Grav, kunst og samfund i vikingetid. Jysk Arkæologisk Selskab.

Mannering, U. 2018, Fashioning the Viking Age, Archaeological Textiles Review 60, 114-117.

Mannering, U. & Rimstad, C. (eds.). Forthcoming. Hvilehøj and Bjerringhøj. Two Viking Age Graves Revisited. Jysk Arkæologisk Selskab.

Rimstad, C., Mannering, U., Jørkov, M.L.S. & Kanstrup, M. Forthcoming. Lost and found: Viking Age human bones and textiles from Bjerringhøj (Mammen), Denmark. Antiquity.

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