Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles 16

Welcome to this autumnal blog post. As I type, the weather is beginning to turn so, if you’re in the northern hemisphere, grab a hot drink and hunker down. If you’re in the southern hemisphere, grab a cool drink and sit out in the spring sun. Its time for our next installment of Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles.

In this blog post I am honoured to be able to introduce one of the experts on archaeological leather, Marquita Volken. Marquita has been working with archaeological leather from all periods in Europe for over 30 years. In 2003 she started the Shoe Museum in Lausanne with her husband, Serge. The museum houses the many reconstructions Marquita has made, as well as the tools and techniques from Prehistory to the 17th century.  Her most recent publication is ‘Covering the Blade, Archaeological leather sheaths and scabbards’ (2021 SPA Uitgevers), which completed the Dordrecht archaeological leather trilogy started by Olaf Goubitz. Because the Covid crisis freed up time, Marquita is currently completing the companion book to Archaeological Footwear: Development of shoe patterns and styles from Prehistory till the 1600’s (2014 Spa Uitgevers), about mules, pattens and sandals. Her favourite period is late Antiquity to Early Middle Ages, which will be covered in a new publication about the Merovingian finds from Saint-Denis FR, hopefully appearing in 2023.

Reconstruction as a research technique for archaeological leather objects

Making reconstructions of the archaeological objects has been part of how I learn about archaeological leather from the very beginning. In 1992, I had the amazing chance of studying under Olaf Goubitz at the State service for Archaeological Investigation at Amersfoort, Netherlands. Olaf used drawings as well as paper and leather reconstructions of the material he studied. As a ‘final exam’ he gave me pieces of a late 18th century shoe with a seemingly impossible sole/upper construction – a two thread seam stitched through the sole, mid sole, insole and margins – but how could it have been stitched inside the toe where fingers cannot reach? The only way to understand it was to make a copy using exactly the same techniques as the original. After some research, I realised it could only have been made with draw stitch, where one of the threads is pierced by the other and used to draw the thread through the holes, allowing the impossible – to reach and sew the toe box.

Shoe lasts from the 17th-century ship, Vasa: https://www.vasamuseet.se/en/collections/find-in-focus/shoe-lasts

Reconstructions can take various forms, such as a drawing of the complete object based on the evidence provided by the fragments. Logically, the object was once complete and a drawing can show how it might have looked. It is easy enough to just draw a line indicating the shoe sole, the upper and the fastening method. Yet a drawing hardly addresses the skills, pattern cutting and technical construction required to make the object. Making a physical reconstruction means the technical information must be spot on, from the correct last (3D moulds used to shape footwear), cutting pattern, tools, sewing techniques and leather type. The goal is not to make a copy of the shoe or object but to reproduce exactly the techniques and traces seen on the archaeologically recovered leather fragments. This is what makes reconstructions a powerful research tool. Once an object has been reconstructed, all of the technical information is then useful for examining other leather fragments. Understanding how stitching is made and actually sewing it provides diagnostic and predictive tools when observing and documenting even the poorest of leather fragments. Understanding how a cutting pattern was generated allows a complete vision of the object- even if very little has survived.

Archaeological reconstruction techniques encompass a wide range of skill sets.  The principle use of reconstructions is to complete the understanding of the objects, their construction and original appearance.  In the first phase this can be done from drawings of the fragments, and in a second phase, making the object from new leather. By piecing together copies of the drawings of the fragments, the original object is safe from over handling. The paper pattern provides a first volumetric reconstruction as well as being a predictive tool for determining the size and shape of missing pieces. These reconstructions, based on paper copies of the fragments, have been nicknamed ‘Ghost shoes’ because of their white colour and being only a shadow of the former object. Reconstructions in new leather require mastering ancient shoemaking skills, keeping in mind that an shoemaker’s apprenticeship took between five and seven years.

Archaeological leather finds from the Early Middle Ages are by far the most challenging since there are very little remains from only a few sites. The important collections are the Merovingian graves at Saint-Denis in France, the tombs from Cologne and Augsburg in Germany, and Mound 1 at Sutton Hoo in the United Kingdom. The condition of the leather finds from these sites is complicated due to the excavation techniques of the time (early to mid 20th century), severe fragmentation and post excavation conservation attempts.  The finds from these sites were examined, recorded and published with varying degrees of coherence. Because material from this period is exceedingly rare, comparison with other complete objects and thus to a certain degree, assurance of a correct interpretation through comparative material, was hardly possible at the time. Given the difficult nature of the finds and the primitive research techniques during the early 20th century, many of the objects were not fully understood. A further complication is the fragile nature of leather conserved in tombs.

metrial from the tomb of Queen Arnegunde buried between 580 and 590. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (National Archeology Museum) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi

Metal objects from Queen Arnegunde’s tomb (buried between 580 & 590).
Photo ©RMN-Grand Palais (National Archeology Museum) / Jean-Gilles Berizzi. https://archeologie.culture.fr/saint-denis/en/queen-arnegunde-510520-580590

Though the beautiful metal work from the Merovingian tombs at Saint-Denis was immediately cleaned, conserved and displayed in the Louvre, the organic materials were put aside and forgotten about until recently. A book containing the many specialists’ reports is planned for 2023. The textiles have been studied by Antoinette Rast and the silk by Sophie Derosiers, with impressive results in reconstructing the garments.  Some of the leather objects were available during the research project, which started in 2000, but the greater part were only recovered from storage in 2017. Some of the leather finds had been conserved, including using a technique of pouring acrylic resin over the pieces, thus encasing them in a solid, now opaque, block. In the first phase, all of the fragments were documented by drawings. These drawings were photocopied and used to make ‘ghost reconstructions’.  The fragments were consulted again in order to resolve problems, and a second series of paper reconstructions made. This process was repeated until a pattern could be made for attempting a reconstruction. In general, the first reconstruction in new leather will not be a success, but will lead back to a more informed examination of the original fragments, which in turn will make a more precise pattern and reconstruction.

Making reconstructions is often a voyage of discovery. The wide belt worn by Queen Arnegunde was made of thin goat and calf leather and embroidered with silk in a technique called ‘Saumur’ in French. The leather has rows of slits with a silk thread tightly pulled through forming tiny tunnels creating a up/down pattern on the leather. The first attempt to make this type of embroidery failed because an artificial thread was used. The leather must be damp when worked and only silk is strong enough when wet to withstand the force needed to pull the stitch into shape. Various theories have been proposed for making this type of leather embroidery including metal gears, stamping tools and moulds, but making the reconstructions showed the actual technique required only silk thread, chisel point awl and a bone folder.

Drawing of the shoe fragments from Sepulture 49, Queen Arnegunde
Reconstruction drawing of the cross gartering and shoes, Queen Arnegunde

Even if only fragments survive of a shoe, it was once a complete and functional object. The shoes worn by Queen Arnegunde were initially published as type of boot with an open instep. The harsh conservation methods concealed the blind pressed decorations as well as the decorative silk seam, both of these surface decorations were important in making the graphic and physical reconstructions. The most useful element for the reconstruction was the observation of the direction of the hair follicles on the grain side of the leather. Each animal has a specific pattern of follicle distribution so even if there are no remaining worked edges or stitches on the fragment to indicate its placement on the object, it can be oriented in relation to the other fragments by the follicle pattern. Queen Arnegunde’s shoes used a ‘J’ shaped cutting pattern, which for parity, has the left shoe upper placed on one side of the backbone line of the hide and the right shoe upper placed on the opposite side, making a mirror image. This results in a mirrored image of the follicle placement, allowing the fragments of the right and left shoes to be identified. The first reconstruction of the shoes relied on straight design lines common to European shoes, and the first pair made from leather showed this was a mistake. Further attempts at making the pattern showed the design lines were actually curves, making a complex yet simple geometric pattern. The same techniques were used for studying more pairs of shoes from the Merovingian tombs at Saint-Denis, as well as leather covered boxes, leather cuffs, belts and the assemblage from a young man’s tomb of a bag, seax scabbard and a knife sheath.

Paper mock ups of the Sutton Hoo bags on the full scale in situ photograph.

Quita Mould, Esther Cameron and I undertook the reassessment of the Sutton Hoo Mound 1 leather because we each had questions about the published interpretations.  Repeated comments in the publication by  Katherine East, the first researcher to study the leather objects, showed she also had misgivings about the proposed identifications. An outside expert, John Thornton had been brought in as a consultant and East somehow felt obliged to retain his proposed but erroneous identifications. The reassessment project was initially concerned only with the footwear, but during the ensuing research it became clear that all of the leather fragments had to be examined in order to separate the shoes from the other objects, which were actually front flap bags and not footwear.  Similar to the finds from Saint-Denis, various conservations techniques had been used on the fragments hindering identification of the surface features, so follicle direction on grain side of the leather was hardly useful on about one third of the fragments. All of the fragments were drawn and photographed in order to limit handling but also so the research could be carried out without having to take up space and time at the British Museum where the finds are stored.

Reconstruction drawing of the in situ photograph

The two key elements for the reconstructions were the in situ photo of the leather group under the great silver dish and the layers of textiles and flock still adhering to some of the fragments.  Drawings and photographs of the fragments were matched to what was visible in the in situ photograph, which sounds simple but took three years of research. Countless paper models were made incorporating the fragments and crosschecked with photographs of the fragments. The layers of textile and flock encrusted to certain leather surfaces provided a micro stratigraphy showing how the fragments had been deposited.  In this case, the paper models were used to make sense of the placement situation of the leather pieces under the great dish, the textile layers adhering to the inside of the bags showed they had been deposited with the front flaps folded around the back of the body of the bags, and placed on top of the pair of shoes. Colour coding of the textile layers also provided a method for clearly visualising their placement. The various versions of the paper reconstructions underwent a great deal of handling and sometimes were composed of more cellotape than paper!

Reconstruction in new leather of the Sutton Hoo shoes
(version 6)

The most recent reconstructions as research are the pair of shoes and a child’s shoe from the mid seventh century site at Oegstgeest. Although the shoes were relatively complete, the fastening methods defied identification. Carol van Driel-Murray requested reconstructions with the hope that the fastening method could then be understood. In this case, a paper model was insufficient and only through having a reconstruction in new leather could the fastenings be determined. Having a complete shoe in hand, it became obvious how the laces must have fastened since the options are limited by the three dimensional model.  After the reconstructions were made, the original fragments were consulted, showing that surface details like grain wear and folds along the leg confirmed the lacing method. Additionally the reconstructions showed the sole was highly cupped around the sole/upper margin, requiring a sewing technique working from the upper’s edges and not from the flesh side of the sole as is usual in later mediaeval footwear.

The child’s shoe from Oegstgeest NL, drawing, original fragments and reconstruction in new leather

I want to thank Marquita for this really insightful post. She has shown how important reconstructions are in developing both our understanding and knowledge of excavated objects, practically when they are fragmentary. As many of you will know, this is something I completely endorse!

Next month Sarah Hitchens will be discussing some of her work on Egyptian textiles and textile making tools. See you then!

Contact: If you would like to contact Marquita or follow on social media her work, please use one of the links below:

Email: gentle.craft@vtxnet.ch

Facebook: gentle.craft@vtxnet.ch

Address: Gentle Craft Center and shoe museum

Rue du rôtillion 10 CH-1002 Lausanne


Driel-Murray, Carol van. ‘Merovingian Leather and Footwear from Oegstgeest (2010-2014)’. In Oegstgeest A Riverine Settlement in the Early Medieval World System, edited by J. de Bruin, C. Bakels, and F. Theuws, 336–41. Merovingian Archaeology in the Low Countries 7. Bonn: Dr. Rudolf Habelt GmbH, 2021.

Volken, Marquita. Archaeological Footwear, Developement of Shoe Patterns and Styles from Prehistory till the 1600’s. Zwolle: Spa-uitgevers, 2014.

———. ‘Un Nouveau Regard Sur Le Costume d’Arégonde’. Histoire et Images Médiévales, 2009.

Volken, Marquita, Quita Mould, and Esther Cameron. ‘A Reassessment of Leatherwork from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial’. Society of Antiquaries of London Journal, 2020. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquaries-journal/article/reassessment-of-leatherwork-from-the-sutton-hoo-ship-burial/8C561AA5B5A47350FBE3B3BC112ACD41/share/f09599607c3e7a35a7b20417c0a85ef36c6d6017.

Volken, Marquita, and Serge Volken. ‘Von Lederfetzen und Geisterschuhen, Archäologische Lederfunde vom Petersberg in Basel’. In Jahresbericht 2000, 11–15. Basel: Historisches Museum, Basel, 2001.

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