Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #22

This month I am really pleased to introduce you to Ulla Moilanen, who is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. She has a wide expertise of Viking Age artefacts from inhumation burials dating from Late Iron Age to Post-Medieval period and she has undertaken fieldwork. Ulla is also interested in interdisciplinary research. In this post Ulla tells us a little about her PhD research and how it can help us understand fragmentary remaining textiles found in inhumation burials.

Please Note: This post contains two photographs of archaeologically excavated skeletons from inhumation burials.

Detailed study of grave contexts helps to identify decomposed textiles and wrappings

Organic material, including bones and textiles, are often poorly preserved in Early Medieval inhumation burials in Finland. This poses challenges for the study of graves and their contexts. In my PhD research I applied archaeothanatology to analyse the grave contexts of Medieval burials in Finland. Archaeothanatology (anthropologie de terrain) is a study of funerary deposits developed in France over the past three decades. The method helps to identify which aspects of a burial are the result of human activity and which are the result of natural processes. The method relies strongly on taphonomy and an understanding of biological processes from death to skeletonization in different environments. Soft tissues and ligaments decompose in approximately similar order and fashion depending on the burial environment. Their decay and disappearance will eventually affect the anatomical connections of the skeleton, as well as the positions of the artefacts touching the corpse. The decomposition processes create movement either within the volume of the body or outside of it, depending on the burial context. The movement is more “free” if the decomposition happens in an open space / void created by a coffin or another structure. On the other hand, the movement can be limited by wrappings, a narrow coffin, or soil mass around the corpse if buried without a coffin. The method leads, for example, to the identification of primary burials from secondary deposits, simultaneous multiple burials from collective burials, original burial position, corpse treatment (such as wrapping), and grave structures (such as fully decomposed organic furnishings).

Fig. 1. Late Medieval shrouded burial of a child at Hämeenkoski Pyhän Laurin kirkon raunio. Photo: Virva Lompolo/University of Turku.

In my research I found out that the most significant difference between the Early Medieval and Medieval graves in Finland is the use of wrappings, especially tight wrappings. The latter were identified only from Medieval and possibly Late Medieval burials – a clear indication of the use of shrouds. However, not all Medieval or Late Medieval individuals were buried in shrouds. For example, graves 3/1999 and 10–11/1999 at Hämeenkoski Pyhän Laurin kirkon raunio (St. Lawrence church ruin) were radio carbon (14C) dated to the 16th century. Based on the burial positions, all these individuals have been buried without a coffin, and none of them have been wrapped tightly. In the case of burials 10–11/1999 it is even possible to determine that the individuals were likely buried in their clothes.

Graves 10–11/1999 at Hämeenkoski is a 16th century double burial. Both individuals have been osteologically determined as males. The radiuses and the ulnae are overlapping, and based on their position, the individual on the right has been placed in the ground first. The hand bones between the individuals seem articulated. Because these bones lose their articulations quickly, it can be concluded that the individuals were interred simultaneously. The decomposition happened in a filled space, i.e., the burial was made without a coffin. This is indicated by the articulated finger bones and the left individual’s pelvis and rib cage. The individual on the right has, however, a flattened rib cage and a partially flattened pelvis. Also, the clavicles (collar bones) have moved into a vertical position. The upper body of this individual was likely covered with rigid material – possibly thick fabric or leather – that created a void around the torso. There are no constrictions, which means the individuals were not wrapped. It is possible that the men were buried in their everyday clothes.

Fig. 2. Graves 10–11/1999 at Hämeenkoski. Photo: Virva Lompolo/University of Turku.

Another interesting case from Southwest Finland can possibly be determined as a double burial of an adult and an infant – even though no skeletons are preserved.

Yläne Anivehmaanmäki is a Viking Age inhumation cemetery, excavated in the 1950s. Grave number 47 has a large grave pit, enough to accommodate an adult individual – and based on the dark soil coloured by the decomposition fluids, it belonged to an adult. The preservation of bones at Anivehmaanmäki is extremely poor, and they – along with the textile fragments – have been preserved only as fragments in contact with bronze objects.

Fig. 3. How can the grave 47 at Yläne Anivehmaanmäki cemetery be identitied as a double burial of an adult an infant when there are no bones preserved? Grave plan by Anna-Liisa Hirviluoto, 1957.

Even in graves with no preserved bones, there may be evidence of a decomposed coffin. For example, there may be nails in the ground or dark colouring from the boards of a decomposed coffin. The decomposition fluids may also have stained the area of a coffin darker than the rest of the burial pit. Grave 47 lacks all these features, so it seems that the burial was made without a coffin. This means that soil slowly replaced the decaying tissues. The movement of the artefacts had not been extensive, so based on their locations, some assumptions on their original places can be made. The artefacts in the grave are considered typically female. Near the head-end of the grave, 28 glass beads were found. They had likely been hanging on the neck of the adult individual. A little further below them, two spiral arm rings were found. The location is approximately at the chest of the adult individual, but both arm rings are small. Their diameter is only 39 mm, making them too small for an adult to wear. The arm rings were found close to each other, almost in a vertical position. Remains of a thick woollen textile were preserved on top of the arm rings, and the textile was covered with birch bark. When the excavation continued, an animal pendant was found a little further from the arm rings.

Fig. 4. The artefacts in grave 47 at Yläne Anivehmaanmäki. Remains of woollen fabric and birch bark were preserved on the bronze jewellery. Drawing by Anna-Liisa Hirviluoto, 1957.

Based on the organic remains and the artefacts, it seems likely that the textile on the lower side of the animal pendant originates from the clothes the adult individual was wearing. There has possibly been an infant equipped with small arm rings at the chest of the individual. The fabric on top of the animal pendant and the small arm rings would originate from the woollen cloth in which the infant was wrapped. Finally, both corpses were covered with birch bark before the grave was filled. This would explain the find locations of textile and birch bark. Birch bark was on top of the fabric covering the child, but not on the jewellery that was lay underneath the child.

This analysis based on the objects and the organic remains is supported by the only bone fragments found from the grave. They are poorly preserved remains inside the small spiral arm rings described above and a finger ring found at the mid-section of the grave. The bones inside the arm rings are arm bones, and they indeed belong to an infant. The almost vertical position of the arm rings could be explained by the position of a new-born infant’s arms: they are naturally flexed and bent at the elbows.

Fig 5. The small arm rings from Anivehmaanmäki grave 47 still had arm bones of an infant inside them. The naturally flexed arm position of a newborn could explain the vertical position of the items when found. Photo: Ulla Moilanen.

The analysis of grave contexts thus makes it possible, for example, to identify different practices and rituals, and even the presence of different textiles in the grave. The analyses may also influence how textile fragments found from graves are interpreted. Textile fragments preserved on top of bronze jewellery have often been interpreted as evidence of wrapping the body or even as the presence of shrouds. Also, animal hairs found from graves may have been interpreted as a sign of wrapping the corpse in pelts. The graves 1/1972 and 2/1972 at Ylöjärvi Mikkola contained remains of animal hair, which could be interpreted as the remains of wrapping material. However, when the burial positions are studied carefully, neither of these burials show evidence of tight wrapping. A comprehensive study of burial contexts is therefore important from many perspectives and benefits both the study of burial practices and the study of textiles.

I would like to thank Ulla for letting us glimpse into this fascinating world. Even this brief overview shows us how informative and useful surviving textile and their accurate documentation during discovery can be in telling us more about the people who were buried with them, and their wider culture.

Contact: If you would like to contact Ulla or follow her on social media, please see her Twitter profile below:

Twitter: @umoilanen


The text is based on (and is mostly from) my PhD, which is available here: https://www.utupub.fi/handle/10024/152659 All references can be found from there.

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