Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Ritual Headwear From the Stone Age

Reconstruction of Mesolithic headdress
(Photo:  Jonathan Cardy, Wikimedia Commons)
One type of clothing that is generally agreed to be important (even by scholars who are not historical costume specialists) is clothing used for ritual, especially religious ritual.

Popular Archaeology, an online archaeology magazine, posted an article last year about the process of reconstructing a type of Stone Age headpiece made from a deer's skull. You can read the article here, and can download the formal research paper from PLOS ONE here.  Though only limited information about the manufacture of these headdresses was gleaned, the result is a tantalizing glimpse into the lives of early humans.

Archaeologists at the University of York have been studying 24 deer-skull headpieces originally found in 1891 at an Early Stone Age site called Star Carr, in Yorkshire, England. These 24 headpieces represent about 90% of the known deer-skull headpieces found in Europe from that time period.

The analysis of the finds revealed physical evidence that the process for creating one of these headdresses must have gone roughly as follows:
  1. Damp clay was packed around the parts of the skull that were not to be removed, and the head was placed in a bed of embers.  As the clay cracked and fell off, it was replaced with new clay and the process continued until the unprotected areas of the head were charred.  
  2. The skull was hammered lightly around what would be the front of the headpiece to shape the opening, and harder to remove bony sections that weren't desirable for its new purpose.
  3. The base of the skull was opened, and the brain removed, cutting the meninges in the process.  (The resulting cut marks are visible on the surviving headdresses.)
The rest of the process could not be perfectly recreated, because it could not be discerned whether or how much of the skin was removed.  In addition, much of the antler had removed from the skull, and it is not clear when this occurred. At least two possible theories might explain what happened. One is that the unwanted antler had been removed while the headdress was being made, possibly to make it easier to handle during manufacture, or to make it easier to wear.  This theory is viable because Stone Age red deer were larger than modern deer, and it might have been necessary to remove most of the antler to make the headdress wearable.

The other theory is that the extra antler was removed after the headdress had been used and was being discarded, so that the pieces of antler could be used for other things, such as "barbed projectile tips for hunting and fishing."  The cuts found on the headdresses were of such a shape as to indicate that the pieces removed from the headdress could easily have been reused for other objects.  Unfortunately, the analysis could not confirm whether the antler pieces had been removed before or after the headdress was used, and thus it could not be established which theory was correct.

If the latter theory is correct, though, it suggests an attitude about a piece of clothing used for religious ritual that is vastly different from the Christian one of reverence and preservation.  Perhaps Stone Age humans treated religious paraphernalia as disposable, or alterable without any potential sacrilege or consequence after the god had departed.  It's evidence of culture apart from the headdress itself, and that's what makes it exciting, and potentially useful.  We can only hope for future finds with better evidence of the headpiece creation process. 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

A Viking Age Weaving Sword

Anyone who has spent time researching the history of clothing and textile production will know that weavers In the early Middle Ages used an object, called a weaving sword, in the weaving process.  A weaving sword is a roughly sword-shaped object made from wood or bone, that was used to beat each row of the weaving so that it would be solidly in place.  It typically had a point that could be used for moving threads to make particular weaving patterns.  

Because weaving swords were made from wood or bone, few of them survive, and the surviving ones are rarely complete.  

But recently, a completely intact wooden weaving sword was found in the city of Cork, in south-western Ireland.  An article about the find, complete with pictures, can be read on the Archaeology News Network site, here.

The weaving sword was made from yew and is about 30 cm (a little under one foot) long, and carved with Viking motifs that indicate that it was made in the late 11th century.  A wooden thread-winder was also found at the site.  The dig that uncovered those items took place on the site of a brewery, where construction is planned.  It is now unclear when construction will proceed on the site.

This weaving sword is interesting because it has a "blade" shaped rather like a period knife blade, with a clip point.   I might wonder if it was actually a practice weapon or even an older child's toy, except for the thread winder found with it.

Thanks to Carolyn Priest-Dorman, from whom I learned about the find.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Viking Bead Resource

Viking age beads from Lund, Sweden,
in the Lunds universitets historiska museum
Photo by Wolfgang Sauber (Wikimedia Commons)
I recently found an excellent blog, written by an archaeologist whose primary interest is the Viking age.  The blog is written by Matthew Delvaux and it's called Text and Trowel.

Matthew is a PhD candidate, and he is concentrating his research on slavery during the Viking age. This subject requires substantial research with regard to Viking age production and trade, and as a result he has spent a non-trivial amount of time amassing information about Viking beads.  That is what piqued my interest in his research.

If you are interested in full color photographs of Viking Age beads with informative captions, I don't have to encourage you further; you will find Matthew's blog well worth your time whether you read anything beyond the captions on the featured photos.  As further enticement to the less-bead-oriented, here's an example of information I learned from Text and Trowel.

In this post, Matthew analyzed over 1,400 Viking age glass beads by color to try to ascertain patterns that might tell things about the way the Vikings thought about color, and about their color preferences.  In doing so, he used the Munsell color system. which defines each color according to three attributes:  1) hue (i.e., which basic color, such as red, yellow, green, etc., the particular color falls into); 2) value (how light or dark the color is); and 3) chroma (how drab or brilliant the color is).

It's worth reading the actual post for Matthew's observations.  His overall conclusion is that the Vikings preferred blues that were deep and pure in tone, but some of his intermediate conclusions are even more interesting:
  • Beads in dark blue shades were the most numerous single category of the beads studied, and  were the most similar in hue (i.e., without great differences in hue/value/chroma);
  • There are two looser grouping of colors that we'd think of as blues/greens:  a set of blues that  are brighter and lighter, and a grouping of greenish blues, including shades we'd now call  turquoise;
  • There were two groupings of reddish colors.  One corresponds to the oranges/ambers/reds colors of natural amber, while the other seems to be almost a catch-all for reds and yellows that don't correspond well to colors that amber can have.  
In any event, Text and Trowel is well worth following for those interested in Viking age costume and material culture.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Bronze Age Zipper?

The video to the right of this post is a recent Internet discovery of mine.  It shows a modern replica of Bronze Age sword belt and purse,  found in a grave at Hvidegården,  Denmark.

Ørjan Engedal, a professor at the University of Bergen and an archaeologist who is also an artisan, made a bronze sword with a scabbard, a small leather bag, and a sword belt, based upon the Hvidegården find.  The bag, or pouch or purse or whatever you want to call it, has an unusual closure.  The closure is a series of closely-spaced, alternating leather loops through which a long bronze pin is thrust.  The result looks much like a modern zipper though the method of closure is simpler in that no slider is used.

The Hvidegården grave was actually discovered in 1845; a brief article about it in Danish may be found here. Apparently the grave is thought to be one of a shaman or wizard, based upon the odd contents of the "zipper" pouch; they include (as best I can make out from Google Translate's English rendition of the article) a razor, a small wooden cube, a seashell from the Mediterranean, and part of the jaw bone of a squirrel.

It seems to me that the existence of this pouch is some support for the position that "there is nothing new under the sun."  In other words, the idea of a zipper-type closing certainly was possible before the zipper as we know it was invented; it probably did not become an acceptable closure because, with Bronze Age technology, it was fiddly and awkward to make and a bit awkward to use.  A technology spreads when the infrastructure necessary to support the manufacturing process and the materials needed are readily available and result in an easy-to-use product that fills a common need.  That is as true for clothing and bags as it is for computers and cars.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A Theory About Spiral Tubes

About a week ago, I passed along a link to an article on about the historical use of tiny bronze spiral tubes as a clothing decoration.

My husband, who reads my blog posts via Google Plus even when they are extremely esoteric, found the idea of decorating one's clothing with woven-in metal bits prone to tarnish intriguing.  "How could you possibly clean them?" he asked me.

I observed that such ornamentation was almost certainly confined to one's best clothing, which would be seldom worn and carefully stored.  But he pointed out that likely over time the rings would tarnish badly, anyway, unless they were carefully cleaned from time to time, and they certainly could not be removed to do so.

For some reason, I remarked that spiral-ornamented garments were made from wool, and that perhaps the natural lanolin in the wool helped prevent tarnishing.

That's when my husband came out with the following theory.

Perhaps the owners of such spiral-laden garments buffed the spirals, from time-to-time, with lanolined wool fabric or fleece.  Such a coating would be much more likely to protect the tubes from tarnish, and would not damage the fabric to which they were affixed.

The beauty of this theory, to me, is that its plausibility could easily be tested.  Make a garment (or even ornament a sample piece of wool) with spiral tubes.  Brush the tubes with a lanolined cloth, and store.  Make a control garment, or sample, and store it separately, without touching the tubes with lanolin.  Check both at intervals (every 6 months, say, for a year or two), and see whether the lanolin makes a difference to the amount of tarnish on the tubes.

That sounds like a great idea for a short paper.  I should perform the experiment and write it up some time.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Spiral Tubes

From Katrin Kania's blog I recently learned that there is a good, publicly available (but short) article on about the use of tiny, spiral bronze tubes to decorate clothing.

In general, though the time frame when such ornaments were used varies widely by region, the countries that have used this technique are those around the Baltic Sea. The article itself may be found here.  

Although the text is brief and general, there are some wonderful photographs accompanying the article of surviving finds with spiral tube decoration, some of which I have not seen elsewhere. This article and its photos are particularly recommended to those interested in Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian, or Finnish clothing of the early to late Middle Ages.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

More Short Tutorials--Early Period

It's no secret to any of my readers that my favorite costume interests lie with the early period, which I think of as from the dawn of humanity until the high Middle Ages.  Today's crop of tutorials consists entirely of projects appropriate to early period costume.
  • From Jenn Culler's blog there are two simple and fun projects.  
    • First, a tutorial on how to make a peplos dress that hangs more appealingly than a pinned sheet of fabric (what's called a "bog dress" in the SCA). The technique is not documentably historical, but also cannot be ruled out on the basis of archaeological finds. 
    • Second, there is a tutorial for making a Bronze Age Dress based upon a design suggested in this article by Karina Grömer, Lise Bender Jørgensen and Helga Rösel-Mautendorfer. The article discusses different ways to recreate the clothing of a woman buried in a Middle Bronze Age grave in Winklarn, Austria.  (Other potential reconstructions of the Winklarn woman's costume are suggested in the article, for those who might be interested.)
  • From opusanglicanum there's a tutorial on how to stitch the acanthus motif from the Mammen find.   
  • From Ragnvaeig's LiveJournal there's a tutorial on how to stitch the linked circles motif from the Oseberg ship find.
  • And, finally, from Anna's blog, Anachronistic and Impulsive, there is good information on how to make ancient Roman garb for both men and woman. Note too the current post where Anna seeks donations because she and her husband are in financial difficulty due to unexpected calls on their savings. 
All of these projects would be good to work on during a hot summer, if it is summer where you live.  Enjoy exploring them!