Spindle Whorls and Loom Weights

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Loom weights (back) and spindle whorls (front). Image © York Archaeological Trust

 

DO you think you know the difference between a spindle whorl and a loom weight? It is surprising how many people think they do – but are WRONG! In over 15 years of teaching about small finds in York, England, I have found that confusion over identifying these objects has come up frequently, so here is a brief examination of these two types of artefact, both used by women in textile working; hopefully, by the end, the critical differences between these objects will be clear, and you will able to confidently label these objects correctly! If you want to see the real things, do visit JORVIK Viking Centre https://www.jorvikvikingcentre.co.uk where examples of these objects, and of many others involved in textile production, can be seen on display.

Spindle Whorls

Prior to the development of the spinning wheel (which probably appeared for the first time in England around the 13th century), hand spinning was used to twist together raw fibres to form yarn in preparation for weaving. This was carried out using a wooden spindle, a rod which tapered to each end; the ends were sometimes notched to secure the yarn in place.

A circular whorl was slotted on towards one end of the spindle, and acted as a weight to assist the spindle’s rotation; with the end of a roll of the raw fibres attached to the other end, the spindle was spun around, and the strands of fibre were pulled and twisted by hand into a spun thread. This could be done either while standing with the spindle hanging vertically, or sitting and rolling the spindle against the hip.

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Hand spinning using a spindle with whorl. Images © York Archaeological Trust

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This complete spindle from Coppergate has notches, and rather unusually has been decorated.  Image © York Archaeological Trust

Spindle whorls have been found in considerable numbers in excavations in York. They are made of various materials including animal bone and stone, and less commonly, fired clay and lead alloy, and range from being crudely shaped with a knife to being turned and decorated. Roman whorls tend to be disc-shaped, and slightly smaller than whorls recovered from later sites in the city such as the Anglian settlement at 46-54 Fishergate, and the Anglo-Scandinavian settlement at 16-22 Coppergate. These whorls dating from the 8th – 13th centuries A.D. are also sometimes discoidal or cylindrical, but may also have hemispherical or biconical profiles. The stone whorls were often made of local stone, while the bone whorls would be formed from the domed end of a cattle femur which was cut off and then had a hole drilled through. Spindle whorls of this period appear to have a diameter range of 3 – 4.5cm, and a weight range of 4 – 63gms, suggesting the production of yarns for a range of fine and heavier fabrics.

 

bone whorl ceramic better

 

 

 

 

stone whorl

 

Spindle whorls from Coppergate, made of fired clay (top left), animal bone (right),  and stone (bottom left). All images © York Archaeological Trust

Loom Weights

The loom weights which have been recovered from excavations in York have all been associated with the warp weighted loom, which, as the name implies, used weights in its operation. This form of loom was extremely long lived, apparently originating in the Neolithic period, but in York evidence of its use comes particularly from the 8th – 10th centuries A.D. from the sites at Fishergate and Coppergate.

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Weaving using a warp-weighted loom Coppergate. Image © York Archaeological Trust

The warp weighted loom in use at both of these settlement sites would have been made of wood; two uprights were leant up against a wall, and these were joined together by a lower shed bar or cross-beam. An upper beam or roller connected the uprights at the top, and it was to this beam that the vertical ‘warp’ threads were attached. The loom weights were tied onto the warp threads and hung down to either side of the lower bar, keeping the threads under tension.loom weight 1

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A selection of loom weights from sites in York – the weight seen below has been burnt in antiquity.  

All images © York Archaeological Trust

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The form of the weights is annular or ‘bun-shaped’ with a central perforation, the shape used from the 5th – 10th centuries A.D. They were simply made by hand, with a piece of local brick clay formed into a sub disc shape and the central hole pushed through – thumb prints are sometimes visible on the weights themselves – before being fired. The recovery of complete loom weights is rare; they are more frequently found as fragments, but even so they are a much less common find than spindle whorls. The range of weights recorded for complete loom weights found across England at this period is 100 – 1460gms, with most being in the range of 150-550gms. The examples from York seen here are in the range 360 – 440gms, and the diameters range from c.8.5 – 12cm.

SO, now you should be able to tell the difference between these two types of weights used in textile working! To recap: the larger and heavier ones are loom weights which are annular, ceramic, with a diameter of c.10cm and a weight usually of 150-550 gms. The smaller lighter weights are spindle whorls which are also annular, and sometimes ceramic but more commonly made of stone or animal bone, and occasionally of lead alloy; they are smaller than the loom weights, with a diameter of 3 – 4.5cm, and a maximum weight of less than 100 gms. Despite these differences, what both types of object can do is to remind us how widespread and important textile production was in the past.

 

With thanks to York Archaeological Trust for permission to use their images, and in particular to Rebecca Sampson and Louis Carter for their assistance

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Recent Work for Jorvik

I am delighted to continue a close relationship with the York Archaeological Trust and Jorvik, and recent work has included small research projects on Writing and Literacy, and on Games and Recreation in the Medieval Period, both of which incorporate some of the fascinating artefacts in the York Archaeological Trust’s collections. There are going to be some displays on these themes at Barley Hall, York in 2018  – in the meantime, you can see the reports online.

http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Writing-in-the-Medieval-Period-1.pdf

https://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Games-and-Recreation-c-AD1400-1700.pdf

And look out for more reports coming soon!

 

Jorvik Viking Centre Re-opened

I am delighted that the Jorvik Viking Centre has re-opened following the terrible floods of 2015, and it is better than ever! I was privileged to be asked to contribute to the Discover Coppergate gallery which features video, photos and personal memories of working at the world famous dig which ran from 1976-1982; I dug there in the summer of 1979 just before going off to university to study archaeology and history. The ride around Viking Age York has been updated and extended, and the new spacious and light artefact hall shows off many of the amazing artefacts found during the excavations.

Definitely worth a visit!

http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/2017/04/jorvik-viking-centre-brings-the-vikings-to-life-in-york-once-again/

 

Vikings Vikings!

I have recently been to Denmark, a long held intention of mine, and went to some wonderful archaeological sites, with emphasis on the Vikings! I loved Roskilde, where we spent all day and had a go at being members of a Viking ship crew (definitely need to improve my rowing!).

Roskilde Viking Ship Museum

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One of the six Viking ships found at Roskilde

We also visited the immense ring fortress of Trelleborg which not only featured   reconstructed buildings, but also had an excellent museum and some excellent and very informative Viking craft re-enactments

Trelleborg fortress

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Ring fortress at Trelleborg, near Slagelse

Jelling had to be one of my favourite sites – we visited on a quiet Sunday morning, and apart from the amazing site itself with the mounds, church and spectacular views, not to mention the gorgeous carved stones, there was another brilliant new museum, with very effective – and state of the art – displays

Jelling

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Mound and church at Jelling

 

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One of the Jelling stones, now preserved within a glass case

Other highlights were a visit to Ribe which is a beautiful town dating back to 700 AD, and with much of its medieval core remaining; be sure to catch the Night Watchman tour if you go!

Ribe Night Watchman tour

 

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These tours have been running for 85 years now!

Other highlights were the Moesgaard Museum near Aarhus which is a spectacular building with more great exhibitions, including the very moving display of the bog body of Grauballe Man, the amazing Viking ship burial at Ladby (which we visited during a thunderstorm – very atmospheric!) and a visit to Copenhagen with more amazing museums including the Glyptotek Art Museum and of course the National Museum. Everything very much lived up to my expectations – it was marvellous!

Moesgaard Museum

Ladby Viking Ship Burial

 

 

Recent small projects

I have recently done a number of short reports on interesting finds in the York Archaeological Trust’s collection which have been published online and can be found here:

http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/St-Benet-grave-web-publication.pdf

http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/Three-Papal-Bullae-from-Peasholme-Green-York.pdf

http://www.yorkarchaeology.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/harness-pendants-text-final.pdf