Saturday, April 3, 2010

Eye of the Needle

At this point, I have read most of the articles in NESAT X, and have continued to find much interesting information.  Tonight, I wanted to describe an article about the large number of textile tools that were found at the location of an ancient Roman city called Virunum, which is located on a mountain which is now called Magdalensberg.  The citation for this article is:

Gostenčnik, Kordula.  "The Magdalensberg Textile Tools:  a Preliminary Assessment."  (page 73).

Because Virunum only existed for about one hundred years, approximately between 50 B.C.E. and 50 C.E., and no subsequent town was built upon the same location, all of these fascinating tool finds are fairly precisely dated simply from their location.  It is unclear whether the number of tool finds on this site may be said to show that Virunum was a local textile production center, because there are no comparable finds of the same age, and Roman textile tool finds of later date have been poorly studied.  However, there are a number of interesting facts that the age and existence of these items alone demonstrates, some of which I have chosen to illustrate with pictures from the NESAT X article.

1.  This article is further evidence against the false belief, common among  reenactors, that all ancient and early medieval needles were necessarily coarse or made from bone.  The picture at the top right above shows a bunch of needles made from iron and copper alloys retrieved from the site of what appears to have been a burned warehouse; a total of 200 iron and 172 copper alloy needles were recovered from Magdalensberg.  The shanks of these needles were only about 1-2 mm thick, and the author candidly notes that "Roman needles in iron and copper alloys are very similar to those of today,"  (page 81).  As the picture on the top left shows, they even had a pointed head with a long eye with a groove on the bottom--just like modern needles.

2.  I had had the idea that ancient and early medieval spindles simply had a groove at the end of the shaft for the starter thread, and not a hook as most modern craft spindles.  However, the picture to the left of this paragraph shows that at least some of the Roman spindles found at Magdalensberg had hooks.  These hooks are small and narrow, and are nothing like the large cup-hooks used on modern craft spindles, but they are clearly hooks, and apparently most of them screwed into the wood the way modern cup-hooks do.  These hooks are not unique to Magdalensberg, according to the author of the article, who notes:
Typical for the Magdalensberg period are spindle-hooks.  Only two hooks with a tubular socket have been found, a type known from the Greek Classical Period onwards, while 126 spindle-hooks usually made from copper alloys have a twisted or sometimes plain shank; one is even preserved in iron.  Previously, the only parallels considered were those from Egypt, but they are also present in Poland at least from the late pre-Iron Age onwards and frequently recorded in Germanic graves in the Oder-Vistula region.  Later, during the Migration Period and Early Middle Ages, they were still in use; sometimes they were even made in silver.  As attention is now drawn to these tools, they are published more frequently in southern Noricum, and therefore Magdalensberg is not the only place where they were in use.  (pages 76-77) (internal citations omitted).
So some Viking spindles may have had hooks!  Moreover, the small narrow hooks found at Magdalensberg look as though a spindle equipped with one would be easier to use than a spindle with a large cup hook is.  It would be wonderful if someone would make similar small hooks for spindles for reenactment purposes.

3.  Twenty-five distaffs were found; some made of glass, the others of bone.  Even broken as they are they are very attractive.  I've included the picture mostly to demonstrate how attractive they were. (EDIT:  Obviously, I didn't include that photograph!)

4.  Sets of loom weights for warp-weighted looms also appear.  These, in contrast, appear to have been made from crude materials, namely, "coarsely tempered loam and mortar."  (page 78).

5.  Spindle whorls show up as well.  Most of spindle whorls (36 of the 902 found) were made from pottery shards.  (page 78).  Only a small number were made from more ornamental material such as bone, amber, or glass, and most are discoid.  The author speculates that the whorls may have been made for sale to members of the public.

6.  They also found netting needles, similar to the ones Katrin Kania sells at her market stall on the Web (a picture of a netting needle from Magdalensberg taken from the NESAT article appears on the right). However, I don't know if the scale is the same, since I don't know how long Katrin's needles are.  According to Katrin's market stall page, hers are made from brass, not iron, "by a goldsmith who is also an archaeologist," and the page indicates that she can arrange for a custom sized needle to be made for a purchaser if necessary.

These are the particular finds that interested me, though there were others, including sword-shaped beaters for weaving, flax combs, and shears.  I commend the article to anyone interested in ancient to early medieval textile production.

EDITED to make sure that my representations about Katrin Kania's market stall are correct.


  1. ooh, needles with slits and thread grooves!

  2. Of all the interesting facts these textile tools reveal, the most interesting to me was how modern some of the needles look. If the Magdalensberg needles were new, the only thing that would make it easy to distinguish them from modern needles is the fact that they were not made from polished stainless steel, as modern needles almost always are.

  3. I love the spindle hooks. I had seen something similar to the cupped ones on "modern" Portuguese spindles but had not come across the reference for the twisted hooks. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Cedric: Thanks for the comment.

    I'm not surprised that the "cupped" spindle hooks have shown up on other spindles than the crafty ones sold on sites like Etsy. It would be interesting if small hooks like the ones found at Magdalensberg were being used on modern spindles. If I ever see any examples like that, I'll blog about them.

  5. This is fantastic, thanks for posting the info! I figured they must have had finer needles for some of the work we've seen on older garments.

    And now I want to try spinning again...hooray!

  6. The interesting thing about the needles, to me, is that so many of them were of iron. In this post I mentioned some information about the Anglo-Scandinavian (Viking era) finds from York, which stated that a whopping 89% of the needles found there were iron.

    I've used bronze needles in some of my period sewing, and it occurs to me that the reason may be that bronze needles are soft enough to bend, constantly, during use. Iron likely would have bent less and thus allowed for faster sewing.

    Iron needles probably still needed frequent sharpening, or there wouldn't have been so many small whetstones as they found in Anglo-Scandinavian York.

  7. magdalensberg drop spinning spindles in copper and steel now available at if you are interested

  8. Hi, Welcome to my blog!

    Thanks for letting me know that you are selling designs based on the Magdalensberg find! I'll have to take a look.