Thursday, May 26, 2011

Another Reflection on Viking Age Lucets

Over the last few days, another discussion about Viking era lucets has erupted on the Norsefolk_2 mailing list. Though I'm taking a backseat in the current discussion, some of the posts in the discussion--particularly the posts containing links to putative lucets--have reminded me of something interesting I've noticed about the "lucets" identified to date.  I'd like to write about that something here, where it's relatively peaceful.

The thing I've noticed is how different in shape all of the putative lucets are. Although all of them have at least two prongs, there is little other similarity between them. Some are decorated, most are not. Some (particularly the bone "lucets" at Coppergate) have pointed ends and sharp-looking edges; other have rounded ends and edges. Some have deep prongs; others do not. Some have a wide distance between the tines while others do not. A few even appear to be shaped a bit like a modern "knitting nancy".

This diversity of form in "lucets" contrasts sharply with the finds of other Viking era textile tools. It doesn't seem terribly significant, to me, that the "lucets" are not decorated. A lot of Viking textile tools (unlike, say, Viking jewelry) are undecorated, or are minimally decorated, such as most spindle whorls and needlecases. But there isn't so much difference in shape among the different classes of textile tools. A needlecase, for example, may be made from bone, or bronze, or even silver, but it will typically be shaped like a long tube, with a hole in one side of the tube so the case can be suspended from a tortoise brooch. Tablets for tablet weaving, to the extent they have been found, are square with a hole in each of the four corners. Spindle whorls are usually some variation on a disk shape with a hole in the center for a spindle stick. Even the boards believed to have been used for smoothing linen are similar to each other, about the same size with two horses' heads on the top.

Despite their simplicity of function, this similarity of form is not true of the so-called "lucets".  The various artifacts termed lucets resemble each other only in that they have two prongs, and a few have more than that. Why all this diversity of form for a simple textile tool?

It might, I suppose, be argued that some of the putative lucets are temporary cord making devices, just as many cords could have been made with a simple forked branch that would have been quickly discarded and not become part of the archaeological record. But if the Vikings were making reusable lucets--i.e., if at least some of the artifacts said to be lucets really were used for cord-making by the Vikings--then there would be little need for lucets of the impromptu kind. On the other hand, if lucets were routinely used by the Vikings, one would expect a uniformity, or at least, a similarity, of form to develop.  Neither statement is characteristic of the actual "evidence" of lucets. 

In addition, if the Vikings truly did use lucets on a routine basis, one would also expect to see more finds of defensibly lucetted cord. Yes, there is the one Barshalder grave with the cord that looks to be structured like a lucetted cord. But even if it is indisputable that the Barshalder cord was made with a lucet, that fact does not mean the cord was made by Vikings  (as opposed, for example, to the possibility that the Barshalder example was imported). Nor can we say that it's been proven that the Barshalder cord was made with any of the artifacts said to be lucets.  Moreover, if the Vikings routinely made lucetted cord, they likely would have come up with a standard form for a cord maker, instead of opportunistically using any and every object with two available prongs.  If the Vikings commonly made lucetted cord, there would be more "lucets" in the archaeological record, and something closer to uniformity among the "lucets" actually found.

The more I look at the evidence that the Vikings made lucetted cord, the more troublesome and less persuasive it appears. I don't think I'm simply refusing to believe the obvious, or seeing obstacles where there are none.  If any of my readers have any other evidence (that hasn't been discussed on the Norsefolk_2 list) I'd appreciate hearing about it.


  1. I thought it was just me who was thinking such things!

  2. I thought it was just me who was thinking such things!

    Nope. It's just taken me a while to set my thoughts down in a reasonably orderly fashion, that's all. :-)

  3. Very interesting observation! And AFAIK, no one has yet turned up a single scrap of actual lucetted cord from this time period & culture. It's pretty unmistakable, not structured like any other cord.

  4. Well then, of course this leaves open the question: if these findings are not lucets, what are they? And that is a very interesting question.

  5. Well, Chris, there is one cord--the one from Barshalder that I refer to in the text. A member of the Norsefolk_2 list who has been able to view it in person says it plainly has the lucet structure. But this find isn't well documented in the literature and I don't know of any other finds with similar cords.