Monday, March 18, 2013

Corded Skirts From Bronze Age Denmark

Those of my readers who are interested in early period costume or in the role of textiles in archaeological discoveries should check out the following article, which discusses the unusual fate of an interesting grave find:
Bergerbrant, Sophie, Fossøy, Sølvi Helen, & Jørgensen, Lise Bender. Ginderup--Textiles and Dress from the Bronze Age Gleaned from an Excavation Photograph. Archaeological Textile Review, Issue No. 54, pp. 14-18. (2012).
Ginderup is the location of an ancient burial mound in Denmark, which was excavated in 1933.  According to the article, the central grave, grave A, was a stone cist that was about 1.7 meters long and .25-.45 meters wide.  It contained skeletal remains and a quantity of jewelry:  a neck ring, a fibule, a metal item shaped a little like a chess pawn that the authors call a "double button," two arm rings, and a finger ring.  Based on these metal artifacts, the grave was dated to the period 1300-1100 BCE and its occupant deduced to have been a woman.  There were also a number of textile remains, some quite large. Before proceeding further, the team took two clear photographs of the grave in situ.

In an attempt to create conditions that would allow the grave to be examined in more detail, it was decided to remove the entire cist without touching its contents. This was done by covering the grave first with sand, then with tissue paper, then with plaster.  The side stones of the cist were removed and the sand/paper/plaster treatment repeated for all sides.  Then they built a wooden box around the encased grave and shipped it to the National Museum of Denmark for excavation in the museum's conservation laboratory.

More than 70 years later, Bergerbrant, Fossøy, and Jørgensen became interested in Ginderup, and started looking for information about grave A. They could not locate a report about the ultimate excavation of the grave block, nor could they find any surviving textiles from the grave.  All they had to work with were the initial sketches and report of the excavation team that removed grave A from where it was found, the two photographs, and a casual reference in a work by H.C. Broholm and Margrethe Hald suggesting that the occupant of the grave had been wearing a corded skirt. 

Early recreation of Egtved woman's
costume (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Lacking any better information, Bergerbrant, Fossøy, and Jørgensen scrutinized the photographs in light of other Danish grave finds of similar date, and accumulated enough information to arrive at a reconstruction of the Ginderup woman's costume. Their conclusion is that she was wearing a short blouse with elbow-length sleeves and a short skirt made of twined cords, like the costume of the Egtved woman (also found in Denmark; go here for some wonderful zoomable photographs of the surviving textiles from Egtved).

There are interesting differences between the Ginderup and Egtved burials, and the archaeologists were able to derive information about those from the photographs as well.  The Egtved woman was buried in a hollowed-out oak trunk, apparently specifically shaped to serve as a coffin, not a stone-sided box, and she was covered with a large piece of cloth believed to have been a blanket. Covering textiles also appear to have been part of the Ginderup burial.  The stone cist in which the Ginderup woman was laid was "more or less covered with textiles". The authors of the article identify a large coarse cloth (3.5-4.5 threads per cm) woven in tabby.

Like the Egtved woman, the Ginderup woman wore a corded skirt to the grave.  However, Bergerbrant, Fossøy, and Jørgensen conclude that it was constructed somewhat differently than the Egtved skirt--and in fact was made differently from all other corded skirts found in Denmark from the Bronze Age:
Most skirts have cords constructed as cabled plied threads, S2Z2s or Z2S2z, and two skirts have cords made from 2-ply threads, Z2s or S2z (Fossøy and Bergerbrant in press).The Ginderup cords, however, are Z3s, plied of three single threads. In total, more than 20 cords, 3mm thick, the longest c. 12 cm, can be identified on the western side of the burial, i.e. by the left hand of the deceased. As one cannot see the top of the skirt it is hard to say how different this corded skirt is from the other known fully or partly preserved corded skirts. The photographs do, however, indicate that the lower part of the skirt is made in a manner similar to that of the fully preserved Egtved skirt, i.e. the cords end in a thread ring made from the end of the cord. A thin thread has been twisted tightly around the ring to make it thicker and to keep it together. A string is threaded through the rings, above the rings two twined threads can be seen. Together, these keep the skirt in place. (p. 17)
I found this article inspiring for two reasons.  One is the reason emphasized by its authors, namely, that even good photographs can provide enough information to attempt the reconstruction of clothing from a grave find.  Although the authors do not specifically say so, the story of the Ginderup grave is an object lesson in how important it is to preserve as much information about a grave find as possible, because one cannot be certain how much information will survive long enough to be studied and interpreted.

The other reason, however, is that until I read it, I had not been aware that the Egtved woman's costume was not unique, and that there have been other Bronze Age finds of corded skirts in Denmark.  (Apologies to my Scandinavian and European readers, who may well have long been aware of this fact.)  That matters because the types of questions one asks, and the deductions one tends to make, are different once enough evidence has accumulated to confirm that a costume is not unique to the occupant of a single grave.  Evidence that multiple women wore the corded skirt raises questions about what its wearers had in common, whether it was worn as an everyday costume or for some type of religious or other special occasion, and so on.   The article has changed the way I think about the Egtved woman, and made me more interested in looking out for information about similar burials in the future.  Unsurprisingly, the article's authors are currently working on a study of Bronze Age corded skirts that is likely to be well worth reading.

Finally, you don't have to take my word about Bergerbrant, Fossøy, and Jørgensen's research.  Although Issue No. 54 of ATR is not yet freely available, this particular article can be downloaded for free from, a site where researchers both professional and amateur researchers alike share knowledge.  An account is needed to access the site, but accounts are free, and the site is searchable.  Whether your interest lies in Bronze Age fashion or other areas of history or science, is a useful tool for any researcher, including researchers of historic costume.

EDIT:  (4/19/2013)  Ms. Bergerbrant and Ms. Fossøy recently published another article, this time in Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, in which they discuss the evidence for the manufacture of corded skirts. This article is, to my knowledge, not available for free download but can be purchased from Ingenta Connect for $32.99 (plus tax) here.

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