Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Few Thoughts About The Køstrup Find

Hilde Thunem, who is even more interested in the costume of the Viking age as I am, has written about her opportunity to examine and photograph the textiles from the Køstrup find that appear to have come from an a Viking apron dress.  You can find her excellent essay about her personal examination of the Køstrup textiles here.  

The most surprising thing Ms. Thunem reports about the Køstrup find is that at least one scholar, Bjarne Lønborg, proposes that the tablet-woven band found in the grave was sewn only to the loops of on the apron dress, but not to the dress proper; in other words, that it was a separate decoration, suspended between the brooches (or at least the locations where the brooches would have rested) along with whatever jewelry was worn there.   There are also two woolen cords that were whipstitched to the band in the vicinity of the loops, but are not (at least, not presently) attached to the rest of the tablet-woven band.  Mr. Lønborg suggests that the Køstrup costume may have been purpose-made for the burial, and thus is not representative of how women's costumes were made for actual wear.

I have read Ms. Thunem's essay over several times, trying to determine whether or not I think that the wonderfully clear photographs of the band that Ms. Thunem has made with the museum's permission, or the statements she reports from Mr. Lønborg, support Mr. Lønborg's conclusion about the construction and provenance of the find. 

It seems to me that there are two facts about the Køstrup find that don't seem to be getting sufficient attention.  One, as Ms. Thunem correctly observes, is the fact that when the woman wearing the dress was originally buried, there was almost certainly much more linen on her person than the few scraps that have survived for archaeological study.  The other fact is that the workmanship apparent from the textile fragments that have survived is not consistent with the idea that the costume was made for the burial only.   Both of these facts suggest that Mr. Lønborg's conclusions are, at best, premature.

Possible Roles For The Missing Linen.

As Maria Cybulsa and Jerzy Maik noted in their essay, "Archaeological Textiles--A Need for New Methods of Analysis and Reconstruction," FIBRES & TEXTILES in Eastern Europe, January / December 2007, Vol. 15, No. 5 - 6, p. 186:
While woollen fabrics can often be found in fairly good shape, linen finds are very rare. It is because animal fibres are made mainly of protein and therefore are more resistant to decay than vegetable fibres, which are composed of cellulose.
Ms. Thunem's essay notes that the the tablet-woven band in question is believed to have had a linen weft that has not survived.  But what about the thread used to sew the band to other parts of the costume?

It is very clear, from looking at the photograph of the surviving piece of band with loop attached that the band is sewn to the loop with wool thread matching the thread in the band. Mr. Lønborg's theory must implicitly incorporate the assumption that, if the rest of the band had been sewn onto the apron dress, it would have been sewn on with the same kind of wool thread that was used to sew the band to the loops.

However, it's not at all clear from the surviving pieces that the band would have been sewn to the rest of the costume (if at all) with wool thread.

We know, from the bits of linen that were preserved by the tortoise brooches, that there was a linen garment in the grave that did not survive, and it can be inferred from the surviving portion of the band that it contained weft threads that did not survive--and thus likely were made from linen. We cannot rule out the possibility that linen threads may have been used to sew the body of the band onto a garment. Though linen is difficult to dye with most vegetable dyes, it can be dyed effectively with plants containing indigotin (woad, indigo), so linen thread may have been used, and the fact that there appear to be no wool threads that might have attached the band to the apron dress proper may not be significant. 

On the Norsefolk_2 list, I remarked to Ms. Thunem that one way you can guess whether an item has been stitched is to look for the holes where the stitching thread went through. After looking at the large version of the photograph of the tablet-woven band, however, I see that advice is not useful for answering this particular stitching question. Why not?

One reason is that the stitches that currently fasten one of the loops to the band appear to pass between threads in the band, not over or through them. If the band was stitched to something in that way, it might not be obvious where the stitching thread had been if the stitching thread used has disintegrated. More importantly, the picture shows that the thread along the edge of the band is loose (probably because the linen weft of the band that was holding it in place has decayed), making it even less likely that any traces of stitching that might appear on the band would not be in evidence. As for examining the top of the apron dress to look for stitching holes there, the poor quality of preservation of the area immediately below the pleats and the relatively loose weave of the dress fabric in general make it less likely that stitch holes would be detectable.

Made For Burial?

Mr. Lønborg apparently appreciates the impracticality of wearing an ornamental tablet-woven band simply stretched between two tortoise brooches, since he suggests that the band was worn in this peculiar way because the  Køstrup costume was specially made just for the burial.

There have certainly been burials featuring clothing that was clearly made solely for funeral display. For example, there is an article in NESAT 8* that describes grave finds of two young children from the ruins of St. Mary's Church in Kostrzyn, Poland. Both garments were decorated, one with bows, the other with costly metal lace. But the fashioning of both items was crude, and clearly intended only for brief display before being consigned to the grave. The author describes, very clearly, how these dresses were fashioned with pins from rectangular pieces of cloth:
The cut was very simple and economic. For example the dress decorated with bows had no back. The front of the dress was made of 2 rectangular pieces of textile with two short sleeves attached.  The edges of this clothing were put under the body of the dead child.  The second dress was decorated with metal lace.  It was sewed from an older textile or had been re-cut from the garment of an adult.  In this case the element covering the back was made in a very primitive way, without lining and fastenings.  Both dresses have no cut lines under the arms and necks.  The necklines were created by folding and pressing the cloth.  It was also held in place by pins. ....
The next element indicating the disposable character of these clothes was the way in which their component parts were joined together. The side edges were sewn together with a loose baste stitch. The sleeves were not sewed along their whole length, but were fastened only in a few places or just pinned. ....
From the construction, taking into account the lack of any back or fastenings and the types of seams and pins that were used to join together the parts of garments, we can assume that these clothes were disposable. They were obviously made only for the burial. (p. 167)
Ms. Drążkowska thus argues, convincingly, that the hallmark of clothing made just for a burial is construction that gives an impressive appearance with very little actual work.  It may involve costly materials, but no craftmanship.  That is not what we see in the Køstrup grave, fragmentary though its textile finds are.  We see that the body of the apron dress was pleated, with tiny little pleats, that the fabric was folded and sewn down to hide the raw edge, and that the garment had at least one seam down the side.  Moreover, the tablet-woven band itself had extra strings sewn to the top and bottom of the band. Why invest that kind of effort in an item that would be seen only briefly before being placed in the grave?

I do not think that the Køstrup apron dress find is consistent with the theory that either the dress, or the addition of the tablet-woven band to the dress, was done just for burial.  It seems to me that a more likely theory is that the thread that fastened the band to the dress was made from linen and did not survive the conditions of burial.  That theory makes more sense to me than explaining why a loose band with cords or strings sewn to top and bottom edge for further decoration would have been placed into the grave.  This explanation still leaves us without complete guidance as to how the Køstrup dress was made, but that is preferable to assuming that a band, perfectly-sized to fit between a woman's tortoise brooches in actual wear, was placed in the grave for burial only. 

I would appreciate hearing from readers who know of additional support for Mr. Lønborg's theory or who have different thoughts themselves. 

* Drążkowska, Anna. "17th-18th Century Clothing from Children's Graves discovered in the Church of Kostrzyn on the Oder, Poland," in Priceless Invention of Humanity-Textiles (NESAT VIII) pp. 167-169 (Instytut Archeologii i Etnologii PAN, 2004).


  1. You mention that the tablet-woven band had most likely linen warp that had disintegrated?

    IIRC one way to finish off the edge of a dress or other clothing item known from mediaeval finds is to sew the weft into the cloth while weaving (working with shorter lengths of weft and a needle, and taking a stitch into the cloth each time the weft is passed through the shed).

    This band is more decorative than the narrow bands of single colour usually used for edge finish, but it's not outside the realm of possibility, and it could explain why the yarn used for stitching the band to the loops was of different material. Another known technique for edge finish is to use the warp of a cloth as the weft of a tablet-woven band (I think some of those bands are more decorative), but obviously this doesn't work for the finished edge of a garment.

    I suspect it'd be impossible to prove that this (linen weft sewn into the garment) is the explanation, but that's what came into my mind when reading this.

    1. Hi, welcome to my blog!

      It is certainly possible to have sewn the weft into the cloth as you describe. I had not heard of that technique before. I was aware of the technique of using the warp of the cloth as weft for a tablet-woven band; at least one of the cloaks in the (much earlier) Hogom find was done in that manner.

      It's not clear that either technique was being practiced in Viking Age Scandinavia, and, as you suggest, the fact that linen deteriorates so badly in the soil makes it even harder to prove. I appreciate the feedback, though. Thanks for your comments!