Friday, May 30, 2014

Penelope Walton Rogers on Dyed Fabric From Iron Age Norway and Denmark

About three years ago, I wrote a post about likely colors for Viking apron dresses that attracted a significant number of comments.  One of the commenters was Hilde Thunem, who has written a lot about Viking costume herself. Hilde mentioned that Penelope Walton (now Penelope Walton Rogers), a British archaeologist who has done a significant amount of chemical analysis of dyes on early European textiles, had said anything of relevance to our discussion in either of two articles she had published about her work on Viking age textiles. I have a copy of one of the articles, and offered to re-read it to see whether it had information that might be useful on the question of apron dress colors.

That was in December 2010. Oops.

Anyway, I was reminded of that discussion when someone else recently posted a new comment in it, and I decided that it was high time for me to re-read the article and summarize the most useful parts. The citation for the article is:
Walton, Penelope. Dyes and Wools in Iron Age Textiles from Norway and Denmark. Journal of Danish Archaeology, vol. 7, pp. 144-158 (1988).
More than half of the article consists of a detailed and technical analysis of surviving fabric fragments to ascertain what types of sheep, and what parts of the sheep, the fibers in the fabrics came from, but the last six pages or so discuss Walton's dye analysis of Viking age textile finds.  Because most of Walton's analysis is not linked to what types of garments the tested specimens may have come from, and many of the samples discussed by Walton pre-date the Viking period, her analysis is not obviously relevant to our apron dress question, but the information it does provide supplies some interesting support for further inference and deduction.

Walton begins her discussion of dyes by saying that indigotin, the blue pigment from woad and (in countries where it grows) indigo, was the most common dye substance found in the Viking age wool fragments and that it was found in both coarse and fine textiles. She notes that, though woad was not originally native to northern Europe, archaeological finds of woad seeds suggest that it had reached Scandinavia by the Roman period.

Walton points out that some of the Scandinavian wool samples contained enough indigotin to have been very dark shades of blue.  In some of the Evebo/Eide samples it formed a "rich, deep stripe" on a red or orange background; in some of the Veka textiles it was used only on warp threads, so those twills would show dark diagonal lines of twill on a white background, and the Birka diamond twills were so dark as to be nearly black.  Walton also noted that when some specimens from Sandanger, Skjervum, and Sandegaard were tested, the indigotin was easily removed by tests for mordant dyes, though not by tests for vat dyes (which woad is).  Walton concluded from this that the indigotin had been applied over a mordant dye, though no mordant dyes proper were detected.  Walton suggested that this mysterious mordant dye might have produced a yellow color, and notes that tests of other textiles clearly indicated that woad had been used together with a yellow dye (possibly to produce a green).

Then Walton discussed specimens that tested positive for dyes that produce red shades.  She found that textiles from three of the wealthier graves in Norway, namely, Snartemo V, Veiem, and Evebø/Eide, tested positive for the substance alizarin, indicating that those textiles had been dyed with Rubia tinctorum L., otherwise known as dyers' madder.  This is curious because these graves date to the Migration Period. Although madder has been known to have been cultivated in Paris (by the 9th century CE) and England (about the same time), there's no clear evidence that it was found in Gaul, or in Scandinavia, during the Migration Period.  Walton suggests that either the dye, or madder-dyed textiles, may have been imported, given the wealth of the graves where it was found.  On the other hand, in textiles from Sejlflod and Hejrhøj in Denmark, a similar red dye that did not test positive for alizarin was found, ruling out dyers' madder as a source but suggesting that a similar, native-grown dye plant was used; Walton suggests Galium verum L. and Galium odoratum (L) as possibilities.  Walton did not succeed in ascertaining what substance produced the red seen on the Lønne Hede textiles, but eliminated some possibilities, including kermes, fungus red dyes, Rumex crispus, and Rubia and Galium discussed above.

Two Norwegian samples in particular, Veiem C348 and Evebø/Eide B4590, tested positive for one of the red insect dyes.  An extraction test ruled out cochineal (highly unlikely this early in Europe anyway) and lac. Walton suggests that the results for the Veiem sample are consistent with Polish cochineal; the Evebø/Eide specimen gave results that could be consistent either with kermes or Polish cochineal.  Polish cochineal might, Walton notes, have been available to Scandinavians through trade with the Baltic region during the Migration Period, and kermes from trade with the eastern Mediterranean or Near East.

Finally, textiles from Thorsbjerg in northern Germany and Fløjstrup in Denmark were detected to contain a lichen-based purple dye.  Some of the plants that can be used to produce such a dye are native to Scandinavia, but their use of dye plants does not seem to have been part of the native repertoire.  Walton accordingly suggests that this dye, or the textiles on which it was found, came from Frisia.  The Fløjstrup textile was particularly likely to be an import because it was made in an "unusual weave" (Walton references Margrethe Hald's Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials, at page 100, on this point), and opines that it will not be possible to identify the source of the purple dye without identifying the provenance of the weave used to make the fabric where it was found.

I hope Hilde Thunem, and anyone else with an interest in dyeing, textiles, or clothing of early northern Europe, finds this summary interesting.  Anyone who is interested in obtaining this article for research purposes, please contact me via Google + or leave a comment.


  1. Excellent reference, thank you!

  2. Do you happen to have a citation for the other article? Thanks!

    1. I think this is the article of hers that I originally wanted; the Journal of Danish Archaeology was the one I could find at the time I first went looking for it:

      Walton, Penelope, 'Dyes of the Viking Age: a Summary of Recent Work', Dyes in History and Archaeology 7 (1988), 14-20.

  3. This is awesome. Green is my signature color and I'm always looking for it in historic garments :) plus it means my olive apron dress is totally groovy.

  4. I would love a copy of this article and the other Walton article mentioned in the comments if you have it. Email is

  5. Tamra: I don't have a copy of the "other" Walton article (the one from Dyes in History and Archaeology). I couldn't get my hands on it; that's why I ended up with the article I described in this post in the first place. As for the Journal of Danish Archaeology article, I would send it to you except that I do not presently have a functioning scanner, and I only have the article in book for (the relevant issue of the Journal of Danish Archaeology is a paperback volume nearly an inch thick).