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North European Textiles Until AD 1000.

As scholars have come to see value in studying ancient textiles, they have discovered more and more kinds of valuable information that can be extracted. Such is the case with this volume, in which Lise Bender Jorgensen both catalogues and interprets the textile remains of Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Finland, within the wider context of central and southern Europe, and Scandinavia (which she catalogued in 1986 and updates here). By painstakingly recording not only the weave and thread-count of several thousand fragments, but also the spin and ply of the thread, she is able to tease out of the materials a remarkable series of pictures of cultural boundaries, trade connections and industrial developments.

For example, her charts show that half-basket and basket weave are utilitarian Roman cloth-types; tapestry and silk are luxury imports (p. 40 et passim). Twill, on the other hand, 'emerges all over Europe during the 9th-8th centuries BC'. By Roman times, local industries catering to the Roman armies had settled on favourite formulae for spin and twill pattern. Analyses of such distributions make it possible for Bender Jorgensen to identify a diamond twill with z-spun warp and s-spun weft found at Antinoe as produced in Scandinavia during the Roman period. In addition to spotting imports and the movement the imply, she also documents much larger phenomena. After laboriously charting all the cloth-plus-thread types, she can point out that, in the viking graves of the British Isles, 'the proportions of cloth types found best resemble those of Viking Age Denmark rather than of Norway or Sweden; as Scotland and Ireland are normally considered to have been settled by Norwegian Vikings, this feature is unexpected'.

Bender Jorgensen begins her investigation of each area with the rare fragments of cloth, netting and string from the Stone and Bronze Ages. This part of the work dovetails well with the framework in Barber (1991) by adding to the sparse list, especially with details for unpublished and ill-published pieces. The vastly increased supply of preserved textiles from the 1st millennium BC on, however, allows the author to do a variety of statistical summaries and analyses that simply are not possible with the scanty earlier material. The text abounds with histograms and maps that bring out the patterns inherent in the splendid catalogue, largely by dividing the textiles into important types according to weave, spin, and era. (The reader should note, however, that Bender Jorgensen assumes some of her data here: except for half-basket weave, she has 'the general habit . . . to interpret the denser system as the warp, unless otherwise indicated by the presence of selvedges'.) The concluding chapter draws the entire picture together.

The cut-off date of 1000 AD reflects the fact that shortly thereafter the horizontal treadle loom came into Europe, changing radically the technology and speed of manufacturing textiles and leading to new kinds of commercialism. Thus the time-span chosen for the book offers an important homogeneity. It should be consulted not only by textile scholars but by anyone interested in the cultures, economics and politics of northern Europe between 1000 BC and 1000 AD. Because of the difficulties involved in identifying them, certain categories of data receive little attention. One of these is fibre. In setting up her charts, Bender Jorgensen typically lumps linen and wool, remarking that 'an ideal system . . . would have fibre as the primary element' but that 'because of the state of preservation, it is often impossible to identify the fibre'. That is true, and, as it happens, virtually all the identifiably non-woollen textiles at this early date are in plain weave (which the author separates with different hatching, though not different type, on some of the graphs). Nonetheless, the distinction is critical. People use wools and linens (of whatever weave) in very different ways, because of the vastly different properties of the fibres for absorbency, elasticity, scratchiness, warmth, etc. And what about nettle and hemp? Hald showed in 1942 that every early Scandinavian textile found to date that had been called linen was in fact of nettle fibre. Granted, differentiating flax, nettle and hemp is even harder than distinguishing these fine bast fibres from wool. But to the extent that the determinations can be made, they are as important in distinguishing zones of textile technology as looms, weaves, spins and colour. This last is another seldom preserved but important feature of cloth that gets little attention here, despite the handsome colours preserved in many Hallstatt textiles. Unfortunately, too, the book's index is restricted to sites, so that it is impossible to pull together what information the author does provide on fibre, colour or -- for that matter -- weaves, looms or spindles. Thus it is difficult for others to use the book for purposes not foreseen by the author.

But in another way, this book is admirably aimed at a wide readership. Bender Jorgensen remarks of both the Polish and Finnish scholars that the fact that they publish respectively only in Polish and Finnish 'unfortunately makes a dialogue difficult' (p. 93, ef. 84). The complaint at first glance seems chauvinistic; and as long as no one saw value in comparative study of textiles, language was not an issue. But this volume makes it clear that a great deal is to be gained by comparisons over wide areas, and Bender Jorgensen is one person who cannot be accused of chauvinism in this regard. A native speaker of Danish, she has troubled to write both her text and her catalogue in English, with a 16-page summary in Danish, instead of vice versa. This call for internationalism, made cogent by the data in the book, shows if nothing else that the study of archaeological textiles has finally come into its own. E.J.W. BARBER Department of Sociology & Anthropology Occidental College, Los Angeles (CA)


BARBER, E.J.W. 1991. Prehistoric textiles. Princeton (NJ): Princeton University Press.

BENDER JORGENSEN, L. 1986. Forhistoriske textiler i Skandinavien. Prehistoric Scandinavian textiles. Copenhagen: Nordiske Fortidsminder, ser. B, vol. 9.

HALD, M. 1942. The nettle as a culture plant, Folk-Liv 6: 28-49.
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Author:Barber, E.J.W.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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