Yes, They Had it… But What Was It?

One of the big problems that archaeologists deal with is finding things that they simply can’t identify.  For a number of years I was on an email list, conceived of and managed by Dr Dan Carlson, an Archaeologist working in Fröjel harbor in Sweden. Occasionally they would find something that they had questions about, and they would send a description and picture of the item out to the “hive mind” to ask for help. and often someone would have a clue. I remember one time in particular. I emailed this message:

“To me it looks like a tiny beater that could be used in tablet weaving or other narrow band weaving. I use something similar, made of wood, place it in the weaving shed and pull it gently towards the newly woven cloth to push the newly placed weft in place. I will be watching to see what other people think it is!”

The response from the archaeologist?

“You are obviously right! Most people have the same suggestions, and thinking of the pieces of thin plates of bone for tablet weaving at the sight, shows clearly that the technique was used at the site.”

The basic problem is that it is almost impossible for a researcher, or even a team of researchers, to have a complete knowledge of all of the equipment that was used in every art and craft, in any given culture. And now take even identifiable objects, and break them into pieces, and see if you can figure out what they used to be. And then take those pieces, and allow time and weather to corrode them and wear them away, and what do you have? Archaeology is often like a giant jigsaw puzzle where the box with the picture is missing, and the cat has eaten some pieces, and chewed up other ones.

And this problem does not become any less severe when we work during later time frames with more complex machinery. In about 1985 I was working in the Archaeology Lab at the University of Houston, as a grad student. One project involved a house that was burned because the inhabitants had died of Yellow Fever. (In the 1800’s people did not know that Yellow Fever was a mosquito borne disease, they thought it spread by contact, like Small Pox.) The head of the department suggested that I look at the finds because I “had a knack” for identifying odd pieces of metal. (I have always loved machinery and used to regularly take things apart and put them back together when I was a child.) They thought they were dealing with the daughter’s room, but could not be sure, and one of the other grad students poured out a bag of very rusty pieces of iron. And I knew what she had.








It was broken into about a dozen pieces, and had a different style frame than the one in the picture, but what she had were the pieces of a music box. The spring, the frame to hold the roller, the holder for the comb, and the comb to “plink” on the roller, were clear as day… to me. She had never seen the inside of a music box before, and had never even thought about how they worked.

So when you are busy looking through a museum’s digital collection, take a good look. Watch for mistakes (we all make them!), and if you think that you know what something is, do not hesitate to contact the museum. You could help them solve a mystery, or simply point out inadequate information on an old entry. And some, like the MET, may even send you a thank you email!

What Size Were Brooches in the Middle Ages – Part 13 – What other things were little?

Well, this is back to where this series originally started out – looking at tiny brooches and buckles and other things. Ideally I would have planned out the entire series, written all the installments and then just published them, one at a time. The reality is that I wrote one installment and then started reacting to questions and comments that I received from readers. So it may have not been a literary gem, but my goal was to answer questions. And I think that I have been doing that. Perhaps I have encouraged people to pay more attention to the historical facts, at least as we know them, instead of just accepting modern mythology. We have fashion, availability of materials, and the size of the people to thank for some of the size issues. But functionality is also a consideration.

I learned to do tablet weaving quite a number of years ago, and my original cards were a solid four inches square. Huge cardboard squares the size of bar drink coasters, with 1/4 inch holes in all four corners. Years later, my cards are 2 1/2 inches square and they are still larger than many of the real pre-1600’s weaving cards that I have seen.

To me, learning to tablet weave was a very cool thing. An opportunity to be creative and make something the same way it was made hundreds, or even thousands of years ago. And then I saw these videos – videos of women had learned to do the same sort of crafts that I was learning. Except that they had been doing it for decades – not as a fun hobby thing, but because they actually needed to make things for everyday use. There are a bunch of these movies out there, on You Tube, under the search term “Norsk Stumfilm”. They show women and men, filmed in the 1940s, doing some of the crafts that I do for fun. This one, called bandvev, shows several techniques for weaving bands and cords. They are black and white, and have no sound, but they were designed to show the actual hand movements of the women. They actually slow down the film for us so that we can see the hand movements.

Some of the equipment is small and some larger. The last woman does what I was taught to do as a Viking Cord. I learned to do it using two people. By using four very large weighted bobbins, she can do it by herself. Yes, I will be looking into this. While the technique that I was taught is a great project for children, or for forcing adults to cooperate with each other on a productive task, I always had a hard time believing that they would actually have made the cord that way.

And then there is this lady. This is a new color video that was made in Sweden to show an old technique for weaving bands quickly on an Inkle style loom. Again her hand movements are slowed down in order for us to be able to see what she is doing. Her bobbin is just large enough to hold the weft thread and the weaving knife that she uses is of a modest size.

And the point of all of this? Do not assume that just because we use something in a specific size modernly, that it was the same size before 1600. Do not assume that all things before 1600 were large, or small, or standardized in size in any way (they may vary greatly in size from time to time and place to place). And whatever you do, do NOT assume that because it is “traditional”, or because you saw it at a Renn Faire, it is correct for the timeframe before 1600. Go forth and do research!

frühmittelalterliches Webbrettchen (Augsburg, ...

frühmittelalterliches Webbrettchen (Augsburg, Inneres Pfaffengässchen) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)