The Huldremose Woman has more to tell us

There is an interesting story I’d like to share – which has emerged from the research of Margarita Gleba and Ulla Mannering.  Their articles are referenced below.

It was sometime in the 2nd century BC, and a woman living in north-eastern Jutland, Denmark was about 40 years old – an advanced age in this period.  We have no knowledge of the circumstances of her death or how she came to be buried, but her body was concealed in the water-logged bog for more than 2000 years.  Then in 1879 a farmer was cutting peat when he was shocked to come across her body.  This Huldremose woman (as she came to be known) was surprisingly well preserved, fully dressed with her long woollen skirt, scarf and two woolly sheep skin capes.  The farmer’s first impression was of coming across a crime scene.  Local officials were sent for to exhume the body and bring it to the nearby farm house.  Then the police chief and doctor were called in to report the grim discovery.  It was not until they made a closer examination of the body that it became clear how ancient this find really was.

Danish landscape

Photo credit: http://www.kobenhavnergron.dk/

Iron Age clothing

This discovery offered a rare opportunity to understand the clothing of the Iron Age in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. The woollen skirt is a complex construction of checked twill with 7 to 10 ends per cm.  It has a tubular tabby selvage at the hem and a waistband of warp-faced rep tabby, seamlessly woven into the rest of the skirt. The scarf is also woollen and woven in a different checked 2-2 twill with 6 to 7 ends per cm.  Originally it was secured with a bone pin.  The capes are pieced together with the fleeces of several sheep, and one of them even had a hidden pouch with a comb, woven band and leather thong inside.

This was already a stunning insight into a pre-historic time, and has given valuable information to textile archaeologists.  But the body was re-examined in 2010 by Margarita Gleba and Ulla Mannering, and their account turned up a few surprises!

Huldermose woman

Photo credit: The National Museum of Denmark.

New insights into old finds

It just shows how valuable it can be to go back to earlier finds with new technological methods.  The Huldremose woman, “one of the best preserved and best dressed [of the] bog bodies” still seems to be revealing new secrets.

The reason that Gleba and Mannering went back to this particular find was that they wanted to conduct strontium isotopic tracing analysis of the Huldremose textiles.  In a nutshell, strontium is a kind of isotope found in organic matter – it is taken up by plants from the soil, and by people (or sheep) through eating the plants.  So it can be used to figure out the plant, the wool, or the person’s original geographic location. This is a valuable tool for archaeologists who want to explore trade, migration or geographical provenance.

Gleba and Mannering found a tiny thread of plant fibre in the peaty material next to the body, so    they did their strontium analysis on this as well as fragments from the scarf, the peat from which the find had come, and the woman’s body.  The wool of the scarf was found to be of local origin, but the plant fibre thread – and possibly the woman – were not.  This challenged the conventional wisdom that in this time and region, societies were isolated and self-sufficient.  Here was a woman who may have come from as far away as Norway or Sweden.

The vanishing undergarment

The thread of plant fibre was a puzzle, and now the researchers began to question their own findings.  The only plant fibres that had ever been found preserved in bogs were from heavy rope.  But further tests confirmed that this was the real thing.  A strand of thread from a woven shirt or undergarment – it still had the distinctive zig zag shape of a thread that came from a woven piece.  After a close re-examination of the body, they were surprised to find that subtle impressions could be seen of a fine tabby weave on her chest, shoulders and back.  The scarf and skirt were clearly twill, so this was something different.  It seemed that there was another garment which had vanished from sight over the centuries – rotted away in the wet bog.  It was a tabby-woven plant-based cloth: maybe hemp, nettle or linen.  On very close inspection, they found more threads of this garment on her skin.

Dyed cloth

There were more surprises.  Archaeologists believed that people of Scandinavia during this pre-Roman period used only naturally coloured wool: black or white, brown or grey, as it came off the sheep.  But new tests on the wool in the scarf and the skirt suggested that these textiles had been treated with vegetable dyes.   The skirt would originally have been blue and the scarf a shade of red.

If it is true that some ancient bodies found in the bogs were among the poorest of their society -their fate the result of being banished, or murdered – this does not seem to one of them.  Here is a woman in a costume of quality dyed cloth, capes made with a dozen sheepskins sewn together, amulets around her neck and even an indentation on her finger that showed she had been wearing a ring.

Nettles

The revelations kept coming. In subsequent testing the plant fibre of her undergarment has turned out to be not linen or hemp (the likely candidates) but nettle.  So this turned another theory on its head. Flax and hemp were cultivated crops in this era, but nettle is only known as a wild plant, so this raises the new idea that nettles would have been gathered in the wild and then retted, processed and spun to make cloth.  More research has followed up on this line of thinking, and now textile fragments dating back as far as the Bronze Age, nearly 1000 years BC have also been identified as being woven from threads made of nettle.

I think this is an amazing story of tiny clues unravelling big discoveries.  It suggests that there may be many more collections of ancient textiles which deserve to be revisited with the newest technology.  Clearly yesterday’s conventional wisdom will always need to be open to re-examination.

And an interesting project for any spinners out there who have run out of fleece.  Gather some nettles – a combination of spinning and weeding!

Great Websites

http://en.natmus.dk/

http://www.medievalhistories.com/

References

Bergfjord, C, U. Mannering, K M Frei, M Gleba, A B Scharff, I Skals, J Heinemeier, M L Nosch, B Holst, Nettle as a distinct Bronze Age textile plant, Scientific Reports 2, Article number: 664 (2012)  http://www.nature.com/articles/srep00664?wt.mc_id=FBK_SciReports

Frei, K M, Skals, I, Gleba, M & Lyngstrøm, H. The Huldremose Iron Age textiles, Denmark: An attempt to define their provenance applying the Strontium isotope system. Journal of Archaeological Science 36 1965–1971 (2009).

Gleba M, Mannering, U (2010) A thread to the past: the Huldremose Woman revisited. Archaeological Textile Newsletter 50:32–37.

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