4.4 Organics


British Bronze Age textiles were first seriously considered in the mid 20th century when Audrey Henshall compiled her comprehensive account of all known textile evidence from prehistoric Britain (Henshall 1950; 1951).  The sparse evidence from Scotland comprised six examples which she reported were made from plant, and animal fibres: Stromness, Orkney; Antabreck, North Ronaldsay, Orkney; Ferniegair, South Lanarkshire; North Cairn Farm, Wigtownshire; Grantown, Moray; and Greenoak Hill, Glasgow.

Since the 1950s further research into British Bronze Age textiles has been conducted (Bender Jorgensen 1986, 1992; Wild and Pritchard 2005), although analysis and research of Scottish material has been limited.  Few new examples of animal, vegetable or plant textiles have been found since Henshall’s initial study, despite the archaeological potential offered by commercially-led developments.  Old evidence needs to be re-assessed and new evidence discovered to further the development of Bronze Age textile research in Scotland.  Known examples tend to be analysed in isolation and there is a need to consider the wider social, economic and cultural aspects of textile production, and the role and impact it had on people’s lives.

A pottery sherd found at Glenluce Sands in Wigtownshire bears the impression of woven cloth on its outer surface.  The pot is dated to between 3000 and 2250 BC, and is the earliest example of the existence of woven textiles in Bronze Age Scotland (Henshall 1968).  The impression of a weave is also preserved on a Neolithic pottery sherd from Rinyo, Rousay, and was interpreted as an impression of the mat on which the pot stood when unfired (Childe and Grant 1947).

The evidence for textiles will be discussed in relation to what the textiles are made from because different materials bring with them different ways of acquiring the raw material, treating it, and crafting it: all of which are bound by different cultural and social associations.  For example, wool needs to be plucked or shorn and carded before it can be spun into a yarn and woven into a cloth; hemp and flax need to be grown, harvested, broken, scotched, hackled before it can be spun into yarn and woven into a cloth; and grasses need to be cut, sorted, and woven/tied.

Textiles as clothing and furnishing are an intrinsic part of people’s daily lives and their general well-being.  Currently, only small snippets of textiles are being examined – each one the result of complex social, cultural and economic circumstance that little is known about.

Animal Fibres

A photograph of a fragment of brown woven wool fabric

Textile fragment from late Bronze Age hoard from St Andrews, Fife. Copyright NMS

The only woollen textile found in Scotland during the time of Henshall’s study was a small length of plaiting found in a cist near Grantown, Morayshire in 1890.  Fifteen threads of Z-spun wool are worked into a plait of three.  However, the date of this piece is ambiguous. A robust piece of cloth made from drop-spun sheep’s wool woven in 2:1 twill was discovered in the 1980s during the underwater excavation of Oakbank Crannog, Perthshire and is dated to the late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age.

Only one textile fragment of secure Bronze Age date (radiocarbon dated to 1190–915 cal BC at 1σ) has been found within the last 30 years.  It was discovered in Sheshader, Isle of Lewis during peat cutting.  It consists of a pad of compressed (nearly felted) cattle hairs, with one or more cord made from twisted strands of wool plus several cords made from plaited horse hair (Alison Sheridan pers comm.)  One of the horsehair plaits measures c.30cm long, and another may have originally been longer. The ‘Sheshader Thing’ is a unique and odd discovery. It is evidence of different textile crafts practiced at the time: plaiting, twisting, cording, and felting; as well as the different combinations of fibres that can be used in the creation of one item.  Contextually it was discovered c. 10m away from a sub-peat field wall, but apart from this it was an isolated find with no other clues as to its true nature. Wincott Heckett (2007, 31; 2012, 432) suggests that the piece may have been worn tied to the face, lef or body of a small person or used as a mask at dances, other festivals, or on ceremonial occasions.

Wincott Heckett (2012, 432) also states that if the Sheshader Thing was in use at the earlier date range of around 1300 BC then it would be contemporary with a horsehair net worn by the woman buried at Skrydstrup (Broholm and Hald 1940, 20; Mannering et al. 2012, 97), and a wool mesh hairnet found with the Egtved girl (Glob 1973, 58), both from Danish Bronze Age mound burials dating to the second half of the 2nd millennium BC.

A hoard dating from the Late Bronze Age was found in St Andrews, Fife (Cowie et al. 1991, 45). As well as containing over 200 tools, weapons and ornaments; specimens of animal and plant fibre textiles were recovered. Identified was a tabby weave in wool made from Z‐spun single yarn with a thread count of about 6‐8 threads/cm; a bast fibre tabby weave, possibly in hemp, made from Z‐spun yarn with a thread count of 6/16 threads/cm; and a bast fibre textile measuring 7cm x 4cm, also in a tabby weave with a 14/12 thread/cm count (Wincott Heckett 2012, 432; Gabra Sanders 1994; 34‐41).

Vegetable Fibres

Three examples of vegetable fibre textiles have been discovered in Scotland; one is made from flax, one from flax or nettle and one from hemp.  All are associated with metal work where salts associated with corrosion products tend to assist with the preservation of these vulnerable materials.  The first is a piece of flax cloth used to plug the socket of a Late Bronze Age spear-head from Pyotdykes, Angus (Coles 1964, 178-8). It has a thread count of 10-11 threads per cm in a Z-spun yarn in both systems (Wincott Heckett 2012, 432). The second is a small piece of cloth found inside the socket of a Late Bronze Age knife in Nydie Mains, Fife.  It is made from plain woven flax fibres, and measures 17 mm in length and 6 mm in diameter.  It has a thread count of 8 to 9 threads per cm in a Z-spun yarn in one system, and a Z twisted single yarn in the other (Hedges  1972, 293-295; Wincott Heckett 2012, 432). Hemp string and fabric specimens woven in a tabby weave is preserved on the blade of a bronze razor from the St Andrews hoard.

Plant Fibres

A photograph of a stone lined cist burial showing a skeleton in a crouched position with fragments of woven wicker visible in areas

Image of Langwell Farm burial taken before police intervention in the cist © John White

In comparison to animal or vegetable fibres, there is more evidence for plant fibre textiles dating from this period,  with the majority found within funerary contexts: woven wicker and grass funerary mats/coverings and containers/bags within inhumation and burial cists. Contextual evidence for plant fibre textiles/crafts is misrepresented due to poor preservation of organics, difficulty of identifying settlement sites, and antiquarian bias towards burials.  The craft of weaving plant fibres to create a variety of objects e.g. mats, baskets, and bags, was by the Bronze Age probably an ancient and perfected craft skill – an indication of this glimpsed through the woven imprint on the pottery sherd from Rinyo, Rousay (Childe and Grant 1947, 34).

There are four examples of cist inhumations containing fabrics/mats made from plant fibres, which partially cover the body.  A Bronze Age date is likely for a fabric made from Scirpus Lacustris, Bulrush, found in a crouched cist burial of a woman at Firths Park, Stromness, Orkney.  The fabric was made using a cross-twisted technique and was reportedly swathed over the burial (Henshall 1950, 153).  Similar fragments of fibrous plant material have been reported at Greenoak Hill, Mount Vernon, Glasgow (Ibid 1950, 153), Ferniegair, South Lanarkshire (Welfare 1975, 5); West Puldrite, Evie, Orkney (Corrie 1929); and the most recent discovery at Langwell Farm, Strath Oykel (Lelong 2009).

On Langwell Farm, a partial inhumation burial was discovered in a cist along with fragments of woven wicker, fur and other unidentified organics.  Unfortunately most of these were destroyed when police compromised the archaeological evidence and partly cleared out the contents of the cist.  However, a photograph of the inside of the cist was taken shortly after its discovery, and clearly shows the wicker covering the skeleton in patches.  The farmer has since described the wicker as a ‘woven material resembling a basket in the lower leg region and additional basket-like material around the head’ (Lelong 2009, 7).

Cremated remains and ashes are also found placed on top of plant fibre mats within cists, such as at Antabreck, North Ronaldsay (Traill 1885).  Most recently, a mat or bier made of birch bark was found in a cist at Forteviot, dated to 2199–1977 cal BC, but it is unknown if it showed any sign of having been woven (Brophy and Noble 2011, 798).  There were also hints of some form of organic bag and coverings – including a sheath on the dagger (Brophy, pers comm).  Much of this material is currently undergoing post-excavation analysis.

In 1999 an unusual cist was excavated at Sand Fiold, Orkney (Dalland 1999).  It contained decomposed plant remains of grass and sedge covering an un-urned cremation deposit and unburnt bone deposit.  A Food Vessel Urn containing cremated bone had been lined with basketry also made from grass.  Apart from the remains of a basket lining the urn, there is no indication that the grasses placed within the cist were woven in any way, and it is thought they are the remains of wild grasses which were carefully placed and arranged to cover the unburnt bone and cremation deposits within the cist (Dalland 1999, 373).  There are other accounts of unidentified plant matter found within Bronze Age cist burials, which could be of the same ilk as the Sand Fiold burials at Roseisle, Moray (Shepherd and Murray 1987, 23); Links of Skaill, Orkney (Lysat 1974, 228); Barnhill, Angus (Hutcheson 1887); Lunanhead, Angus (Galloway 1877, 290); and Broomend, Inverurie (Chalmers 1867).

Textile production

There is very little evidence for textile manufacture; a result of preservation problems and limited settlement excavation in the past.  Manufacturing tools such as whorls, weights, shears, combs, bobbins, shuttles, looms, and tablet weaving plaits. are hardly represented.  These items were made out of a variety of different materials, organic and inorganic.  For instance there are lots of different ways to make a loom weight: stone, clay, or a cloth sack filled with dirt; the later not represented in the archaeological record due to preservation or problems in recognition.

Evidence for a loom was discovered in one of the houses at Cladh Hallan, South Uist.  Paired posts indicating where a loom might have stood, and a single loom weight were identified.  Spindle whorls were also found at this site (Parker Pearson et al. 2004, 73).

There are more examples of clothing accessories from Scotland, such as buttons (Clark et al. 1985) and pins.  The examples that survive to the present are usually made from stone or metal, and usually found in hoard (Ashmore 1996, 266) or funerary contexts (Jospeth 1989, 68-9; Jobey 1978-80; Childe et al. 1944, 106-19).

Bone/antler pins have been found associated with cremations on all parts of the British Isles (Longworth 1984).  They are commonly found in a calcined state within cremations found throughout Scotland (McCullagh and Tipping 1998, 132; Cowie et al. 1981), which suggests they were used as pins for funerary garments as opposed to pins used to secure cremated remains within a bag (Kirby 2011, 34).

Research Questions

A number of research questions (and how to study them archaeologically) arise from this, including:

  1. Did breeding sheep and cultivating vegetable crops for the production of materials for textile manufacture take place, and, if so, on what scale? How to recognise and study it archeologically?
  2. How important was the textile/craft industry to Bronze Age society and was there trade and exchange in textiles/plant crafts? How to recognise and study it archeologically?
  3. The ‘Sheshader Thing’ demonstrates the use of different fibres and techniques:  what animal, vegetable, and plant fibres were available?
  4. Re-analysis of known textile fragments [see Ryder (1999)] and the secure dating of samples from bog contexts would improve the data set considerably and help enable the questions above to be answered.
  5. Are burnt mounds connected with clothing and textile production – e.g. fulling, dyeing, tanning? Analysis of residues (lipids, chemical analysis) within tanks would help address this question.