General view over valley in mountains of south Norway from beside Lendbreen glacier

Recreating Norwegian Tunic from the Iron Age

A Norwegian tunic, dated to AD 230 -390, is going to be recreated

In Norway the ice is melting in the glaciers, shedding numerous treasures from the prehistoric as well as medieval past. A few years ago the Lendbreen glacier in Breheimen National Park thus coughed up shoes, hunting gear, tent pegs, textile rags and horse dung from the Iron Age as well as a woolen tunic from AD 230 – 390. Since then archaeologists and conservators have worked to study this, the oldest piece of textile ever found in Norway.

Iron age tunic as found in Norway under Glacier
Iron age tunic as found in Norway under Glacier

The tunic was found at a place where people had camped in order to hunt for reindeers. In summer the animals are so plagued by the warble flies that they seek refuge on the glaciers. The hunters took advantage of this by camping on the edge of the glacier. Here they tethered their horses before continuing on foot. It is not quite clear what happened at the camp afterwards. However, the fact remains that the archaeologists found not only arrowheads, but also complete arrows with fletching and shafts plus the tunic, which had been bundled up and left in the dung. Perhaps the hunting party was caught in a storm and died before they could retrieve their valuables and horses.

Reconstruction

Marianne Vedeler with Tunic. Photo: Yngve Vogt
Marianne Vedeler with Tunic. Photo: Yngve Vogt

The chief archaeologist, Marianne Vedeler, now tells that the shirt is going to be reconstructed. Hopefully this will shed new light on the ancient production process and the time, which was invested in making such a tunic.

Marianne Vedeler tells: “The remarkable thing is how old and well-preserved the tunic was. It is a very fine example of how prehistoric people used wool. One of our aims in reconstructing the tunic is to learn more about how the textile was made, how time-consuming it was to make, and how the wool was used.”

The reconstruction will take place in a collaboration between two museums, The Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo and the Norwegian Mountain Museum (Norsk Fjellmuseum) in Lom . Thw result will be two tunics: one tunic will be on display at the museum in Oslo, the other at the museum in Lom, which has a large exhibition of the other archaeological finds from the Lendbreen glacier, some ten kilometres west of Lom.

Overhair and underwool

The wool, which will be used, will come from present-day wild sheep provided by a sheep farmer at Hareid in Sunnmøre.

Villsau - Wild Sheep in Norway
Wild Sheep – villsau – in Norway

The wool of this ancient Norwegian sheep breed has two layers. The outer-layer hair, known as overhair, is long and stiff and acts as a sort of raincoat for the sheep. The innermost layer, called underwool, is soft and fine and resembles the wool we find in modern sheep breeds. The different properties of the wool were used for different types of textile.

“Textiles made from overhair were more water-resistant and more hard-wearing than if they had been made of underwool. We were therefore surprised to discover that the tunic from Lendbreen was made almost exclusively from underwool, that is to say the wool from the innermost layer. The tunic is a strange mixture of fine wool and simple cut. Most Iron Age clothing was repaired and re-used. More hard-wearing than today’s clothing, it might be used for several decades. The tunic may have been used for something else before it was left on the glacier. It was old and worn when found, and had several patches sewn on it. The sleeves had also been sewn on at a later date than the original tunic”, tells Marianne Vedeler.

“The glaciers were also used as transport routes for people travelling between the valleys, such as between Bøverdalen and Ottadalen. It was quicker to go over the mountain pass than to go round. The glaciers in those days were much bigger, and easy to walk on. The tunic may have been lost on just such a trip,” says Mai Bakke from the Museum in Lom.

Separating the wool

Tunic - detail. Photo: Mårten Teigen/ The Museum of Cultural History
Tunic – detail. Photo: Mårten Teigen/ The Museum of Cultural History

Among other things, the researchers will be seeking to assess how much work was required to separate the overhair from the soft underwool and how long it would have taken to make the tunic.

Before the wool can be spun, all the overhair must be removed. The traditional wool spinnery at Selbu Spinneri – http://selbuspinneri.com – will be responsible for separating the wool and spinning it. Some of the wool will be spun on a hand spindle – a long thin spindle with a round whorl – which was the only known method of spinning in olden times. It was not until the 1700s that the spinning wheel first appeared.

“Spinning the wool demanded an enormous amount of work and in those days represented a bottleneck in the production process. Having all the wool spun by hand would have been too costly for our project, so we are also spinning some mechanically,” Vedeler explains.

Distinctive diamond pattern

Iron age tunic. Reconstruction: Marianne VedelerWhen the archaeologists found the tunic on the glacier, it was possible to discern a diamond pattern in the textile, as long as the tunic was wet. The distinctive weaving technique used to make this pattern is known as diamond twill. This is held to be quite advanced.

“Two colours were used in the tunic to create a mottled pattern. The combination of the diamond twill weave and this pattern is unusual, and it is precisely this combination that we intend to copy”, she continues.

The underwool from the wild sheep can be sorted in shades from pale grey through to dark grey. For the recreation, Vedeler has chosen to use the palest and darkest shades.

Bronze Age weaving

The spun woollen yarn will be woven on a vertical warp-weighted loom, which is the oldest kind of loom we know of:

“The loom is simple, but time-consuming to use,” says Vedeler.

Consisting of a simple upright frame with two horizontal beams, the loom is leant against a wall. The vertical warp threads hang freely from the upper beam. To keep the warp threads taut, stones or other heavy weights are hung from the bottom of bundles of warp threads. The weaving is done from the top of the loom downwards and every line of weft thread is beaten tightly in place with a sword beater.

The textiles will be woven by handweaver Lena Hammarlund from Gothenburg in Sweden. Lena specializes in reconstructing prehistoric textiles.

Once the textile has been woven, the two tunics will be sewn by tailors at the traditional craft business Heimen Husflid in Oslo.

From Nordic Food to Nordic Wool

Woolen Jacket inspired by Norwegian Traditions
Woolen Jacket inspired by Norwegian Traditions

Marianne Vedeler hopes the reconstruction will inspire Norwegian designers to create new, modern textiles as had the wild food of Scandinavia been the inspiration for restaurants like world-famous Noma.

“Clothes were not consumer items in the Iron Age. It was important to be able to re-use clothing, and in those days clothes lasted a long time. Today, we spend enormous resources on clothes. And modern clothes are not durable. If we can use local raw materials and create clothing of high quality, it will be good for us all. We are therefore hoping that designers will be inspired by this example of old, Norwegian design. If we can create modern textiles from a prehistoric design, we hope also to be able to give a boost to the Norwegian wool industry. Sadly, much of the wool from the old sheep breeds is currently wasted,” adds Vedeler, who, in company with ethnologist Ingun Grimstad Klepp of the National Institute for Consumer Research, and journalist Tone Skårdal Tobiasson, the author of a number of books about fashion and design – has made an all-out effort to rectify this through the “VikingGold” project.

SOURCE:

Recreating clothes from the Iron Age
by Yngve Vogt

Villsau

Another find from Lendbreen – Old Skies

READ MORE:

Out of the Norwegian Glaciers: Lendbreen – a tunic from the early first millennium AD
By Marianne Vedeler and Lise Bender Jørgensen, Lise
In:  Antiquity 2013,  Vol. 87 No. 337 pp. 788–801
ISSN 0003-598X. 87(337)