Weaving in the Iron Age

loomweight
Figure 1: One of four discovered loomeweights

Evidence of daily life in Wiltshire during the Middle Iron Age (400 BC – 100 BC) has been recently uncovered by Cotswold Archaeology.  Most finds recovered from recent excavations at a site near Ludgershall Castle are pottery vessels used in the preparation and cooking of foodstuffs, but other objects made of clay were also discovered. These other items are traditionally called loomweights, although an alternative use as oven bricks has also been suggested for examples found at Danebury hillfort, Hampshire, where they appear associated with oven debris. Other examples have been found at Glastonbury, Southampton and Heybridge, Essex.

A total of four were discovered, one of them almost intact (Figure 1), the rest missing one or two corners. They are shaped like a prism, with the shape of a triangle when seen from the front and of a rectangle when seen from the side; all corners and edges are rounded and smooth. Each one is approximately 15cm in height and weighs about 1.2kg.

An upright loom with stone weights at the end of the warps (by kind permission of Offsetwarehouse, UK)
Figure 2: An upright loom with stone weights at the end of the warps (by kind permission of Offsetwarehouse, UK)
Greek terracotta lekythos or oil flask, c. 550–530 BC, decorated with scenes of women making woolen cloth, including work at an upright loom (The Metropolitan Museum, New York, public domain)
Figure 3: Greek terracotta lekythos or oil flask, c. 550–530 BC, decorated with scenes of women making woolen cloth, including work at an upright loom (The Metropolitan Museum, New York, public domain).

They would have been used to hold in tension the vertical (warp) threads when weaving textiles in a vertical standing loom, in a similar fashion to the example shown in Figure 2.  When weaving the yarn, the vertical strands needed to be taut; this was achieved by attaching the warp threads to a bar at the top of the loom, and weights to the other end. Once the vertical threads were weighed down, then the horizontal (weft) thread was passed through them. Almost anything could be used as weights, from natural stone (granite, chalk, soapstone) to metal (lead, bronze), generally perforated with one or two holes for suspension.  An early illustration of this type of loom appears in a Greek vessel (Figure 3).

A video filmed in 1947 in Norway shows the whole process from the beginning.

The native Orkney sheep (Photo by Gibbja – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0
Figure 4: The native Orkney sheep (Photo by Gibbja – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Vegetable fibres (for example, from flax or hemp) and wool from sheep were woven in this way. The sheep were a smaller type of breed than modern ones, comparable to the native Orkney breed (Figure 4). They probably moulted and the wool would have been plucked by hand, although a pair of shears are known from the Iron Age site of Flag Fen, Peterborough, carefully kept in a purpose-made box (Figure 5).

Wool and fibres needed proper preparation before they were converted into yarn. The process would have been similar to that still used in the medieval and later periods: the wool was cleaned and carded, then spun using spindles (see Figure 2). Flax and hemp plants required soaking in pits full of water for the plant to rot and allow access to the fibres, before being spun and converted into yarn.

The Iron Age shears and their box from Flag Fen, Peterborough (Fane Road Archaeology Group)
Figure 5: The Iron Age shears and their box from Flag Fen, Peterborough (Peterborough Museum)

Textiles do not normally survive in archaeological contexts because they are organic and decay easily, but when conditions are right, remains might be found. Fleeces in a range of natural colours (black, brown, grey and white) and dyed wool in red and blue colours would have been weaved during the Iron Age into striking patterns such as checks. Tools related to spinning and weaving, such as spindle-whorls, weaving combs, needles and loom-weights are frequent finds in archaeological excavations of sites dating to the Iron Age. They confirm that spinning yarn and weaving textiles would have been an essential everyday task for households.

Alejandra Gutierrez

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