Invisible craft? Textile tools and production

Trays of spindle whorls from Abu Geili, Sudan National Museum. Photo Elsa Yvanez©

I have been very fortunate in the past few years to work with archaeologists who understand the potential of textile archaeology and accepted to communicate many of their data to me. I have also worked on great archives…and some less great, assembled in the first decades of Sudanese archaeology. But in this field, we are often reminded of the lesser status of textile activities in the mind of many of our predecessors:

“If I devote a special section of my text to spindle-whorls I do so with apologies; my object is simply to clear the ground as expeditiously as possible of a mass of material of no great interest which would otherwise obtrude unduly. The scientific importance of spindle-whorls has been very much exaggerated… today there is no excuse for wasting space and money on this monotonous and profitless material.”

Sir Leonard Woolley, excavator of Ur, in his seminal work; Alalakh: An Account of the Excavations at Tell Atchana in the Hatay, 1937-1949, published 1955.

The disdain expressed by Sir Leonard Wooley is these early years has most certainly to do with the past understanding of textile craft as a whole: dare I say an activity for women, not worth much attention from “serious” archaeologists?! Jokes aside, textiles and textile production remained excluded for a long time from most of the archaeological research because of the difficulty to contextualize the few remains that survived centuries of burying. Scraps of textiles…or hundreds of fabrics taken from Late Antic Egyptian cemeteries, cut off and sold to art dealers throughout Europe… None of them makes very good archaeological artefact because they are fragmentary and difficult to replace in their context of manufacture and use. Textiles are also the result of a complex multi-steps chaine opératoire, highly codified in a specialized terminology which tends to scare newcomers to the field. So, yes indeed, it would have been much easier for Sir Leonard Woolley to dismiss the spindle whorls as “monotonous and profitless material” than trying to understand the intricacies of spinning techniques. Textile craft does then become an invisible craft, especially if one chooses to ignore its manifestations on the field!

However, textiles were of tremendous importance in past societies, where flexible and soft material would have fulfill a very wide variety of uses, from clothing to storage, from architectural elements to furnishings, from sailing to shroud…and so many others. These many needs depended on a complex and time-consuming production chain which occupied a large part of the population. In many ways, understanding past economies cannot be disconnected from textile production.

A detailed study of the different sources documenting textile production is therefore a must for anyone interested in the craft’s organization and economy. The tools – spindle whorls and loom weights especially – have proved to be very good trackers of textile activities. As for any material studies, their study require a good understanding of the chaine opératoire and a rather sharp attention to details. A multi-disciplinary approach, combining a deep knowledge of textile manufacture, archaeological methodology and material, and rigorous experimental testing, can supply much of the missing data. Taken together, these different approaches can often paint a vivid picture of a craft that shaped a large part of ancient societies’ everyday life, both on a domestic and industrial levels. Eva Anderson Strand and the CTR have developed a true protocol to record spindle whorls, loom weights etc., so as to make the most of the material. It is based on a minute recording of each and every tool, and a detailed examination of corresponding archaeological contexts.

For optimal recording, here are a few guidelines for archaeologists in the field (if I may!):

  • Record the weight of every tool
  • Inventory each tool one by one, not as a “large group of X”, or “c. 10 or 20 X”
  • Take pictures and make drawings of their in situ findspot, when they are found on a distinct floor level or feature…especially for loom weights.

With all of that, we may be able to learn the location and scale of textile production on the given site, reconstruct the size of the loom, estimate the type of fabric woven and the time it required. Not too shabby for “material of no great interest”…

N.B. Thanks to Anne Drewsen for drawing Woolley’s quote to my attention. Truly illuminating!



  1. E. Andersson Strand, K.M. Frei, M. Gleba, U. Mannering, M.-L. Nosch, and I. Skals, “Old Textiles, New Possibilities”, European Journal of Archaeology 13.2, 2010, p. 149-173.
  2. C. Gillis and M.-L. Nosh (eds) , Ancient Textiles: production, craft and society: Proceedings of the 1st International Conference on Ancient Textiles, Oxbow books, Oxford, 2007.
  3. L. Martensson, M.-L. Nosch and E. Andersson-Strand, “Shape of things: understanding a loom weight”, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 28(4), 2008, p. 373-398.
Tags : archaeologycrafteconomymaterial studiestextile productiontools
Elsa Yvanez

The author Elsa Yvanez

I am an archaeologist, researcher and post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Textile Research, Copenhagen University.