Experimenting with textile tools at the Fitch Lab
A database of c. 10 000 loom weights and spindle whorls from across the north Mediterranean can bring much knowledge, as well as new questions about ancient cloth manufacture. This is some of the data our team at the ERC project PROCON have collected over the past five years in order to study textile production in Mediterranean Europe between c. 1000–500 BC.
Loom-weights: how small is too small?
One puzzling discovery is that in Greece there were very small loom weights, of just 40 g or even 30 g. (By contrast, 400–600 g weights are fairly common in Italy, and 1 kg weights are usable too). They are so small that excavators have often thought they cannot possibly be functional objects, and therefore must be toys or intended for dedication.
I think the small loom weights are too numerous and wide-spread to be dismissed as toys or votives. 20 % of the intact loom-weights in our database for Greece are between 30–49 g. We find them in mainland Greece, on Crete and smaller Aegean islands, as well as in southern Italy, Thrace and the Levant.
However, when we apply to them the current method for analysis of loom weights, the calculations give improbable results. The small weights would provide very little tension on the loom (e.g., if we tie 5 threads to a 30 g weight, the tension per thread is just 6 g). Is it possible to weave with them?
There is one way to find out: make some loom-weights and try them out on a loom.
Making loom weights at the Fitch Lab
With advice from Drs Evangelia Kiriatzi and Georgia Kordatzaki from the Fitch Lab, I sourced some local Attic clay and made a set of 40-gram pyramidal weights (the most common shape for our period).
The process of making the loom weights was a welcome opportunity to think about how people would have done it in antiquity. Shaping a loom weight is much easier than shaping a pot, but if you want to make a good weaving set, there are some specific considerations to keep in mind.
Clays with different composition have a different density, which means that two loom weights of identical size may have different weights, if you use different pastes. In some places, like Corinth, this difference is noticeable even when you pick them up with your hands.
You need to know how much your clay will shrink and how much weight it will lose if you want to achieve a certain size as we did. Our clay lost 20 % of its weight in drying and another 7–8 % in firing, but it almost did not change in size.
We wanted the weights to have the same weight and thickness. It quickly became apparent that the easiest way to achieve that was to use a homogeneous paste and to measure out equal amounts of clay. We then shaped the rectangular lumps into pyramids by pushing them between two flat surfaces. It would have been even faster if we had a pyramidal mould.
Breakage is another consideration if you are making a set of 20 or more objects. We wanted to end up with 28–30 weights for weaving, so we made 32 – just enough to fit in the Fitch furnace – in case a couple cracked.
Happily, all survived the 700 °C firing and were sent off to Lena Hammarlund, an experienced hand-weaver in Sweden, who often works with archaeologists.
When first I told Lena about the 40 g loom weights, she raised her eyebrows and said they were useless for weaving. Then she agreed to try them with different yarns and tensions.
Several months later, Lena’s report shows that it is possible to weave with 40 g weights, but it is hard to identify what they would be best-suited for. Weaving with such low tension is “troublesome” and makes an already time-consuming task take even longer. The same cloth, she says, can be made more easily and quickly by using higher tension per thread which can be achieved with heavier weights. So why did ancient weavers use the light ones? The question remains open and brings us to question our idea of what was ‘optimal’ for ancient craftspeople as well as other variables in the weaving process, as we write up the results of the experiments for publication. I look forward to continuing to work together with members of the Fitch towards better understanding ancient crafts.
Bela Dimova, Leventis Fellow in Hellenic Studies at the British School at Athens
This research was conducted within the project PROCON (2013-2018) led by Dr Margarita Gleba at Cambridge University and funded by the European Research Council. We are also thankful for the support and advice from the Fitch Lab.