Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
06.06.17, Østergård, Woven into the Earth

06.06.17, Østergård, Woven into the Earth

This handsomely produced volume addresses the recovery, preservation, and analysis of woolen textiles found in graves from medieval Norse settlements on Greenland's south-western coast, known traditionally as the Eastern and Western settlements, now perhaps most identified with questions of how and why they ended in the fifteenth century. Some of the bodies at the Herjolfsnæs churchyard appear to have been buried in wooden coffins; others are wrapped only in shrouds that may reflect the deceased's own or other discarded clothing, at times cut up. The specific soil conditions that permitted the preservation of the textiles has left little in the way of skeletal remains. Willow shoots growing up through the graves account for the title of this book.

The work falls into two distinct but uneven halves. The first reviews the excavation history and textile finds, their initial analysis and exhibition, then turns to matters of more specific interest to the history of textiles: the source of raw materials, processing of raw wool, production of thread, construction of the warp-weighted loom and its operation. A major section (62-75) is devoted to the various weaves represented in the recovered clothing. Penelope Walton Rogers offers a separate chapter on "Fibres and Dyes in Norse Textiles" (79-92). Sections on tailoring implements and accessories, the production and decoration of garments, with briefer discussion of flax and linen, furs and skins, and the use of woolen sails, lead toward the conclusion of the first part, the final sections of which compare the finds to contemporary iconographical evidence and similar recoveries from other sites, group the garments by type, and speculate on the fate of the settlements.

The second half of the book, richly illustrated with color photographs, represents the more formal archaeological publication of these textile finds (149-255). More exactly, it is a catalogue of the Herjolfsnæs textiles from the churchyard now being eroded by the sea. Reassembly efforts suggest some 25 original garments in all, the oldest of which may date from between 990 and 1190. Each is discussed in turn under a rather opaque system of garment type classification. Accompanying tables detail garment length and radio-carbon datings. The final pages of the volume are given over to a bibliography, glossary, list of illustrations (which very misleadingly ignores the 100 illustrations in the first part of the book), subject and place name indexes, summary in Greenlandic, and a projection of three garments onto graph paper, which would assist replication.

General readers and professional archaeologists will have little cause for quarrel with the catalogue section of this book; at most there is an unresolved tension between the running text and the captions to individual illustrations. One never knows where to look for the interesting kernel of new information. Yet, acknowledging the competence of the author to deal with spinning, weaving, and sewing techniques, the first portion of the work does not display the same high level of professionalism. It would have been far preferable to incorporate contributed essays by recognized experts in medieval sub-Arctic ecology, settlement and demography, medieval breeds of domestic animals, cultural patterns, e.g., reliance on imported stock-raising and nutritional customs (mutton, seal and whale but little fish), attitudes toward, and relations with, indigenous peoples (to the extent recoverable), to name only those topics which immediately suggest themselves. Furs have not been preserved but hair traces show the presence of skins of animals not native to Greenland and thus suggest contact with Indians or Inuit. As it is, Østergård offers only a superficial and meandering paraphrase of received scholarly findings, written in a non-idiomatic English, with all too frequent moments of discursive vapidity: "Wool clothes were just as important to the Norse Greenlanders as butter and cheese" (38); "It was on ships that Eric the Red and the other Icelanders came to Greenland at the end of the tenth century" (116). Deficiencies in the mode and medium of expression become most telling in the section that is the author's most valuable contribution, the expert analysis of textile weaves, which goes far beyond that earlier available. The first archaeologist to deal with the recovered material in the 1920s, Poul Nølund, could literally not tell front from back, and regularly made errors in associating and reconnecting fragments. These errors are now authoritatively corrected, but far too much space is given to rehearsing Nølund's contribution. In the decades since their discovery, the quality of the textiles has deteriorated due to exposure to light but, conversely, other appropriate preservation techniques have been developed.

A single breed of sheep was represented on Greenland and its fleece is characterized in the conventional system as of the hairy to medium-hairy type. The wool was both plucked off and sheared, and was then combed and sorted according to degree of coarseness. The coarsest, at times augmented with goat-hair, was used for the warp, and the finest reserved to be spun as sewing thread. Sheep fat could be used to the fibres give more body in spinning.

The author regularly introduces medieval Old Norse-Icelandic or modern Icelandic and Norwegian weaving and textile terminology without adequate glosses or an explanation of the meanings of the elements of a compound. To exemplify with two key terms, the author writes that the Modern Icelandic word vefnstaður can be translated both as 'weaving place' and 'stone-weight loom'" (53). It is more exact to say that the English reflex of the name would be weave-stead, as in homestead, so that this indeed references the site where weaving occurs, and that the referent is a warp-weighted loom. Second, vaðmal originally meant not exactly a 'cloth measure' (62) but a measured unit of woven cloth and subsequently a unit of cloth of a standard length, breadth, and weave. Its final, evolved use was as a unit of value in barter. The typical upright loom permitted a maximum woven width of about four feet. In the section on "'shaft' names" (61), it is not noted that such Scandinavian terms as einskeft and þrískeft in reality reference the number of heddle rods in use and thus the woven outcome as tabby, 2/1 twill, or 2/2 twill. The Norwegian word alen is first used long before it is glossed as ell in English and only later is information provided on just which length was meant, with no discussion of the variations in the absolute length of this unit from one region to another of medieval north-western Europe. Not all readers will know what to make of a liripipe (a long cord hanging from the rear peak of a hood). Find sites are identified by a code system that is never explained or projected onto a map. This list of critical points could be greatly extended. The author displays no great familiarity with wider medieval Norse cultural history. She does not cite the discussion in Laxdæla saga of the size of neck openings on men's and women's shirts, and thinks the epithet Bjarnheðinn designated someone with a bear-skin cloak, not the qualities of a berserker.

Some fascinating topics are simply abandoned. Projections of household size, clothing and wool requirements, the size of sheep herds (80-100 sheep per family?), and the necessary pasture land under the vegetation conditions of medieval Greenland trail off into this statement: "The sheep were therefore either forced to wander far around to find food, or the household must have managed with less consumption of wool" (41). Yet there are fascinating nuggets of information that bring us very close to the precarious life in the settlements: the thorough exploitation of sheep carcasses; the use of stored urine to treat cloth; water-proof goat fells employed to wrap bales of goods; the value of driftwood from the rivers of Canada and Siberia; dried dung used as fuel.

The account of the warp-weighted loom (53-60), the central instrument in medieval textile production, is particularly frustrating. The set-up of the loom with the warp threads held taut by weights, often carved of local soapstone and incised with runes, is favored over the dynamics of its top-down operation. Some matters, such as the weaver's movement of the heddle rods or the passage by hand of the weft thread across the warp, are hardly discussed; other details are obscured by the author's home-made terminology, e.g., notches cut near the ends of the beam on which the warp was wound, in order to control its rotation in the crotches of the loom's two uprights, are called "cavities" (59). Marta Hoffmann's The Warp-Weighted Loom (1964) remains our best guide here. Sword beaters, in both wood and whalebone, used to pound the weft into the warp, have been recovered, as have walrus ivory tablets for the hand-weaving of smaller pieces used as decoration and reinforcement. Spinning is somewhat better explained, and the function of distaffs, spindle whorls and sticks is more readily grasped.

To itemize some of the many omissions that this reviewer finds in the book: Østergård's study shows little reflection of recent work on the farm economy of Norse Greenland, in particular, the exploitation of natural, especially marine, resources, and how the full exploitation of the environment may have been checked by cultural values and attitudes. We have the evidence of whalebone used for sword beaters and whale vertebrae perhaps used as stools, carved local soapstone loom weights, walrus ivory buttons; the fur of the Arctic hare incorporated into textiles, the assumption of seal skin used in footwear and for other purposes, a lack of evidence for fish as an important component of diet, but these bits of invaluable information are never assembled into a surveyable whole. The gender-specifics of sheep-raising and cloth production are not explored. The discussion of the layout of buildings with a sunken weaving room and attendant poor light conditions is not matched with a concern, however speculative, about just why the northern or northeastern part of buildings, nominally the coldest, would have been chosen for these operations. There is little effort to distinguish male and female clothing (aside from Walton's comment on colors, 89), between work and dress clothes--was there a distinction? The question of clothes being lined is left unresolved. There is no discussion of personal hygiene and laundering, although we do learn of the short service life of clothes woven from the wool of sheep that died of natural causes. The weaving of the Norse Greenlanders was clearly of a quality suitable for trade and export. But was such a surplus ever available? Østergård assumes small farms with single families. But could not estates with a substantial servant population and a kind of cottage industry production of textiles have been equally possible?

The many color illustrations are one of the joys of this book, although even more high magnification photographs would have been welcome, like that of the S-spun, Z-plied threads combined in a triple-braided cord (Fig. 96, 230).

Despite the imbalance between the first and second parts of this book, comparable to that between its marketing objectives to sell both as a popularizing coffee-table book for weaving enthusiasts and as an academic resource, and a generally museological approach to preserved artifacts in preference to a concern for the dynamics of weaving, Østergård presents a number of important conclusions, delivered with more authority than the book as a whole is written. As might be expected, under what were perhaps conditions very close to those of a subsistence economy, every part of a slaughtered domestic animal found some practical use. Wool was carefully sorted before spinning. Norse Greenlanders disposed of a wide repertory of spinning, plying, and braiding techniques, weaves (although 2/2 twill dominates), and sewing stitches. Clothing in late medieval Norse Greenland shows an equal concern for both practicality and style, as evidenced by the attention to durability, wear edges and points, gussets, and the fall of garments as determined by pleats. Most characteristic of the Greenland textiles is the high quality of the spinning and weaving, the tightness of the weave, with more weft than warp threads per square inch, and the careful tailoring. The need to retain body heat in the worsening climate from the thirteenth century onwards (the "Little Ice Age") and an environment of fuel-scarce, poorly heated buildings is the most tempting explanation but need not be the only one. With limited resources to add individual character to garments, the fur of the Arctic hare was used for trim; the few locally available dyes were innovatively supplemented by coloring garments red in the iron-bearing water of streams and rivers. The preserved evidence of cloth production from the high Middle Ages gives no evidence of a population in decline, but we cannot judge to what extent the settlers were striving to keep up appearances. Certainly there is no suggestion that the settlements were cut off from Iceland, Norway, and Europe in matters of style. And Greenland cloth reflects contact, direct or indirect, with both Irish and English weaving. Only in the discussion of woolen textiles used as sails does the author speak of efforts to replicate medieval Norse weaving under strictly scientific conditions (trials conducted under the aegis of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde), although active museum exhibits may provide less rigorously produced examples.

To conclude, here is the author's appreciation of medieval Norse dress on Greenland: "The male settlers may...have worn a linen shirt, as well as one or two long-sleeved knee-length vaðmal gowns and trousers, or possibly leg-wrappings. The women may have been dressed in a pleated linen or wool shift as well as a long strapped skirt consisting of one or two rectangular pieces of cloth that were wrapped around the body and held up by straps or cords over the shoulders. On their heads the men would have had round or pointed caps (small caps representing pill-box hats). Both men and women had shaggy-pile woven cloaks. On their feet they wore leather shoes or boots" (127). Add to this headdresses and hoods with liripipes, gloves, and furs and you would be all set to attend the wedding in Hvalsey Church in 1408. Icelandic visitors reported that all seemed well.