Minoan: the challenges & the fun

As I’ve continued working on Minoan and bronze age Aegean sea area clothing I’ve ran into some fascinating challenges, and some even more fascinating insight!

“Restored” images & fragments

One of the biggest challenge is fragmentary frescoes, and the recreation of them.  Knossos was discovered by Sir Arthur John Evans, a British archaeologist, who “restored” many of the frescoes there as he thought they should be with the assistance of Swiss artist Émile Gilliéro.   The artist’s son, by the same name, later did further restoration work when an earthquake damaged some of the remaining images.

More recently, archaeologists such as Dr. Bernice Jones have been challenging some of the assumptions of how these frescoes were restored, and seeking to refine our understanding of the original art.  This is an ongoing project, and there is often small disagreements that result in dramatic changes of how a fresco is interpreted.

Minoans LOOOVVVEED their Wallpaper

Frescoes were not a single layer!  Many had been painted over several times during the Bronze age, making the puzzle of putting them back together even more challenging.  (For example, assemble 3 puzzles on top of each other, now break chunks of them off and mix those pieces into a bowl, try to match the pieces back in the right layer on the right puzzle.  Oh, and similar colors and paint styles were used, so make sure your puzzles are very similar too).

When is “wool” wool – and when is it a dollar?

Linear B has been translated, mostly, we think.  It’s not a direct translation of ancient Greek, it’s older, and after it passed away on the Minoan isles there was about a 300 year gap called the Greek dark ages before a written language (the Greek alphabet) was used again.  Much of Linear B was translated in the 1950s, but there are still questionable translations and complete unknowns.

One of the challenges in language is how certain words were used.  There are a group of tablets from the palace at Knossos where the translations result in fabric being compared to various amounts of wool.  The way we would say “$50 worth of fine silk” or “$100 of rough cotton”.  Wool is compared to cloth and separately to “edged cloths of a royal type” (Panagiotakopulu, Eva, University of Edinborough)

Fabric, fabric, and more fabric!

Minoans had a surprisingly wide variety of fabric and animals that could be harvested for fabric.  Frescoes depict a number of goat, sheep, and other furred animals as well as silk moths, cotton plants, and flax type fibers.  Some fresco images show fabric solid enough to cover the body completely, while others are depicted as incredibly sheer.   Clay tablets written in Linear B have been translated with words for sheep, goats, wool, and fabric.  Must of the trade from Knossos was dedicated to textiles.

How did they make that?

A common assumption is that Minoans were limited to warp weighted looms and tabby woven bands, what we frequently call inkle bands.  The patterns in trim on the fresco images are incredibly complex, as are those of the fabrics, and could have been created in a number of ways.  I was unable to find obvious tablets as early as 1300 BC, but there are bone tablets from 8th Century BC in central Italy that are were clearly used for tablet weaving. The wear patterns along the lines of the cards are the same that my own favorites get after frequent use.

 

In short – combining a lot of different pieces and angles of investigation is yielding an incredible wealth of knowledge.  Creating, and wearing, the clothing depicted in frescoes has added even more information.  I’m preparing a more detailed write up piece by piece, and will post it soon!

Squirrels and Birds and Rabbits OH MY! a Viking age animal brocade band

Elisenhof E-415 Brocade Tablet Woven Band

IMG_20181006_115017 (2)

Historical Basis:  Elisenhof was an 8th century settlement in northern Germany.  There are 254 textile finds from the area, mostly poor to medium quality.  The record of these finds was published in 1957 in Die Textil-Und Schnurreste Aus Der Frühgeschichtlichen Wurt Elisenhof by Hans-Jurgen Hündt.   To the right is a section of the photograph of the band.  Sadly, the band itself seems lost to history.

When examining these photos and drawings in the book it is apparent that a lighter warp was used with a darker weft.  The weft is thicker than the warp, and brocaded to create stylized animal shapes.  The band is about 14.5” long and varies between .5 to .7 inches wide.

The band has 20 pattern cards and no border cards.  The cards were threaded with tightly spun S threads.  The threads were incredibly fine, only .2mm thick (most sewing thread is about .3mm).   The band and brocade threads are wool in several shades of brown.

Of note, the band was attached to an interesting arrangement of tighter and looser packed threads along with a braid.  Also of interest is that there does not seem to be a supplementary or main weft, but the back of the band shows the brocade weft jumping back and forth across the band rather than always entering neatly from one side and using a second thread to hold the band together.

Tools & Materials:

In Period:

  • Dark copper brown and light brown wool spun at superfine thread weight
  • Tablet weaving cards
  • Brocading shuttle

My work:

  • Blue and White wool thread (Jaggerspun 2/20 wool) in tribute to Atlantia
  • Tablet Weaving Cards
  • Brocading shuttle
  • Inkle Loom

 

Notes:

Commercial fibers are generally spun in a S twist, but then plied (two fibers twisted together) in a Z or clockwise direction.  This neutralizes the twist and could be one reason bands made with commercially produced wool do not have the strong texture of the original band.  I was unable to source wool spun so finely in an S spun direction so used the smallest I had on hand.  This accounts for the size difference between the original band and mine.

There were no references to tablet weaving cards in the finds at Elisenhof, however from other finds such as the Oseberg ship and Birka trade city, we know that bone, leather, and wood tablets were all used in the 8th century.  I used wood cards on this band.

As with the cards, only speculation could be used to decipher what style of loom was used to weave a band with once it’s removed.  The Osberg ship find, also 8th century, contains a loom where the band is woven between two upright poles.  The inkle loom I chose uses a similar tension method, but with a horizontal orientation instead of a vertical one.  This wouldn’t change the weaving method or the finished project.  It may affect how often reversals are needed to handle tension or to push tension out the loose threads at the back of a straight warp.

Technique:

I began with Hans-Jurgen Hündt’s research as I had the book from a previous project.  The animal shapes in the diagram at the back were intriguing as was an all wool brocade band.

Also, in honor of Atlantia, I selected white and blue as my band colors.  Like the original I used a lighter background with darker brocade threads. The brocade weft in the original was triple ply to make it thicker than the warp threads.  I used doubled thread for my brocade weft.  As I wanted to keep the back of the finished project neater, I chose to add a border and supplemental threads to allow me to keep the brocade hidden in the middle of the band.

I warped 24 cards in pure white, wove a header, then used a fine shuttle to thread first the supplemental thread, then the brocade thread through each row.  When I needed to change threads, I ended the old and began the new thread on the middle of the back of the band.

 What went wrong:

               I chose to weave directly from the original drawing of the band rather than recreate the pattern into a more familiar style and work from it.  Though the drawing (included below) is incredibly detailed, it did still leave questionable areas where the notations did not make much sense from a weaver’s perspective.  Also the inclusion of broken threads made counting challenging at several spots along the band.  Unweaving wool is incredibly challenging as it really loves to felt when twisted into a tablet woven band.

Next time I’ll:

I enjoy the animals from this band and will use the pattern again.  However, modern aesthetic leaves me wanting to finish edges and tops so that they form smooth outlines and there are no uneven edges.  I will also probably use silk as it is my preferred weaving material. I also want to experiment with colors in brocade.  The dark blue brocade weft made the white look greyish where it passes in between the cards.  I’m curious to see if and when this color change will show through on different materials, thicknesses, and colors of threads.

 

Bibliography

Hansen, Egon. Tablet Weaving: History, Techniques, Colours, Patterns. Hovedland Publ, 1990.

Hundt, Hans-Jurgen. Volume 4 of Elisenhof: The Results of the Excavation of the Early-Historical Marsh Settlement at the Elisenhof in Eiderstedt 1957/58 and 1961 / 64. Long, 1980.