Saturday, January 19, 2013

Hallstatt Textiles
Art Review

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Hallstatt is in upper Austria – no Kangaroos in Austria! It is internationally renowned for its prehistoric salt mines. The climatic conditions in the mines are such that organic materials – such as textiles – were preserved for over 3000 years. They are some of the oldest dyed textiles in Europe, since they have been dated from the Bronze Age (ca. 1600 – 1200 B.C.) to the Early Iron Age (Hallstatt Culture, 850 – 350 B.C.)

Iron Age woven cloth from the Hallstatt salt mines.
Courtesy of Natural History Museum, Vienna.

For over 150 years, archaeologists have excavated these fragile remains - under trying conditions. Presently a team from the Natural History Museum Vienna (NHMV) are tracing the old prehistoric shafts of the salt mines in order to search for artefacts firmly encrusted in the rock salt.

A shaft in an old salt mine.
Courtesy of NHMV.

From the early Stone Age (5000 B.C.) salt has been an essential raw material, not only for consumption, but mainly because it preserves meat. Vital though salt is, it is not found everywhere: for example, Hungary, Bohemia and Switzerland do not have salt deposits. Places with viable salt deposits are thus all the more important from a survival point of view and also as a trading commodity. Hallstatt Hochtal (Hallstatt Valley) was one such rare location. Three thousand years ago salt from this valley was probably traded many hundreds of kilometres north, east and over the Alps to the south.

The narrow valley, 400 meters above Hallstatt is unique in having salt beds that have been compressed and pushed up near the surface.
Courtesy of NHMV.

The Bronze Age miners left many fragments of thick woollen materials, which appear to have been used as bags in which the mined salt was carried. As yet, no convincing narrative has been found for the hundreds of pieces of fabric that were discarded in the Iron Age. It seems likely that expendable textiles were collected in the settlement, ripped up and taken to the mines. It is not known what part these rags played in the work process before they were discarded. Later in history both Bronze and Iron Age mines were destroyed by catastrophic events.

Iron Age leather shoes from the salt mine at Hallstatt. The front part of the shoe is visibly worn out (top). Archaeologists assume that the shoe was used for climbing ladders and stairs in the mines; this is consistent with the fact that only rarely are the heels worn down.
Courtesy of NHMV.

The Hallstatt burial site - consisting of almost 1,500 graves - has yielded no remnants of clothing. However, woven fragments appear in conjunction with many swords and daggers made of iron, where the oxidation of the metal has preserved the woven material and so left it intact.

Iron dagger, with an antenna shaped handle, approximately 600 – 400 B.C . Cloth binding around the blade has been partially preserved due to the rust.
Courtesy of NHMV.

An artist’s impression of a burial in the Hallstatt Hochtal.
Photograph courtesy of D. Grobner, NHMV.

The textiles in the Hallstatt mines had a greater chance of survival since special conditions prevailed in the mines - such as ice, salt or peat bog - conditions which enabled organic materials to survive.

If you are in Vienna, you should visit the Natural History Museum as well as its many galleries, where you will find a wonderful tome: Colors of Hallstatt – Textiles Connecting Science and Art (ISBN 978-3-902421-65-4), which contains articles by Regina Hofmann-de Keijzer, Anna Moser, Karina Gromer and Helga Rosel-Mautendorfer – just to mention a few! This blog is largely composed of a combination of their narratives on the textiles of Hallstatt.


The Textiles of Hallstatt
Evolution has engineered our eyesight in order that we see in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum. This range is transparent with respect to the Earth’s atmosphere and so it enables human beings to see far into the distance as well as to see colors: from blue through to green and yellow to red – thereby making color a very important innovator both psychologically and in practice. For example, psychologically a blue foodstuff is difficult to eat, since blue is often associated with poisons.

When confronted with a traditional textile three important components stand out, namely: the material or structure, the pattern or ornament and perhaps its most important aspect – its color.

Structure of the Hallstatt Textiles
The woollen fabrics of Hallstatt were well preserved due to the salt. The electron microscope images of Professor Joosten show mostly minor degradation of the woollen fibers with the characteristic scales on the woollen fibers still clearly recognizable.

Electron microscopic image of wool fibers from the prehistoric Hallstatt textiles with well recognizable scales (above) and with hardly visible scales removed due to contamination (below).
Courtesy of The Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands.

Textile production is very time consuming. For example, it has been estimated that using prehistoric processes it would take: one hour to sort the fleece; one hour to tease the wool; five hours to card the wool; eighty hours to spin and twist the yarn; five hours to wash and dry the yarn; twenty-five hours to weave. In total, one hundred and seventeen hours would be spent in order to produce a textile, making it an extremely valuable commodity that would be readily traded and certainly repaired rather than discarded.

Teasing, combing and carding wool.
Note: The oldest finds of long-toothed combs came from the late Neolithic Age around 3700 B.C. that were still in use until the Middle Ages. Carded wool was removed from the comb, resulting in so-called tops.
Photograph courtesy of G. Rosel

Weaving is the interlacing at right angles of warp and weft threads. The warp is a set of threads that run longitudinally along the weave. The weft or filling is the set of threads running at right angle across the direction of the work. By raising all the even-numbered and lowering all the uneven-numbered warp threads a shed is formed. The weft thread is inserted into the shed and pressed against the fabric. The shed is changed and the process repeated.

In prehistory, warp-weighted looms were used from as early as the Neolithic. The loom employed clay or stone weights to stretch the warp threads. The loom was leaned against the wall and this inclination produced a natural shed. From the position of loom weights in the Iron Age found in homes, it is estimated that materials were produced in widths of 60 to 120 cm, but also up to three to four meters.

Weaving on a weighted loom.
Photograph courtesy of G. Weinlinger.

Patterns or Ornaments of the Hallstatt Textiles
Only fragments of the textiles of Hallstatt have been discovered and so the primary functionality of the fabric has been lost. Nevertheless, much can be gleaned from these fabric fragments. For example, the weave and thread count of the fabric informs about the loom or type of weaving; felting of the textile surface indicates deliberate thickening of the weave or signs of wear and tear; seams and hems also informs about the cut, sewing techniques and construction of the garment etc.

Some of the textiles from Hallstatt.
Courtesy of NHMV.

The fabrics from the salt mines are mainly woollen and some are of extraordinarily fine quality. These woollens were woven on warp-weighted looms that could produce not only a plain tabby (first picture of the top row) but more complex weave constructions including various twills. The most popular is the even sided twill (first image on second row). Less common are pointed twill (third from the left on the second row), herringbone twill or basket weave.

Interesting patterns were created with simple twills by alternating groups of S and Z-spun threads. The resulting weave gives the optical impression of a “pointed twill”: depending on the angle of the light falling on the fabric, some stripes appear darker than others. The leading edges of the fabric are often in a rep weave to achieve extra robustness. Rep is also applied in the manufacture of braids that can form part of grid weaves. The rep bands (similar to today’s costume ribbons) are sometimes executed in several colors. Evidently the people of the Hallstatt period prized colored ribbons as a facing for woven edges: this is evidenced by some fine examples of tablet weaving.

Rep ribbons can be easily manufactured using a wooden grid or heddle rod. Tablet weaving requires tablets with four holes to create colorful strong braids. It was especially favored as a method for producing complicated patterns. Five tablet woven bands have been found in the Hallstatt salt mines, made in different ways. Two carry patterns that replicate triangle, fret and diamond forms – designs that were also used on clay vessels of the period.

The original multi-colored rep and tablet woven braids.
Courtesy of NHMV.

There are many examples of sewn work in Hallstatt. Some evidence of methodical tailoring is dated as early as 700 B.C. Hems and seams were deftly executed: impressive stitching in blue and white. Repairing clothing (patches to replace heavy worn regions) testifies the value of cloth in those ancient times. Unfortunately, the remnants of fabrics are too small in order to back-engineer the items of clothing that they were derived from.

The very smooth yarn of Hallstatt edging bands informs us about the many deliberate and carefully executed procedures in the preparation of the wool. The quality achieved in the edgings and the enormous energy involved in making these woven bands is a testament of the importance of fabrics in prehistoric societies.

Hallstatt textiles in one of the draws of a repository of the NHMV.
Courtesy of NHMV.

Dyeing Of Hallstatt Textiles
It is part of the human psychology to be creative with any made item. The functionality of an item, material or garment made from it, may be the primary driver but once it is made it is the aesthetic qualities that elevates the primary purpose to a secondary ideal (its cut or style) to a tertiary quest (covering function-style-color). The Hallstatt textiles give us an important glimmer of that latter.

Optical light microscope image of a yarn sample from an Iron Age textile. When dyeing strongly twisted yarn with woad, the parts of fibers that lie in the center of the yarn often remain undyed.
Photography courtesy of R. Sauer.

Numerous barks, leaves and galls contain tanning substances that bond directly to textile fibers. Modern methods of detection can yield the dyed molecule but not necessarily the plant from which the dye molecule was extracted. Therefore prehistoric humans could dye brown colors, from a yellowish to a reddish shade. Already in the Bronze Age the technology of dyeing dark brown to black using tannin and iron containing components was well known.

Yellow flowers and green parts of plants are sources for yellow dyes. The yellow dyes used in the Hallstatt textiles employed the dyestuffs - luteolin and apigenin. Sources of these may have been weld (Reseda luteola), dyer’s broom (Genista tinctoria) and sawwort (Serratula tinctoria). In the textiles from the Iron age, the following yellow dyes were detected: rhamnetin (from Persian berries perhaps - Rhamnus species); crocetin (from saffron perhaps - Crocus sativus).

Iron Age textile fragment from the salt mine of Hallstatt. Dyed with a plant that contains luteolin and apigenin (e.g. weld).
Courtesy of NHMV.

In nature red dyes for textiles are not common. Yet the prehistoric people had discovered them already in lichens, in the roots of plants of the Rubiaceae family (Lady’s bedstraw and madder) and in dye insects (e.g. kermes and cochineal). Kermes and madder were not found in the Hallstatt textiles of the Bronze Age and the early Iron Age. It is only in the latter stages of the Iron Age red dyes were found, possibly extracted from Polish cochineal.

Optical light microscopic image of a textile fragment from the Bronze Age with the oldest woad dyeing from the salt mines of Hallstatt. The fabric was dyed after weaving. Places where threads were covered by others remain not dyed.
Courtesy of NHMV.

Yellow and red dyes are soluble, and so upon washing they can easily be detached from the fibers. Tanning agents and fermentation could have created stronger bonds between the fiber and dyes. However, it is only when mordants were discovered that prehistoric people could achieve long-lasting yellow and red fabrics. Mordants, with polyvalent metal ions, gave the best result. When the color shade had to remain unaltered, aluminium containing mordants were used. Clubmosses (Lycopodiaceae) with a relatively high content of aluminium was readily available. Copper based mordants change the color of the fabric to green, iron compounds and tannins to brown.

Aluminium, iron and copper were identified in the prehistoric textiles of Hallstatt. These elements may have originated from mordants. However, they may have also originated from the salt mine itself.

The production of indigotin, a blue pigment from the green leaves of indigo plants, and of purple red to blue pigments from the glands of purple snails were among the most outstanding achievements of prehistoric peoples.

In order to dye textiles with these insoluble pigments prehistoric people had to develop a special technology – vat dyeing. In an alkaline and reducing solution it was possible to alter the insoluble pigments into soluble greenish-yellow compounds. The textile was immersed in a vat dye and when it was taken out of the vat, its contact with the oxygen in the air re-converted the green-yellowish compound into an insoluble pigment, which became bound to the fibers.

In more than 40% of the investigated textiles dating back to Bronze Age, scientists identified the blue pigment indigotin, thereby suggesting the use of the indigo plant. The indigo plant of prehistory in Europe was most likely woad (Isatis tinctoria).

So far red textiles have not been found in the prehistoric salt mines of Hallstatt. Nevertheless, analysis has shown that red dyes from insects and lichens came into use in the dyeing practice of the Hallstatt period. Scientists analyzed traces of red dyes in textiles dyed blue with woad. Apart from the vat dyeing with woad apparently a red dye was used in order to give the blue a more reddish shade.

Iron Age textile fragment from the salt mine of Hallstatt. The woad blue was tinted with red dye from a dye insect, probably Polish cochineal.
Courtesy of NHMV.

Leaf green (chlorophyll) is unsuitable for dyeing a textile green. Some 2500 years ago in Hallstatt the prehistoric peoples realized that in order to obtain a green textile, yellow and blue dyeing needed to be combined. They dyed the textile blue possibly with woad and then yellow with a plant like weld.

Iron Age textile fragment from the salt mine of Hallstatt. It is colored green by combining a blue dyeing with woad and a yellow dyeing with example weld.
Courtesy of NHMV.

Some Clothes Inspired By The Hallstatt Textiles
The textile fragments of Hallstatt provides a platform for modern peoples to image the tertiary visibility of these textiles. What was the functionality, style and color – the complete view – that these fabric pieces were a part of?

A number of students and artists used their imagination to generate wearables consistent with information gleaned from years of research of the Hallstatt textile fragments. The images below are just a vignette of the range of inspired wearables that were on display.

C. Bast, Body extensions, felted material and appendages.
Courtesy of C. Bast.

C. Chatel, Hand-woven peplos. Woollen yarn dyed with natural indigo.
Photograph courtesy of P. Hoiss.

C. Dorfler, Garment with corrosion patterns.
Courtesy of C. Dorfler.

C. Dorfler, Garment in boro style. Various patches dyed with natural indigo.

C. Dorfler, Wandering Tribe Collection.
Clothing dyed with techniques using metal corrosion.

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