A spindle whorl is a perforated weight that sits on a spindle shaft to facilitate the twisting of fibres into yarn. The weight of the whorl acts on the fibres in two ways by stretching them under its weight and when set spinning the weight increases the amount of energy (twisting load) delivered into the fibres which affect the character of the finished yarn.
Small spindles are used for thin threads because they rotate faster and heavy spindles are used for plying yarn (Woodland 1990, Andersson, 2003). The average pre-spinning wheel households would have possessed a variety of spindle whorls suitable for producing the types of yarn needed for clothing and household textiles. Stone, ceramic, wooden and bone were among the main raw materials used in the manufacture of whorls excavated from secure Viking contexts. All have different properties such as weight, durability and spin characteristics. Coppergate, York is one such secure context and the comprehensive report by Penelope Walton Rogers (1997) on the stone spindle whorls of York provides an insight into the use and manufacture of whorls of this period.
Before we examined the manufacture and use of whorls, we need to establish what makes a whorl, a whorl and not a bead, amulet or ordinary weight. The main feature of a whorl is its central hole which accommodates the spindle shaft, the shafts are tapered so as to hold the whorl in a fixed position at a given distance from either the top or the bottom of the spindle shaft. It has been established that whorls of this period generally have a hole diameter of no less than 9mm and no more than 11mm. These holes are always neatly drilled no matter how crude or roughly shaped the whorl. This is the case across the range of material used in whorl manufacture and suggests some sort of drill was used to make the holes. Whorl tend to range in weight from 10 to 30 grams for textile spinning. The whorl can be placed at either the top or bottom of the spindle, this will affect the tension in the yarn the general rule of thumb is:
- Bottom – low speed –loose.
- Top –high speed- tight.
The shape of the whorl can also affect the spin characteristics of the spindle: for example, globular whorls like the Oseberg type where all the weight is close to the spindle shaft, they tend to spin fast and tight and produce a fine yarn. Whereas a cup-shaped whorl where the weight is concentrated around the rim will spin slow and produce a thicker yarn. Various methods have been employed in the construction of whorls. Different construction processes leave behind different tool marks which allow for the identification of the construction method. Methods employed such manual paring, rasping or abrading to mechanical with the whorl being turned on a lathe. Many of the whorls of this period seem to be homemade and with geological characteristics dictating the method of shaping a stone whorl. Soft stone such as chalk is easily pared down with a knife, there is also evidence of rasping with a tool similar to a file, as well as abrading against another stone. The most readily recognised production method is that of using a knife to pare the stone, as this method leaves tell-tale sharp “irregular facets”. This type of whorl also tends to be the most highly decorated, suggesting a personal connection with the object perhaps a gift or love token specially made for someone. Mechanically created whorls, those turned on a lathe have a characteristic “smooth profile and fine encircling lines” which is all but impossible to achieve when working freehand. Whorls made by abrading tend to have rounded facets and a smooth surface. Whereas the ones formed using a rasp display linear striation indicative of the tool’s teeth scoring the surface of the stone.
Whorls featured in many female burials across Scandinavia as well as trade and settlement sites, so question one asked: In the context of the female burials, were the whorls just a reminder of the industry of spinning or did they have more symbolic meanings? Is the same true of the scales and weights found in female graves in Scandinavia, does this mean that women traded solely or did the scales and weights represent her family activity?
Bettina Arnold and Nancy Wicker, authors of Gender and the Archaeology of Death (2001) write that 22% of the Birka female burials had balance scales and weights in their graves. The primary source of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan who encountered a party of Viking traders on the upper reaches of the Volga River reported of the trade in glass beads amongst the men for their women.
Did women trade amongst themselves for items such as whorls?
Or did whorls form part of the wider trading network?
In order to attempt answers, we looked towards the trading hub of Hedeby
A significant trading settlement in the Danish/German borderland from the 8th to the 11th century. Located in a similar geographical position to Islandbridge (Dublin)/Woodstown (Waterford)
- Standardization of the size and shape of almost a thousand ceramic whorls at Hedeby suggests that these were being mass-produced.
- A possible ‘yes, to whorls being part of the wider trading network’.
The Birka archaeological site is located on Björkö Island in Lake Mälar and was occupied in the 9th and 10th centuries. Hovgården is situated on the neighbouring island of Adelsö and together, they make up an archaeological complex which illustrates the elaborate trading networks of Viking-Age Europe and their influence on the subsequent history of Scandinavia.
- Half of the 429 whorls found in the Birka area were of stone, soapstone. Evidence pointed towards probable importation from Norway (Andersson 2003).
- There were definite differences in shape among Birka whorls of different materials. Stone whorls were usually discoid or flat-convex. Conical and biconical whorls were usually ceramic.
- The whorls from Birka ranged from 4-100 g, with most falling in the 5-29 g range with stone whorls tend to be heavier because of the greater density of stone (Andersson 1998, 2003).
- The diameters of whorls of all types ranged from 25-45 mm (1-2 inches). Whorls of this diameter are common because they spin well. The height of stone whorls is 5-20 mm, with a 7-12 mm hole.
In relation to examining an answer to our questions, the pattern that emerges from Birka is not as clear-cut towards mass-production. It tends to point back in favour of domestic use or as tools of the individual industry i.e.: small-scale trade among women themselves, evidence for a possible answer to the question regarding ‘did women trade amongst themselves’.
Another trading settlement of Viking life in the ninth century and its 1970s excavations brought to light, several whorl types.
- Among them were 92 stone spindle whorls with a quarter manufactured by a lathe.
- This evidence tends to support the existence of an individual industry as opposed to a collective industry of whorl construction for the wider trading network.
- The most common shape for a whorl at York, especially in soapstone, was plano-convex (contact-lens shape). Other whorl shapes such as discoid, sub-conical, globular, and bi-conical, cylindrical and doughnut. All these shapes represented several progression in shape preference over time and Walton (1997) noted that the globular whorl as found at Oseberg and pictured below, was relatively uncommon.
Walton Rogers, Penelope. Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate. The Archaeology of York, vol. 17, 11. York: Council for British Archaeology, 1997.
The evidence from all three sites in the ninth and tenth-century points towards the manufacture of spindle whorls, in the majority, to serve the individual industry. Evidence from Hedeby supports a move towards the collective manufacture but the Birka and York evidence supported a regional organised trade amongst women as further evidenced by the finds of scales and weights at the Birka burials.
Andersson, Eva. 1998. Textile production in late Iron Age Scania – a methodological approach. NESAT 6.
Andersson, Eva. 2003. Tools for Textile Production from Birka and Hedeby. Birka Studies 8. Excavations in the Black Earth 1990-1995. Stockholm.
Walton Rogers, P. 2000. Stone spindle whorls. Pp. 2530-2533 in: A.J. Mainman and N.S.H. Rogers. Craft Industry and Everyday Life: Finds from Anglo-Scandinavian York. Vol 17: The Small Finds, Fasc. 14. York Archaeological Trust.
Woodland, Margery. 1990. Spindle-whorls: Object and Economy in Medieval Winchester. Oxford University Press.