Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2-1 (May 2010)Chrystel R. Brandenburgh: Early medieval textile remains from settlements in the Netherlands. An evaluation of textile production
2 Research question, data and methods

2.2 Data

2.2.1 Quality

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The textiles discussed in this article have all been found in settlements in the Netherlands. Most of these finds were uncovered in the dwelling mounds (or terpen) of a predominantly rural society in the north of the country. Few burials have been found at these sites and textile remains are predominantly found in settlements. A small percentage was found in major centres of a quite different character, such as Dorestad and Middelburg.


Fig. 1 Locations of sites mentioned in this article: 1. Middelburg, 2. Dorestad, 3. Hogebeintum, 4. Ezinge, 5. Dokkum, 6. Aalsum, 7. Oostrum, 8. Leens, 9. Ezinge, 10. Rasquert , 11. Westeremden, 12. Stadt Wilhelmshaven.

Geographically and culturally the terpen differ from the towns of Middelburg and Dorestad. The terpen are considered to have more ties to Scandinavia, northern Germany and Anglo-Saxon England. Dorestad and Middelburg, situated on the edge of the Merovingian and Carolingian empire, are likely to have been more influenced by the regions in the south.

The textiles uncovered in these settlements have properties that make them worth treating as a separate find category among the body of textile finds from the Netherlands, in contrast to the textile fragments that have survived in cemeteries through the corrosion of metal artefacts. Although the cemeteries offer much better information for a chronological framework for textiles in use and for the reconstruction of clothes, they do not lend themselves easily to the examination of the entire process of production and use of textiles. Textiles found in settlements, on the other hand, contain information not only about how a fabric was spun, dyed and woven. They also give information about finishing processes and about how a fabric was put together, sewn, used and repaired. It is possible to cover a wide range of questions about the process of textile production on the basis of the often very large pieces of textile from the settlements.


Table 1. Early medieval sites in the Netherlands with textile remains. The second column lists the entire habitation period of the site (after Taayke 1996; Knol 1993). The third column shows the period to which the textiles may be assigned. This is based either on associated excavated material (*) or to the fact that the majority of finds from a site is dated in this period (**).

There are, however, some disadvantages. Firstly, the textiles from the settlements are often poorly dated. This is related to the way many of these textiles have been recovered. The habitation of the earliest terpen dates back to c. 600 BC. After the third century AD a decline in population commenced, followed by a phase of scarce occupation. Population increased only after the fifth century and the terpen have been gradually raised up to their present heights. At the end of the nineteenth century the soil that had accumulated for centuries was discovered as a valuable fertilizer and therefore groups of diggers methodically dug away large parts of the mounds. These people sometimes had an eye for antiquities but as they dug straight from the top down, they could collect objects dating over 1000 years apart in one single day (Knol et al. 2005). As a result there may be textiles in the dataset spanning approximately the period from 500 BC to 1500 AD. On the other hand, scientifically excavated sites like Dorestad, Middelburg and older excavations at Zinge, Leens and Westeremden provide datable material (fig.1).


Fig.2 The textiles from Cornjum (object nr. FM 120-411) were still in their original packaging from excavations conducted in the early 1900s (collection Fries Museum). Scale in cms.

In some cases textiles are assigned to a period of several centuries, based on the fact that most other finds from these sites date from that period (table 1, **). However, some textiles can theoretically be dated to anywhere within the long period of habitation of a site. This makes it impossible to use this dataset as a whole to create a chronological framework for textiles in the Early Middle Ages.

A second disadvantage is that the dataset mainly consists of woollen textiles. During the Middle Ages people wore clothes made from animal fibres, such as wool, or plant fibres, like linen. Degradation of these fibres is caused by micro-organisms, oxidization and other chemical processes in the soil. Linen fibres break apart by a process of hydrolysis, which occurs under acid conditions. Wool on the other hand, like leather and fur, may dissolve completely in alkaline conditions and is much better preserved in acid soil (Huisman 2009). Since soils are generally acid or alkaline, it is more likely that only one of the two types is preserved at any one site. In every settlement that has been examined, soil conditions were acid, which means that the preserved textiles are made of wool. Information about linen could come from the cemeteries, which will be published in the next few years.

Lastly, it must be considered that the textiles found in refuse layers in settlements are literally refuse. The fragments are generally heavily worn, re-used and finally discarded as rags, making it difficult to ascertain their original function.

2.2.2 Dataset

The dataset consists of 440 fragments from 265 different textiles from 31 sites (table 1). Of these textiles, 80 have already been published in some detail.[3] The others have not been analysed until now. Some were still untouched and in their original wrapping from the early 1900s (fig. 2), or were still adhering to the clay from which they had been recovered. As a consequence, these textiles had to be cleaned with demineralised water and dried flat before analysis could take place.

The textiles may be divided into woven fabrics (226) and others like ropes, cords, braids and felt (39). The finds vary in size from small scraps of a few square centimetres to large pieces approximately 40 x 35 cm in size. The textiles are probably not only the remains of people’s clothes but may also have been used for household needs such as bedding or sacking (see 4.1 for more information about the function of the textiles).

Seventy eight percent of the textiles can be assigned to a period of several centuries within the Early Middle Ages. These finds will be presented in this paper via discussion, tables and graphs grouped per site in chronological order. The other 22% will be treated as a separate group as it is not certain whether they are Early Medieval or older.