Colour, flax and Bronze Age textiles – all inspiring stuff!

Small ball of spun plant fibre. Copyright Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), photo Dave Webb

Small ball of spun plant fibre. Copyright Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), photo Dave Webb

I’m Susanna Harris and I’m a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Glasgow. Today has been a race through my to-do list. It’s been full of talented people and amazing artefacts. Archaeology is a wonderful world to work in.

In at 8.15 after my swim and straight to the lab to sort textile samples from the Must Farm Bronze Age settlement. Gert sets up the stereomicroscope and I choose my samples. I’ve been looking forward to this all week and I love it.

At my desk, Archaeology, University of Glasgow. Photo: Pablo Llopis

At my desk, Archaeology, University of Glasgow. Photo: Pablo Llopis

I go back to my office to prepare an order for microscope stubs with Agar Scientific, only to find it’s the last day of the financial year so I accelerate it through with my brilliant administrator Kelly.

Next I’m reading through a colleague’s grant application on historic dyes analysis – it’s inspiring and I am lost in the world of dye and colour.  Dropping by Tessa’s office, I meet Pablo Llopis, a photographer who agrees to take a photo for this post :-). He sees a book I’m reading on vision and we end up discussing colour theory – there’s a theme developing here. All thought provoking ideas for my research on clothing and perception.

Vision and colour theory. Photo: Susanna Harris

Vision and colour theory. Photo: Susanna Harris

I check my emails. Among a flurry of requests for next semester’s teaching, the editor of BBC History Magazine is looking for a feature on Must Farm and wants a fresh angle on the textiles. We chat on the phone and I email him some ideas.

I notice the time and remember I need to order some freshly pulled flax plants as I want to set up an experiment with my undergraduate students. I call the farm and catch Simon cutting oil-seed rape. He’ll sort the flax and post it.

Green flax plants. Photo: Susanna Harris

Green flax plants. Photo: Susanna Harris

I drop by the head of department’s office to ask him if there is a nearby lawn where I can leave my flax to ret (a rotting process to help extract the fibres). He suggests the wildlife garden. I follow his directions and check it out – it will be perfect if estates and buildings give me permission.

The last thing I need to do today is finish writing an abstract for a conference in Berlin on Neolithic and Bronze Age textile fibres. I’m off to make a cup of tea and settle down at the computer to write it.

Here are some of my papers on prehistoric textiles: https://glasgow.academia.edu/SusannaHarris

And links to Bronze Age textiles from Must Farm: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/jul/14/uks-best-bronze-age-site-must-farm-dig-ends-analyis-continue-years


This one with video of me talking about the finds and site: http://www.gla.ac.uk/news/headline_474953_en.html



Iron Age textiles on bronzes

Today I’m writing up my analysis of Iron Age textiles represented on the sheet bronze artefacts of northern Italy. These buckets, belt buckles and scabbards are called situla art and date to the 6th century BC. The miniature figures embossed and engraved on the bronzes are enjoying themselves feasting, drinking and riding their fine horses. The textiles are recorded with tiny points and tool marks. I’m finding ways to calculate their quantity and quality because I want to understand the textile economy.


Modern copy of the Montebellunas situla

The photo shows a reconstruction of a bronze bucket at Montebelluna museum in north Italy. The other photo is me trying my hand at embossing a figure. I was on a field visit there earlier in the year.

It’s great to get a quiet hour or two over the summer to read. This afternoon I was reading Peter Wells book on “Image and Response in Early Europe”, where he talks about the way people respond to this kind of art by tracing around the shape of the object with their eyes then focusing on the detailed areas. The figures on the shiny bronzes would certainly have attracted attention.

The same can be said of the textiles themselves, and there is evidence that large, intricately patterned and multi-coloured textiles were particularly prized in the early first millennium BC.

I’m a Research Associate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. Some of my papers can be downloaded here. For more about the ERC PROCON textile economy project click here or check us out on Facebook. If you have any questions get in touch, I like to hear from fellow enthusiasts.

Day of Archaeology – LAARC Lottery Part 5 (Textile Finds)

Day of Archaeology: Blog 5 – Textiles

Moving onto and into our Leather & Textile store, we have two classic objects chosen by you, completely at random.

Our first randomly selected object, from shelf number 876, is a Roman leather shoe, excavated from site BUC87 – once the heart of Londinium. The LAARC holds over 5000 Roman and medieval shoes (we are the largest Archeological Archive in the world after all) and this artefact is a fine example of its type. The leather sole of the shoe has been preserved through waterlogged conditions but once exposed would quickly dry and shrink. Luckily the Museum ofLondon’s conservation department owns a magic machine called a freeze-dryer which, through the process of sublimation, leaves these leather objects in a very stable condition.

Roman leather shoe

Roman leather shoe from BUC87 – and shelf 876

 A common comment on archaeological Roman shoes is that they always seem very small. The leather may have shrunk somewhat after two millennia in the ground and the freeze-drying process may add minimally to this, but on the whole our Roman Londoners seem to have small feet…Perhaps a comparative study should be conducted with the many Roman skeletal remains held at the Museum’s Centre for Human Bioarchaeology!

Our second object is a piece of post-medieval textile from site EAG87  (and shelf 809), excavated by the Department of Urban Archaeology (DUA) back in the late 1980s. Archaeological textiles suffer from damage to both their texture and colour; however, our Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts gets particularly excited about brown bits of wool!

Post-medieval cloth

Post-medieval cloth from EAG87 – and shelf 809

Again our textile much like other organics and inorganic, such as metal, has survived through waterlogged but anaerobic conditions. This fragmentary piece was probably part of the C18th backfill of a well excavated on this site.

Our last major store section holds our Environmental finds. These are typically extremely small objects that take up little space (hence the small shelf range) and include objects such as seeds, pollen and small animal bones etc. Tweet using #dayofarch or #LAARC, or message us a number below, between 1 and 44 to discover, completely at random, what that shelf holds…

More Papers

Gone through the pile of papers and made a list of what is there. Glancing at my diary,  I realise I also have to read papers for a meeting in London next Tuesday – one 30-page paper to read carefully and inwardly digest.

There are some interesting papers in the pile. A lot of work outside the heritage sector in engaging young people in volunteering, in nature and in cultural activities. I’ve long suspected that archaeology is very insular in its approaches and needs to plug itself into the wider world. Looking forward to reading these.

Of course, it’s begun raining again so no hope of sitting out in the yard in the sunshine and reading through the pile in a pleasant environment. Ah well, I shall console myself with nipping into the farmers’ market in town to buy lots of lovely food!