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Weaving Islands of Cloth: Gender, Textiles, and Trade Across the North Atlantic from the Viking Age to the Early Modern Period


Project start
Project end
Type of project
Project theme
Society, economy and culture
Project topic
Culture & history

Project details

Science / project summary

Textiles were fundamental elements of material culture in the Norse colonies of the North Atlantic, gaining such importance in Iceland that cloth was used as currency throughout the medieval period. Textiles were woven according to strict legal standards and guidelines that regulated the length of legal cloth as well as thread counts. Understanding the changes in textile production through time can help shed light on how people adapted their material culture to a changing cultural dynamic as well as changing climates. In addition, because cloth was produce by women and decisions about textiles resided in the household with women, this research helps us to understand not only how Norse society adapted its technology during a cooling climatic period by weaving thicker, warmer cloth, but also how such environmental change might impact basic social structures such as household decision making processes. This research can be a window into how social, cultural and economic systems would adapt to contemporary climate shifts and assist in preparing us for potential changes. The project builds upon the PI's former research taking advantage of the exceptionally well-preserved archaeological textile material to provide insights into the social contexts of textiles from the North Atlantic islands over a course 1000 years (ca. 800s-1800s AD). The overall aim is to gain a better understanding of the lives of women- frequently invisible in the archaeological record- and their role in developing trade and shaping the economies of the Norse societies. The designation of weaving as women's trade is rooted in the gendered cosmologies that prohibited men to enter weaving huts and engage in textile work in pre-Christian era Iceland. Ca. 1200 AD textiles emerge as currency commodity, showing consistent trend toward standardization, which continues through the 16th century, suggesting at least three centuries of co-existence between standardized fish (Cod, a key component of the Norse and world economy, including the first commodities market) and standardized cloth. Aware of the differences in the legacies of the approaches to weaving in Iceland and Greenland, the PI aspires to explore the variation between those, Faroes, and Norse Scottish Isles and asks what can be learned about expression of regional identities, Little Ice Age adaptations, and roles of women. The PI would conduct on-site analyses of museum collections of materials from 6 Icelandic sites, 22 Greenlandic Norse sites, 1medieval Faroese site, and 21 Norse sites of Scotland; analysis includes extensive typologies, AMS dates, and dye identification. Part of the effort includes isotopic analysis that will attempt to trace movements of textiles and wool and possible trade networks across the region. This component is pitched as a pilot project that will assess the feasibility of using strontium and carbon isotopes on wool - a developing methodology that may help define the locale of the grasses consumed by sheep. Isotope analysis aims to connect the archeological record to the historical sources, which suggests that in early 1100s Icelandic textiles served as clothing material for the poor in England, Norway, and Germany.