Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
The context: From the beginning of the ninth century AD people from Scandinavia, many from present-day Norway began to settle in Ireland. They founded the modern Irish cities and towns of Dublin, Waterford, Cork. Limerick and Wexford and developed lively and successful trading settlements that flourished until the Anglo-Norman invasion in 1169 AD. We know from the literature that the Irish prized and used silk cloth at that time but at present excavations have not disclosed any remains of silk in what can be identified as specifically vernacular contexts. The situation is different for the Viking Age settlements. In particular Dublin and Waterford over the last twenty-five years or so have yielded up enormously rich organic remains including textiles that have illuminated in an amazing way the lifestyle of these incomers. They were enthusiastic traders and their wealth was well known in Ireland. Probably slave-trading played a major role but there was also much commerce in silver, furs, perhaps foodstuffs, silk and other cloth. An Irish account of the sack of Viking Limerick by local people in The Wars of the Gaedhil with the Gaill contains this passage. 'They followed them also into the fort and slaughtered them... They carried off their jewels and their best property, and their saddles beautiful and foreign; their gold and silver; their beautifully woven cloth of all colors and of all kinds; their satins and silk cloth, pleasing and variegated, both scarlet and green, and all sorts of cloth in like manner. They carried away their soft, youthful bright, matchless girls; their blooming silk-clad young women; and their active, large and wellformed boys.... everyone that was fit for a slave was enslaved.' It is interesting that there are so many references in the passage to silks and beautifully woven cloth; they must have made a deep impression on the Irish fighters and chroniclers
The material: Finds of silk from Dublin are far less numerous than those of wool; this is a pattern that is repeated in excavations in other Irish towns, and indeed in Europe generally at this time. There are however remains of compound weave cloth, of tablet woven braids, thread, ribbons, cords and filets. Three types of plain silk cloth were found, some were made up into bands, scarves and caps.
There are at least twenty-five fragments of weft-faced compound twill of 2/1 construction, with paired Z-twisted main warps, single Z-twisted binder warps and untwisted wefts. Many are made with red or natural color silk probably patterned, and survive in narrow strips that seemingly were used to trim other garments. Four tablet woven braids use gold metal thread with a silk core as does one silver braid. A second silver braid does not seem to have a silk core but some of the brocading was executed in silk.
Four tablet woven braids use gold metal thread with a silk core as does one silver braid. A second silver braid does not seem to have a silk core but some of the brocading was executed in silk.
Silk thread to be used for sewing or embroidery was found; some in a small amount tied to a cylindrical needlecase. Other lengths were wound around thin pieces of wood or in small skeins. Thread was made up into plyed and plaited cords. At least seven knotted filets or hairnets were found. What may be the earliest example of sprang made from silk was found in Dublin in single S-twisted silk thread with alternate rows of 1/1 and 2/2 interlinking. This example of interlinked mesh sprang has a finished width of 130mm.
Bands, scarves and caps: The plain silk items, together with similar pieces in wool, all in tabby weave, make up very interesting, cohesive group of finds. For example, Viking literary sources record that headbands were worn by men as well as women. When Skarp-Hedin in Njal's Saga rides to the Althing 'his hair was well combed back and held in place by a silk headband. He looked every inch a warrior'. Earlier in the same saga Gunnar was given by King Harold Gormsson in Haithabu 'his own robes, a pair of gold embroidered gloves, a headband studded with gold and a Russian fur cap'.