Wasserman Top Whorl Spindles

Roving crafters

Plenty of historical textbooks, documentaries, and academics state, without much equivocation at all, that in nearly every culture throughout history spinning and weaving was a female occupation. Ever wonder how they know that? Ever wonder why they are so assured in making a statement like that with such confidence?

Its because women were buried with their spindles. All over the world, from neolithic times right through the middle ages, females were buried with their thread-making tools. Sometimes women were buried with weaving tools as well. Archaeologists have found weaving cards and loom weights and shed sticks, aka weaving swords, in the graves of women.

Males were buried with actual swords of course. They got to take their weapons into the afterlife. They got to take cups and tool belts and (in some cultures) jewelry too. Ladies got cups sometimes. They got jewelry of course. But what makes a male grave instantly identifiable is a weapon cache of some sort. Well, the grave good that instantly identifies a skeleton as female is a spindle whorl.

Its usually only the whorl that survives the centuries / millennia in the grave. The wooden shaft is almost always, but not quite always, long gone by the time the grave is uncovered. So what we today have as evidence of ancient spinning usually looks like this:

No it doesn't look very exciting. If you were a Victorian Era archaeologist, this is not what you are hoping to find in an ancient grave. Most of these got discarded, overlooked, and just left behind in early excavations. What a shame. But archaeological digs were not (and still are not) cheap. Pottery, weapons, ancient coins, statutes, etc ... those paid the bills. No one was going to buy a stone disc with a hole in the middle. So unless they were mistaken for beads, and the smaller ones were often, spindle whorls were mostly ignored.

Fortunately for us there have been lots of these spindle whorls recovered in graves all over the world so not all were lost through ignorance and avarice. And by the mid 20th century, archaeologists finally started taking an interest in ancient textiles, and women, and domestic crafts, and all sorts of other stuff from our past that didn't involve swords and gold.

In Neolithic times, the spindle whorls are made stone. At least those that have survived are. By the bronze age we begin to see a mix of stone and baked clay whorls. In Prehistoric textiles, Elizabeth Barber explains that in the excavation of the City of Troy “the sequence begins in the 7th millenium with a few flat, round perforated stones” and in the Early Bronze Age there is “an explosion of baked clay whorls”. One excavator records that 8000 to 10,000 whorls were found in Troy II, which is believed to be the Troy that Homer spoke of in his epic tale.

Yep, thousands upon thousands of spindle whorls in Troy, and more, thousands more, have been found across Europe, Asia and Africa. And nearly all of them were found in the graves of females. Young girls who died before child-bearing age went to the afterlife with spindles. Mothers, grandmothers, and ancient old crones that probably enjoyed terrorizing all the youngsters in their final days, they all went as spinners into the grave.

Now why would that be? If we assume that men buried with axes and bows and such were important warriors and valued by their community, shouldn't we assume the same for women buried with their cloth-making tools? Let's just imagine for a moment that we are Stone Age people leaving in some miserably cold place in northern Europe. Let's remember that we are freezing our fannies off with no electricity and not only does every bit of cloth have to be handmade but the tools you need to make cloth have to be handmade as well. Before you can even start spinning the flax / hemp / wool to make the cloth that will keep you from freezing to death, you have to sit down and carve a hole through a flat rock to make a spindle whorl.

So ... would you put a perfectly good stone spindle whorl in a woman’s grave? Only if you loved her. Only if she was important. And only if you thought she was going to need that spindle in her afterlife.

Which makes me wonder if I'm going to need my spinning wheel when I'm dead. I wonder if there is a mortuary anywhere in America that would bury it with me. I'm also wondering what fiber from my fiber stash I should take into my grave when I go. Maybe I should take it all. Life is short but the afterlife is really, really long isn't it? Yeah, I think I'd better take all of it just to be safe.


Like history? Me too. I sometimes babble about history and yarn and yarn-y history and you can find those posts right here.