Retreating glacier provides clues to the lives of Iron Age horsemen and hunters

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Researcher Marianne Vedeler hopes that, in reconstructing the Iron Age tunic found on a Norwegian glacier, much will be learnt about how the textile was made, how time-consuming it was to make, and how the wool was used, explains. Photo: Yngve Vogt/University of Oslo
Researcher Marianne Vedeler hopes that, in reconstructing the Iron Age tunic found on a Norwegian glacier, much will be learnt about how the textile was made, how time-consuming it was to make, and how the wool was used. Photo: Yngve Vogt/University of Oslo

A melting Norwegian glacier is providing tantalising insights into the Iron Age horsemen, hunters and travellers who used to wander its icy slopes.

The Lendbreen glacier in Breheimen National Park has relinquished a host of exciting artifacts in recent years, among them a 1700-year-old woollen tunic which is the oldest known article of clothing ever discovered in Norway.

The director of the Norwegian Mountain Museum, Mai Bakken, says the tunic and other glacier discoveries have provided insights into how Iron Age people lived in Norway 17 centuries ago.

Other objects found on the glacier include items of horse tack, horse skulls, horseshoes, large quantities of horse dung, human footwear, tent pegs, hunting  gear, and textile remains that might have been used as toilet paper, bandages or menstrual rags. All were dated back to the Iron Age.

The horse dung shows where the hunters tethered their horses while hunting reindeer on the glacier.

In summer, the reindeer were so plagued by the reindeer warble fly – a bumblebee-like insect that lays its eggs on reindeer hair which develop into larvae that burrow under the skin – that the animals sought refuge on the glacier. The hunters took advantage of that.

The glacier protected the artefacts so well that the archaeologists found not only arrowheads, but also whole arrows complete with fletching and shafts. But the biggest surprise of all was when they found the tunic, bundled up and covered by horse dung.

“All these finds give us a completely different picture of what the mountains were used for,” Bakken says.

“It was not only hunters who went onto the glaciers to hunt reindeer; the glaciers were also used as transport routes for people travelling between the valleys, such as between Bøverdalen and Ottadalen.

“It was quicker to go over the mountain pass than to go round. The glaciers in those days were much bigger, and easy to walk on. The tunic may have been lost on just such a trip,” explains Bakken, who, along with Marianne Vedeler, came up with the idea of recreating the tunic.

There are plans to build two identical tunics using Iron Age textile techniques.

There was huge excitement among archaeologists when the tunic was found three years ago as the glacier continued its retreat.

“It’s very rarely that we find well-preserved clothing from prehistoric times,” explains Vedeler, who is associate professor at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo. “Only a handful of clothing like this has been found in Europe.”

The tunic was made some time between AD 230 and 390. The Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo and the Norwegian Mountain Museum in Lom are driving the plans for the two tunic replicas, which will show what it looked like when it was new.

One tunic will be displayed at the museum in Oslo, the other at the museum in Lom, which has a large exhibition of the archaeological finds from the Lendbreen glacier, 10km west of Lom.

Vedeler continues: “The remarkable thing is how old and well-preserved the tunic was. It is a very fine example of how prehistoric people used wool. One of our aims in reconstructing the tunic is to learn more about how the textile was made, how time-consuming it was to make, and how the wool was used.’

The wool of the old, Norwegian sheep breeds had two layers. The outer-layer hair, known as overhair, is long and stiff and acts as a sort of raincoat for the sheep. The innermost layer, called underwool, is soft and fine and resembles the wool we find in modern sheep breeds. The different properties of the wool were used for different types of textile.

“Textiles made from overhair were more water-resistant and more hard-wearing than if they had been made of underwool.

“We were therefore surprised to discover that the tunic from Lendbreen was made almost exclusively from underwool, that is to say the wool from the innermost layer,” she says.

Most Iron Age clothing was repaired and re-used. It is more hard-wearing than today’s clothing and might be used for several decades.

The tunic may have been used for something else before it was left on the glacier. It was old and worn when found, and had several patches sewn on it. The sleeves had also been sewn on at a later date than the original tunic.

Among other things, the researchers will be seeking to assess how much work was required to separate the overhair from the soft underwool and how long it would have taken to make the tunic.

Archaeologists who found the tunic noticed a diamond pattern in the textile, as long as the tunic was wet. The distinctive weaving technique used to make this pattern is known as diamond twill and is considered to be quite advanced.

“Two colours were used in the tunic to create a mottled pattern. The combination of the diamond twill weave and this pattern is unusual, and it is precisely this combination that we intend to copy.”

Underwool from wild sheep can be sorted in shades from pale grey through to dark grey. For the recreation, Vedeler has chosen to use the palest and darkest shades.

“The reconstruction project is exciting,” Vedeler says. “We are learning a huge amount in collaboration with the craftspeople. It is only when we reconstruct the tunic that we can understand how it was made.”

She hopes the reconstruction will inspire Norwegian designers to create new, modern textiles.

“Clothes were not consumer items in the Iron Age. It was important to be able to re-use clothing, and in those days clothes lasted a long time.

“Today, we spend enormous resources on clothes. And modern clothes are not durable. If we can use local raw materials and create clothing of high quality, it will be good for us all.

“We are therefore hoping that designers will be inspired by this example of old, Norwegian design.

“If we can create modern textiles from a prehistoric design, we hope also to be able to give a boost to the Norwegian wool industry.

“Sadly, much of the wool from the old sheep breeds currently goes to waste,” Vedeler added.

Reporting: Yngve Vogt

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