AN 11TH CENTURY EURA DRESS

During the Bronze and Iron Ages, cremation was the most common form of burial in Finland, hence the oldest known textile remnants are scarce and fragmental. Around 600 A.D. inhumation burials started becoming more frequent, especially in Eura and Köyliö in Satakunta. By the end of the 8th century, the practice had sporadically extended to neighboring areas and up to Yläne in northern Finland. In Eura, Köyliö and Yläne, inhumations were practiced until the areas and their inhabitants had been Christianized. It is mostly from these areas that information on garments and materials used during the Merovingian and Viking periods can be found.

As with most textile finds, the preservation is dependent on external materials and conditions since the the sand and gravel in which the graves have been dug is less than favorable for the preservation of organic materials. In the case of the Eura finds, the dress details have been preserved due to the fact that parts of the garments had been ornamented with small bronze spiral tubes sewn on to the fabrics, whose oxides have conserved the textiles they’ve been in contact with. The spiral decorations are often the only parts of the garments that are left; the trimming on women’s mantels, the hem of aprons, the rows of rings attaching the veil around the head. There are not many remains of Finnish under garments or dresses. There have been small textile fragments in connection with brooches and other ornaments on dresses found, but skirts and gowns were usually not ornamented with spirals, and therefore they haven’t been preserved to the same extent.

Some coloring matters, like indigo, can be detected by chemical analysis, but most of the used plant dyes can’t. Instead the original color might be detectable through microscopic studies of the fibers. Comparisons to modern plant dying can also be made in re-creative attempts to discern achievable colors. Worth noting is that the intensity and the shade of the color would most likely have changed during the hundreds of years that the textiles have been buried. Findings do however show that e.g. bright scarlet and deep-blue colors were able to be achieved with plant dyes. Most commonly used plants were nettles and spruce twigs for greens, birch leaves, heather and lycopodium for yellows, moss and lichen for browns and hazels, different kinds of Galium species for brick red and orange yellows. It’s unclear whether or not woad was used by the Finns. It is known to have been used in the neighboring countries Sweden and Norway (e.g. Birka in Sweden, Oseberg in Norway) but if the blue tinted textile finds in Finland were dyed with woad or indigo I haven’t been able to find out from the sources I’ve studied. 

One of the largest burial places in Finland is that of Luistari in Eura, a parish in south-western Finland. It had during the 19th century become famous for its archaeological remains, but the largest excavation of inhumation burials yet took place as late as 1969 when an excavator, during a new sewage construction, found a silver-ornamented sword. Until today over five hundred graves have been excavated in the area. Another five hundred are thought to inhabit the still untouched surrounding area, making this the largest inhumation site in Finland.

The richest grave was, too, found in the summer of 1969; Luistari grave number 36. It belonged to a rather tall woman, who had died in the early part of the 11th century at the age of about 45 years. A large amount of dress accessories and jewelry was found in the grave:

◊ A pair of heavy round bronze brooches, placed near the collar-bones.

Eura jewellery
Fig 32 in Ancient Finnish Costumes: The set or ornaments found in grave 36 at Luistari in Eura. Photo by Pirkko-Liisa Lehtosalo-Hilander.

◊ A third longish, equal-armed brooch found in the middle of the chest. The brooch is believed to have been used to fasten the cloak.

◊ Several bronze chains: On the underside of the round brooches were rusted iron sheets, which were discovered to be chain holders made of iron wire. The wire had been bent into three loops, which had been fastened together with a very thin bronze wire. Both its ends had been rolled in spirals. The chain holders were joined by a double linked bronze chain. There was also a chain running from the right-hand to the equal-armed brooch. Several loops of chains were hanging from the chain holders holding pendants; on the right a sleigh bell pendant and an iron hook, on the left a sleigh bell pendant and an oval pendant in open-work.

◊ Two broad spiral bracelets, both made of about 180 cm of triangular bronze rod. These bracelets had about ten turns, and they were ornamented with zig-zag lines. They had been worn over the sleeves of a garment, because there were fragments of very dark woollen tabby inside them.

◊ Four finger rings, two on each hand; one simple spiral ring with eight turns and another with a broad middle part decorated with engraved ornaments. Fragments of a striped textile colored red, blue and perhaps yellow, were found in connection with these rings. There might have been some kind of mittens in the grave, irrespective of them being on the hands or tucked in the band at the waist.

◊ A necklace with colored glass beads, twelve silver coins and two silver pendants. The necklace was found placed around the woman’s neck.

◊ At the level of her waist there was an adorned bronze-plated knife sheath about 25 cm long. The sheath was ornamented with a driven and stamped pattern all over, and it contained a knife with a blade only about 5 cm long. There was a spiral of bronze wire on the wooden handle near the blade, and the other end of the handle was decorated with iron pendants.

The striped waist band, reddish in color and woven with tablets, had also held the apron. The band ran twice across the waist, where the upper edge of the apron was folded over the first turn of the band. Its edges on all four sides were decorated with bronze spirals, revealing that the apron had been about 50 cm wide and +90 cm long. Both the cloth of the apron and pieces of a second garment had been preserved inside the spirals. The second garment was lined with a multicolored tablet woven band, in red, blue and white (some light colored) yarn. Fragments of the same band was also found under the right arm’s bracelet. This fabric seemed to have continued up along the body as the same fabric was found in connection to the brooches and the necklace pendants. Under the vertically placed chains, there were two layer of this fabric. The upper layer had its reverse side facing outwards and the lower layer had its reverse side facing inwards. As this fabric was also found doubled near the neck, under one of the necklace pendants, it seemed probable that the grave contained a dress with the upper part folded like the peplos style.

A reconstruction project of the Eura dress was carried out between 1976-1982, by author and conservator Leena Tomanterä and research associates Seija Sarkki and Eeva Savolainen from the National Museum of Finland. The dress was presented and put on display in 1982, in Eura, and later transferred to the Kauttua factory museum, in which it is on display just a few hundred metres from the site of the Luistari cemetery. The dress is currently being displayed at the National Museum of Finland.

Eura_costume_reconstruction,_from_10th_and_11th_century_graves_-_National_Museum_of_Finland_-_DSC04196
Picture of the dress currently on display at the National Museum of Finland. Picture from fi.wikipedia.org

Based on the textile analysis by Leena Tomanterä and Seija Sarkki, the grave contained remains if approx. seven different fabrics.

1. The fabric inside the bracelets was a dark blue plain weave woollen cloth.
2. The cloth found with the brooches and chains was a greenish four-shaft twill,
3. A similar material, but in a lighter shade, was found with the spiral ornaments on the apron.
Conclusion: A green dress around the torso, blue long sleeves and a light green apron.

4. A small twill fragment fastened to a small round spiral ornament found on the chest was thought to have been part of the mantle. Due to the limited pieces of remains, this garment was not reconstructed by the team.
5. The striped woolen textile fragments found near the knife-sheath and finger rings
were made with the sewn mitten technique of blue, red and light (white or yellow?) yarn. Most
probably these were really remnants of sewn mittens, as in one of them the base of the
thumb was preserved.
6. The first tablet woven band; the reddish band was about 15mm wide and woven with at least 12 tablets.
7. The second tablet woven band; the three-colored band used as the border of the darker green twill had been woven with 17 tablets and there had been four threads in each tablet. The band was 11 mm wide, indicating that the yarn used must’ve been very fine.

The analysis of the weft and warp thread density showed that the textiles had been woven of very tightly spun threads, unlike today’s modern threads which are more loosely spun.

The color analysis showed that blue shades were found in all the fabric types. Based on the fact that this type of blue showed to dissolve when exposed to alcohol and phenol, this suggests that it had been dyed with indigo. For the greenish shades, a reconstruction using heather, borch leaves and nettle was done, resulting in these plants being potential dying matter. The yellow red of the bands was thougth by Leena Tomanterä to have been dyed with madder
and perhaps Parmelia saxatilis, a lichen species growing on stones.

My own reconstruction of the Luistari grave was solely that of the long sleeved dress. When looking at contemporary finds from Scandinavia, it is evident that the models were designed to leave as little fabric waste as possible. When the cloth was cut, as much of the fabric as possible was to be used. This was the approach when Leena Tomanterä, Seija Sarkki and Eeva Savolainen did their reconstruction, as it was my when I did my own.

I based the pattern of my kirtle on the same pattern constructed and used by Tomanterä, Sarkki and Savolainen.

The sleeve remnants inside the bracelets had been narrow at the wrists, widening slightly upwards. They were also rather long, extending outside the bracelets onto the hands. Since I wasn’t reconstructing the entire dress and was not using any Finnish dress details, I had no intention of using bracelets with my dress. I, therefore, decided to shorten my sleeves to end at the wrists as not to make myself an impractical garment.

The warp on the original dress had been parallell to the sleeve length, which means the above pattern with the sleeves cut in a lengthwise direction could be used. The sleeves would then extend to the neck so that there would be no seams on the shoulders. The part covering the body would be designed in a front and a back, with two side panels. This allowed the dress to be made with no fabric waste.

The sleeve fragments inside the bracelets were of a dark blue plain weave woollen cloth. Since the same fabric wasn’t found anywhere else in the grave (e.g. on other metal artifacts aside from the dress accessories and jewelry) it was assumed that it had not been part of an outer garment (as it was neither of the same twill fabric found fastened to the small round spiral ornament, thought to have been part of a mantle) and was instead part of some sort of under garment, used underneath the greenish peplos.

In the final reconstruction of the Eura costume there is a deep blue inner garment, an open mantle-dress fastened with brooches and a light green apron with bronze spiral ornamentation tied around the waist with a yellow and red band.

I chose to make my own recreation in a soft twill-woven fabric in four-shaft from Medeltidsmode (article #NUE1). The fabric is slightly loosely woven (as was not the case with the original fabric!), and lightly rolled, with a natural white color with a little light gray in the melange. There is a faint checkerboard pattern made through a slightly lighter thread. Pattern report 5 cm in width, and 6.5 cm in height. 

21200849_10156142022188132_1165901011259516561_o

 

Reference material
Hilde Thunem – Viking Women: Underdress (last updated 2014)
Pirkko-Liisa Lehtosalo-Hilander – Ancient Finnish Costumes The Finnish Archaeological Society, 1984.
Prehistoric Eura – From the Stone Age to the Crusade Period 
published by The Information Centre of Eura’s Prehistory Naurava Lohikäärme, www.eura.fi/naurava

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s