Spinning in the Cave: the Entanglement of the Mysterious and the Everyday in Textile Production.

A version of this article was first published in Northern Earth 120 (Winter 2009-10), pp 15-20. http://www.northernearth.co.uk/. Based on a postdoctoral research proposal, the article is the first to address the chthonic associations of textile craft as a focus for archaeological and artistic research. It remains a preliminary exploration of a pattern which warrants further in-depth study. Further research on the art and archaeology of textiles will be posted here.

Towards an esoteric prehistory of textiles

The assumption that the manufacture of textiles in prehistory was informed by the same functionalist notions of time, efficiency and utility governing capitalist production tends to preclude the kind of interpretations lavished by archaeologists on obviously non-functional, so-called ‘ritual’ activity. Such a ‘commonsense’ attitude would confine the study of prehistoric textiles to cataloguing, description and analysis of tool typologies and techniques. Yet, attempts to assess the evolutionary role of economic specialisation in social change – to which studies of metallurgy have proved malleable, however technocentrici in focus – with textile production, founder on its diffuse nature, perceived to be integrated within a range of taken-for-granted domestic tasks regarded as part of a woman’s daily routineii. Likewise, the ‘excess’ time and energy devoted to the decoration of textile-making implements and the embellishment of cloth – attesting to an ‘attitude of enjoyment’, rather than an attitude of efficiency – subverts the regulation of time and motion required by industrial rationalityiii.


Detail from a Hallstatt urn, Sopron, Hungary, showing women spinning and weaving. (After A. Leaver).

This rationality was adopted by artists who, after the First World War, had rallied to a dream of a new society modelled on the ‘exemplary modernity’ of new American technologyiv. To these artists the ‘wasted labour’ devoted to decoration was out of step with ‘the march of civilization’, which ‘systematically liberates object after object from ornamentation’v. Le Corbusier regarded ornament as the province of women; his comparison of the ‘shop-girl’, who bought cheap, decorative rubbish, to ‘an apparition from…an ethnographic museum’ further conflated notions of femininity, the decorative and the ‘uncivilised’vi. These austere perspectives echoed Christian theological discourse on vanity, allied with the mortal sin of luxuria, or lust, to which women were thought particularly pronevii. Represented in medieval iconography by the mermaid – la luxure in France– she has luxuriant hair, often depicted clutching mirror and combviii. The Danish artist, Asger Jorn (1914-1973), celebrated this excess, ‘the unusable superfluous force of matter or luxury’ix, as a counter-value to the economy demanded by functionalism in art and social life. He remarked, in the context of ‘secret topologies’ such as knotwork, strings and mazes, that ‘in a curious way since antiquity the weavers have transmitted a revolutionary teaching in forms which are more or less bizarre, mystifying and subverted’, constituting a history ‘too well known to have been studied seriously’x. Ornament, a spatial phenomenon enabling the observation of time, created a field of action for the play between objectivity and subjectivityxi, its spatialisation of time requiring, through ‘the optics of simultaneity’, a view of ‘the relation the parts all have to one another at once…not limited to one point in the whole.’xii


The dynamic interplay of functional and decorative principles, realised in the activity of spinning and weaving, problematises distinctions drawn in archaeology between ‘ritual’ and ‘domestic’ spheres. The association of textile-making implements with caves in Britain – loom weights, spindle whorls, pins, needles and ‘weaving’ combs – creates a relationship between the ‘mysterious’ and the ‘everyday’, easily overlooked when the same tools appear in ‘mundane’, domestic contexts. As a materially reproduced cultural knowledgexiii extending across space and time, in the context of caves, textile production eludes archaeology’s focus on discrete chronological and regional horizons, because of the spatiotemporal indeterminacy of a pattern linking a multiplicity of places over a period of at least 1500 years. In short, this phenomenon is rendered largely invisible by the temporal sequence of an institutionally constructed ‘forward march’, focused on single points, but excluding the whole, incommensurate with James Joyce’s evocation of spatiotemporal indiscipline, for which luxuriant hair is a metaphor: ‘her redtangles are all abscissan for limitsing this tendency…to expense herselfs as sphere as possible’xiv.


Pisanello Allegory of Luxuria c. 1426. From here

Patterns of Variability

The earliest finds of weaving combs, from the Middle Bronze Age (c1100 BC), are from diverse contexts. One is a settlement site, Shearplace Hill, Sydling St. Nicholas, Dorset. Others are caves in South Wales – Ogof-yr-Esgyrn, Brecknock, and Lesser Garth Cave, Glamorganxv. All are carved from a piece of ox-rib. Both Welsh finds were from mortuary contexts; were they deliberate deposits, or evidence of textile production in situ, perhaps as part of mortuary ritual? Strict dichotomies between ‘self-evidently’ mundane and special locations cannot be applied. Most evidence of textile production is from settlement sites and hillforts. Hillforts are now seen as more ‘ceremonial’ locations than previous ascriptions of military function suggestxvi, while ‘the ritualisation of the domestic sphere’ of Iron Age settlementsxvii is exemplified by the ‘storage pit’ found at a settlement at Viables Farm, Basingstoke. Here, two female inhumations were found. Beneath them were placed two pairs of antler weaving combs, one of each with ring and dot decorationxviii. William Stukeley, in 1760, interpreted two combs found at Thetford as amulets hung around the breasts of Druids in sacrificexix. Combs have also been found at Romano-British temples at Jordan Hill, Dorset, and Worth, Kentxx. The Worth comb was found in a roundhouse beneath the later temple, which may have been dedicated to Minervaxxi, a dedication consistent with the possible interpretatio of a native ‘weaving divinity’.


Bone weaving comb from Mildenhall, Suffolk c.300-100BC. From here.

In dozens of caves, many with mortuary deposits from the Neolithic and Bronze Age, textile tools have been found, usually from the pre-Roman Iron Age and Romano-British period. Victoria Cave, near Settle, demonstrates the variability within the apparent homogeneity of the category, caves with textile implements. As well as textile production tools, there is an array of items of antler and bone, including pierced ‘spoons’, some with ring and dot decoration, another with the profile of an aquatic bird. Rather than serving a culinary function, they are thought to have either been ornamental, perhaps – recalling the ‘feminine vice’ of vanity in theological discourse – hair fasteners, or ritual, an obvious comparison being with Welsh ‘love spoons’xxii. There is no evidence of any funerary practice here, unlike the broadly contemporary context of the Romano-British material at Wookey Hole, in Somerset, where eleven combs have been found, along with weaving tablets, as well as many Romano-British cave burialsxxiii. Victoria Cave may have been a workshop/shrine, with the ‘most unexpected’ presence of tile and window glassxxiv, suggestive of divinatory activity or vanity. Other caves with finds of weaving combs include Kent’s Cavern, Devon; Harborough Cave, Derbyshire; Attermire Cave, Craven; Dowkerbottom Hole, Craven and Dog Holes, Warton, Lancs.

1936 Femme dans une Grotte Huile sur Toile

Paul Delvaux Femme au Miroir 1936

Spinning Yarns

In literature and tradition, caves, textile production and magic are recurrently associated. In the Irish story, ‘The Enchanted Cave of Keshcorran’, Finn and his band are ensnared in ‘heathenish bewitched hasps of yarn’, reeled off by three sorcerer-sisters from their holly spindles as they sit at the entrance of the cavexxv. A Serbian variant of the ‘Cinderella’ narrative relates how a group of girls were sitting in a ring around a cleft in the ground, spinning. An old man appeared, warning ‘if one of you were to let her spindle fall into this cleft, her mother would be immediately turned into a cow’xxvi. The spindle of ‘the fairest of their number’ then fell into the cleft, with the predicted result. Chthonic resonances can be found in seventeenth-century Italy – the Donas de Fuera (‘Ladies from Outside’) were wise women, divided into different ‘companies’. In 1627, a member of ‘The Company of Romans’, at her trial, explained that the ‘Romans’ were ‘the Wise Sibyl’s people who came from a cave that was in the Tower of Babylon, and that the Sibyl was King Solomon’s sister’xxvii. The primary accoutrement of the Irish mythical prophetess, Fedelm, her hair in three tresses, was a light gold weaving-rod, inlaid with goldxxviii.


Black-figure skyphos from Thebes, 5th or 4th cent. BC, showing Odysseus, Circe and her loom. From here.

Homer, in the Odyssey,describes nymphs weaving in a cave; the neoplatonist philosopher, Porphyry (c.233-c.309 CE), wrote a commentary on this episode, On the Cave of the Nymphs, broadly coincident with activity at Wookey Hole. The ‘recycling’ of souls from one body to another is the central mystery of this text, describing a cave where there are looms on which the nymphs ‘amazing webs display’, while perpetual waters ‘through the grotto glide’xxix. To souls descending into generation, occupied with ‘corporeal energies’, writes Porphyry, ‘what symbol can be more appropriate than those instruments pertaining to weaving?’xxx. The cloth will be ‘the flesh which is woven from the blood’, as ‘the body is a garment with which the soul is invested’. Porphyry’s cave is the womb by which man enters life; but also the grave in which he dies to eternityxxxi. In Evenk cosmology, every person possesses a ‘fate soul’, which spends its time at the source of the ‘kin river’, connected with its human by a threadxxxii. An Orphic hymn locates the Three Fates, who spin and cut the thread of fate, in a cavern by a river sourcexxxiii. Correlations with ‘textile caves’ can be seen with Ogof-yr-Esgyrn, 140ft above the cave of Dan-yr-Ogof, from which the River Llynfell emerges, and Wookey Hole, source of the River Axe.


The Three Fates, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos, represent Death in this tapestry, as they triumph over the fallen body of Chastity. Early 16th century, Netherlands. V&A Museum (65&A-1866).

Iconography offers further clues to the extra-utilitarian dimensions of textiles. A decorated Hallstatt vessel from Ödenburg, Hungary, shows a woman spinning, as another weaves at the loomxxxiv, a tableau in which a prominent motif is the ring and dot pattern, a common decorative device on Iron Age weaving combs. The pot was from a mortuary contextxxxv. The Oseberg ship burial in Norway, had a tablet loom set up and partly wovenxxxvi, as if to suggest, like the image on the Ödenburg pot, that weaving was part of funerary practice. The recurrence of lattices, zigzags, chevrons and lozenges carved in stone in Neolithic tombs in Germany may be a representation of patterned textile hangings, likewise some passage tomb art in Ireland and Britainxxxvii. Zigzags and lattices, similarly, are common patterns on Iron Age weaving combs. The oak rafters of a Neolithic tomb at Spitzes Hoch, Germany, appear to have been swathed in cloth, some of it quite ornatexxxviii.


A Common Thread

Textile production, as a mode of prediction, weaving a ‘sibylline geography’, still generates analogical strands in language:

Spinsters unsnarl, unknot, untie, unweave. We knit, knot, interlace, entwine, whirl and twirl. Absorbed in spinning, in the ludic celebration which is both work and play, Spinsters span the dichotomies of false consciousness and break its mindbinding combinationsxxxix.

Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), writing against the inhumanity of ascendant capitalism, appropriated, with his poem The Silesian Weavers, the maledictory role of uncanny women – those spectres which haunt European folklore – for insurgent workers, Marx’s ‘gravediggers of capitalism’:

The rattling loom, the shuttle’s flight,

We are busy weaving day and night,

Thy shroud we weave, Germany of old,

We weave into it the curse three-fold.

We are weaving, weaving, weavingxl.

Klee - Fourknocks

The perception of a magical dimension, inherent to the performance of the most mundane activities, is a thread which links the ‘artistic materialism’ of Asger Jorn with the craft, as it is understood in more theoretically-informed archaeological approaches, of textile manufacture in non-industrial societies. Today, the disruption of qualitative thought by scientific positivism renders traditional symbolism invalid and any decoration based upon it meaningless, so that ‘the study of decoration becomes part of the many ways in which modern society searches for meanings’xli. The co-involvement of past and present practice contrived in this brief exploration accords with a perspective in which ‘Nothing can be sacred… because everything has become meaningful’xlii.


i For a corrective to technocentric views of the development of metallurgy, see Budd, P. and Taylor, T. 1995. ‘The faerie smith meets the bronze industry: magic versus science in the interpretation of prehistoric metal-making.’ World Archaeology 27: 133-143.

ii Hendon, J. A.2006. ‘Textile production as craft in Mesoamerica: Time, labor and knowledge’, Journal of Social Archaeology 6 (3): 355.

iii Barber, E. 1991. Prehistoric Textiles. Princeton University Press, 292-293.

iv Wollen, P. 1993. Raiding the Icebox: Reflections on Twentieth-Century Culture. London: Verso, 18.

v Adolph Loos, ‘Ladies’ fashion’ (1920), cited in Fer, B. 1993. ‘The Language of Construction’, 155, in B. Fer, D. Batchelor and P. Wood, Realism, Rationalism, Surrealism: Art between the Wars.

New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 87-169.

vi In Fer, B. op.cit., 156.

vii Jansen, K.L. 2000. The Making of the Magdalen. Princeton University Press, 164-165

viii Weir, A. and Jerman, J. 1986. Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches. London: Routledge, 51.

ix Jorn, A. 1963. Held og Hasard , 54, cited in P. Shield 1998. Comparative Vandalism: Asger Jorn and the artistic attitude to life. Aldershot: Ashgate, 142.

x Jorn, A. 1994. Open Creation and its Enemies. London: Unpopular Books, 34 (trans. F. Tompsett).

xi Jorn, A. 1957. ‘La lisse…jouet d’artistes…’in Jorn, A. 2001. Discours aux pingouins et autres écrits. Paris: École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, 195, 196.

xii Jorn, A. 1962. Naturens Ordens. Copenhagen: Borgen, 77, in Shield, P. op.cit.,118, and Jorn, A. 1971. Magi og Skønne Kunster. Copenhagen: Borgen, 135, in Birtwistle, G. 1986. Living Art: Asger Jorn’s comprehensive theory of art between Helhesten and Cobra (1946-1949), Utrecht: Reflex, 53.

xiii Hendon, J. A. op. cit.

xiv Joyce, J. 1939. Finnegans Wake London: Faber, 298. This further manifests the theme of the ‘feminine’ as a metaphor for luxuria. This became a central organising metaphor for Surrealism’s fantasy of the modern, against the rationalist aesthetic, in which ‘woman’ was made the object of desire, as well as standing as a sign for desire (see Fer, B. 1993. ‘Surrealism, Myth and Psychoanalysis’, in B. Fer, et al, op.cit., 170-249). Such a definition is as problematic as the conservative conception of feminine domesticity.

xv Rahtz, P and .ApSimon, A. 1962. ‘Excavations at Shearplace Hill, Sydling St. Nicholas, Dorset Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 28: 289-328; Mason, E. 1968. Ogof-yr-Esgyrn, Dan-yr-Ogof Caves, Brecknock. Archaeologia Cambrensis 117: 18-71; Hussey, M. S. 1967. ‘Final excavations at the Lesser Garth Cave, Pentyrch’, Transactions of the Cardiff Naturalist Society, 93:18-39.

xvi Hill, J.D. 1996. ‘Hillforts and the Iron Age of Wessex’, in Champion, T. and Collis, J. The Iron Age in Britain: Recent Trends. Sheffield: Academic Press, 95-116.

xvii Bradley, R. 2003. ‘A Life Less Ordinary: the Ritualisation of the Domestic Sphere in Later Prehistoric Europe.’ Cambridge Archaeological Journal 13: 1, 5-23.

xviii Millett, M. and Russell, D.1982. ‘An Iron Age Burial from Viables Farm’ Archaeological Journal 139: 69-90.

xix Tuohy, T. 1999. Prehistoric Combs of Antler and Bone. 2 vols. Oxford: BAR British Series 285, 5

xx Ibid.

xxi Klein, W. 1928. ‘The Roman Temple at Worth, Kent’. Antiquaries Journal 8: 78.

xxii Dearne, M. and Lord, T. 1998. The Romano-British Archaeology of Victoria Cave, Settle. Oxford: BAR British Series 273, 97.

xxiii Tuohy, T. op.cit., Balch, H. 1914. Wookey Hole: Its Caves and Cave Dwellers. Oxford University Press.

xxiv Dearne, M. and Lord, T. op.cit., 422.

xxv Ross, A. 1973. ‘The Divine Hag of the Pagan Celts’ in Newall, V. (ed) The Witch Figure. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 160.

xxvi Ralston, W. 1982. ‘Cinderella’ in Dundes, A. Cinderella: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 33.

xxvii Henningsen, G. 1990. ‘“The Ladies from Outside”: An archaic pattern of the Witches’ Sabbath’, B. Ankarloo and G. Henningsen (eds.) Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 191-215.

xxviii Green, M. 1995. Celtic Goddesses. London: British Museum Press, 149.

xxix Raine, K. 1957. ‘The Sea of Time and Space’ Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institute 20: 318-337, 321.

xxx Ibid.: 327.

xxxi Ibid.: 326.

xxxii Duerr, P. H. 1985. Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilisation. Oxford: Blackwell, 277.

xxxiii Raine, K., op. cit.,325.

xxxiv Henshall, A. 1950 ‘Textiles and Weaving Appliances in Prehistoric Britain’ Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 145.

xxxv Miranda Aldhouse-Green, personal communication.

xxxvi Henshall, A. op. cit., 150.

xxxvii Campbell, M., Scott, J. G., Piggott, S. 1961. ‘The Badden Cist Slab’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Vol. XCIV: 46-61.

xxxviii Barber, E. 1991. Prehistoric Textiles. Princeton University Press, 141.

xxxix Mary Daly 1978. Gyn/Ecology. Boston: Bedeon Press, p 386.

xl Foner, P. (ed.) 1969. The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs. New York: Monad Press, 112 (Michael Schwab).

xli Graves, J. 1995. ‘Pattern, a psychoanalytical approach: pleasure or oppression? Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester. Vol. 77, no. 1: 21-30, 25.

xlii Jorn, A. 1941. ‘Intimate banalities’, Helhesten, Vol. 1, no. 2, in Hovdenakk, P. 1999. Danish Art 1930-50. Copenhagen: Borgen, 150.

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