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Hallstatt Textiles. Technical Analysis, Scientific Investigation and Experiment on Iron Age Textiles, edited by Peter Bichler, Karina Grömer, Regina Hofmann-de Keijzer, Anton Kern And Hans Reschreiter
Archaeopress (BAR International Series 1351): 2005; 189pp, c.150 B&W and line illustrations, 20 multi-image colour plates; ISBN 1 84171 697 9 (£39.00)

This volume presents a diverse collection of seventeen papers by twenty Continental scholars, presented at the first Symposium on the Hallstatt textiles, held in June 2004, at Hallstatt, Upper Austria. The dramatic setting of this salt mine and associated Iron Age cemetery is richly conveyed by the authors, who provide an impressive synthesis of recent research on its exceptionally preserved archaeology. The scope of the volume ranges from seminal studies on the site of Hallstatt and textiles associated with mining activity or mineralised traces preserved on metalwork within the graves (papers by Kern, Reschreiter and Grömer), to the analysis of ancient craft techniques and dyes (Mautendorfer, Hofmann-de Keijzer et al.). Evaluations of preservation are accompanied by new concepts for the storage of these internationally important textiles (Morelli and Gengler). In addition, there are five experimental reports, ranging from studies of tablet-woven ribbons, ancient dyeing and weaving methods, studies of weaving tools, warp-weighted looms and spindle whorls (Grömer, Hartl and Hofmann-de Keijzer, Schierer and Grömer, respectively). Finally, this type site is set in the broader context of other evidence for later prehistoric textiles, from Italy, the Dürrnberg, Slovakia and Moravia (papers by Rast-Eicher, Jørgensen, Bazzanella et al., Stöllner and Belanová). Both the history of antiquarian investigations and more ambitious recent research programmes are well summarised, setting the scene for more in-depth studies of the textiles themselves.

Salt is described in the volume as ‘white gold’: a substance valued both for its preserving qualities and taste, which was traded extensively to support this thriving centre of production and consumption. Artefacts preserved deep in the mine provide an intimate insight into everyday Iron Age life… tools, bowls, remains of food, areas associated with cooking, repairing tools or latrines. The common feature in all of these deposits is the presence of well-preserved textiles. Old clothes were turned into the miner’s ‘bag of rags’, which could be used in various ways: as wraps around iron picks, fingerstalls on tool handles, loops for hauling loads or knots around splinted hafts and scaffold joists. There is something wonderfully intimate about the re-use of these cloths, to protect Iron Age hands and knees from the hard slog and unpleasant conditions within the mine. However, each fragment holds the potential to reveal another, earlier life: woven and sewn, dyed and decorated, adorning the bodies of both living and the dead.

Detailed studies of flax/hemp, wool and animal fibres, are complemented by an analysis of different yarns, and tabby and twill weaves. Both sewn and felted/fulled seams and decorative borders are identified within the textiles, revealing the strategic use of coarse hairs for hauling bags compared with finer fibres for personal clothing. Macroscopic observation is complemented by the use of microcopic analysis, including SEM-EDS, and liquid chromatography. Olive-green, black, red, blue and yellow dyes are characterised in terms of their constituent components: parent sources include insects, lichens, metallic ores, pigments and plants. Individual chapters are able to comment on the subtle control of shade and the intensity of contrasting colours, as well as the successful fixing of the dyes. The addition of braids, buttons and other decorative effects are also identified from stitching patterns, alongside patching and repair. One paper also identifies textiles with high thermic efficacy: insulated clothing created specifically for the cold conditions of the mine.

All of this analysis proves vital for the experimental archaeology papers, which make important contributions towards the scholarly understanding of manufacturing techniques and offer a nuanced appreciation of the labour and skill involved in this work. The broader contextual analysis also throws up case studies which provide important starting points for new reconstructions: one highlight is the extraordinary site of Gars-Thunau, lower Austria, in which a loom appears to have been destroyed in situ (see paper by Schierer). In addition, these last papers comment more broadly on aspects of identity, social organisation, and patterns of production and trade.

The volume does contain minor editing errors, and it would have been useful to number each chapter for ease of cross-referencing. Readers should also be aware that the volume contains a mix of both English and German texts, though a good bi-lingual synthesis is provided at the beginning of each paper. High quality black and white line drawings and photographs are thoroughly embedded in the text, enabling the reader to move seamlessly between analysis, interpretation and illustration. In addition, multi-image colour plates take the standard of this kind of publication to a new level, conveying the vibrant palette used in the Iron Age, to decorate both people and objects. What is exemplary is the way in which representations of patterned cloth and adorned bodies from other forms of material culture – figurines, ceramics and metalwork such as the Hallstatt scabbard – are also used to complement the textile analysis. The rich interdisciplinary nature of this text makes it a unique contribution to the subject area, providing wonderful value for money. It is an essential read for anyone interested in Iron Age material culture, identity and representation, as well as those specialising in ancient textile analysis or experimental archaeology.

Melanie Giles
University of Manchester

Review Submitted: April 2006

The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those of the Society or the Reviews Editor.

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