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In this multimedia contribution we present the results of our first experiment of the Textiles series. We reproduced some of the processes involved in prehistoric spinning technology. The video, realized in December 2011 at the Museo delle Origini of the Università di Roma La Sapienza, documents the creation of the basic tools necessary to perform a spinning activity. We wanted to reproduce in particular the suspended spindle technology, which is still used today in several ethnographic context, providing a good basis for comparison with what is currently available within the prehistoric archaeological documentation.

Spinning is a technique of processing plant or animal fibers to obtain the filaments (of thread, yarn, string, etc.) essential for the manufacture of textiles. The first appearance of spinning activities in Italy is documented in Chassean culture contexts dated to the Middle Neolithic period (Capraldi and Traverso 2009). It is presumed that spinning developed after the domestication of some plant and animal taxa. The oldest known textile remains were produced with vegetable fibers such as flax and nettles. Only during the Bronze Age, were animal fibers commonly used. According to many scholars, during this period, wool would have acquired characteristics such as to allow an efficient working for obtaining filaments. There are, however, occurrences of other species of both vegetable and animal among the findings: horse hair and beaver fur, as well as linden, oak, birch, palm and marsh grasses.

The main archaeological indicator of the existence of this kind of knowledge, in prehistoric contexts, are spindle whorls, in most of cases made of clay, but also of wood, bone and horn. In some Iron Age sites spindle whorls were made of glass, ivory and metal (Mistretta 2004). Obviously, the exemplars made of organic material are found only in humid contexts such as those of so called Terramare of northern Italy. Spindle whorls are featured by a great typological uniformity, the only differences being related to decoration and weight. For instance, in the prehistoric site of Poviglio five different categories of weight were identified (Bianchi 2004). This phenomenon is due to the simple fact that, during spinning, you can get wires with different characteristics by varying the weight of the whorl. The heavier it is, the more robust and resistant the wool yarns will be, while the use of slightly smaller objects is usually related to the spinning of vegetable fibre, such as flax. 

The presence of a spindle is also an important indication of the production of yarn. The spindle is a a rounded rod, tapering toward each end, on which the thread is wound as it is spun. It is generally made of wood or bone. There also exist examples of spindles made of ivory and metal (Mistretta 2004). The great utility of this tool is to allow the “artisan” to keep his or her hands free to form the thread. In Italy, prehistoric spindles are usually found in particular depositional contexts, such as those above-mentioned (Perini 1984), and as a consequence of this the occurrences are pretty scarce.





The basic tool-kit for spinning is composed of a spindle and a spindle whorl. In our experiment, we reproduced both.

The spindle 

We reproduced a traditional Sardinian spindle that was still in current use among rural communities on the island until a few decades ago. In our experiment, we used olive tree wood.

The productive process of the spindle begins with cutting a wooden segment of variable diameter (4-6 mm). The second step is to process the wood. This consists essentially of scraping the surface with a lithic tool, to remove bark and any irregularities that might disturb the work of spinning. We used a large obsidian flake with strong cutting-edges, using all the edge surface during the scraping operations, giving a uniform force  to the cutting action. We then prepared the extremities: on one side we made the object thicker, in order to fix the spindle whorl, while on the opposite side we made an incision to obtaining a nick, which enables the fixing of the wire during operation. 

The spindle whorl 

The spindle whorl we reproduced is a generic copy of bronze age clay exemplars from the settlement of Sa Osa, in central western Sardinia (Castangia 2011:134). The clay we used comes from Maccarese, located in the Rome region. First we purified it from inclusions, then we added a mixture of sand and water to make the clay more malleable. After a period of seasoning, we started modelling the object. This operation was done by hand, using lithic and bone tools.


After carding the fibers, the whorl must be set on the spindle. The subsequent step is to manually produce a wire segment (10-15 cm long in our case) that must be fixed to the nick of the spindle. The actual spinning activity is to whirl the spindle that due to the whorl spins faster and more regularly. During this process, the spinner gives shape to the wire, aiming to obtain the classic “S” shape.



At the end of the experiment, two types of wear were visible on the spindle whorls: (1) marks near the hole, and (2) alterations caused by the drying process. The former, left by the drilling of the hole are usually created by the residual clay removed by the stick. On the other hand, a too-rapid dying period can sometimes result in fractures on the tool, as a consequence of the rapid loss of water in the clay mixture. 



Bianchi, P. (2004) Manufatti per la filatura e per la tessitura. in Bernabà Brea, M.A. and Cremaschi, M. (eds) Il villaggio piccolo della terramara di Santa Rosa di Poviglio: scavi 1987-1992. Firenze, 609-651.

Castangia, G. (2011) ‘Continuity and change in the nuragic rural landscape: the case of Sa Osa’. Traces in Time, 1, available online at the address

Mistretta, V. (2004) Fuseruole, rocchetti e pesi da telaio di Fonte Tasca (Archi): un contributo all’individuazione di metodi e prodotti della filatura e della tessitura nell’età del Bronzo finale. Origini, 26, 141-223.

Perini, R. (1984) Scavi archeologici nella zona palafitticola di Fiavé-Carera: campagne 1969-1976, II. Trento.