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Medieval North European Spindles and Whorls
By Carolyn Priest-Dorman
Published Online (2000)
Introduction: This document discusses spindle whorls and shafts found throughout the areas Scandinavians lived in during the Middle Ages (800-1500 CE). Many hundreds of spindle whorls survive from the Scandinavian Middle Ages. In the Viking Age they were frequently buried with women, and throughout the period many were lost or discarded at settlement sites, only to be dug up centuries later.
Each of six major published works assembles a number of spindle whorls from medieval Scandinavia and areas of Scandinavian influence. Eva Andersson analyzes over 230 Scanian whorls from fifth through eleventh century Sweden. Jan Petersen refers to 450 whorls and five spindles from Viking Age Norway. Ingvild Øye carefully analyzes 410 whorls and 31 spindles from twelfth through fifteenth century Bergen, Norway. Lena Thunmark-Nylén marshals photographs of 27 whorls from Viking Age Gotland. Penelope Walton Rogers carefully analyzes 149 whorls and 5 spindles from York, England, in periods ranging from the ninth through the fifteenth century. The World of the Vikings CD-ROM assembles images of at least 90 whorls and 5 spindles that are not represented in any of the other works above. The resulting corpus numbers some 1356 or so whorls and 46 spindles. Information from those six sources comprises the bulk of this document, supplemented by write-ups on smaller numbers of finds.
The surviving whorls are made of many different materials: amber, antler (elk), bone (cattle, pig), clay, coral, glass, metal (iron, lead, lead alloy), and wood (oak). Many types of local stone were also used, such as chalk, limestone, mudstone, sandstone, schist, siltstone, slate, and soapstone. In Norway and Iceland, where soapstone can be quarried, and in the areas such as Scotland, Greenland, and Newfoundland that were influenced by Norway and Iceland, more soapstone whorls survive than whorls of any other material. Often soapstone whorls were made from reused fragments of cooking vessels.
Surviving spindles were made of many different types of hard and soft wood. Hard woods included ash, aspen, birch, maple, oak, and willow. Soft woods included juniper, pine, and yew. Walton Rogers also mentions two bone pieces that might be spindles, and Grenander Nyberg mentions one.
Generally speaking, the heavier the material, the smaller the whorl. The most common weight range in medieval northern European whorls is between about 10 and 30 grams, although some weigh over three times that much. Whorls in various sizes are known. A soapstone one from post-Viking Greenland, 2 centimeters in diameter, is one of the smallest. An oak whorl from pre-Viking Age Elisenhof in North Germany, at 10.5 centimeters in diameter, is one of the largest. Soapstone whorls frequently measured between 3 and 5 centimeters in diameter.
Complete surviving spindles usually range in length between 20 and 30 centimeters, although some are shorter. Information on holes drilled in the York whorls indicate that the diameter of a spindle shaft there typically ranged from seven to twelve millimeters, with most in the nine to eleven millimeter range.