Spindle Whorls

Spindle whorls are perforated weights from wooden drop spindles.  Their weight helped give the spindle momentum in the twisting, or spinning, of fibres into yarn, for later making into textiles.  Various materials were used for spindle whorls: stone (various, often local, types), shale, ceramic (baked clay, reused vessel sherds), animal skeletal material (bone, antler), wood, and lead. Spindle whorls should ideally be circular, have a fairly regular cross-section, and tend to have a central perforation at least 4 or 5 mm in diameter (Crummy 1983, 67; Walton Rogers 1997, 1731).

PAS object type(s) to be used

Use SPINDLE WHORL for such perforated weights. Don’t use the term ‘loomweight’, because there are a number of reasons for thinking that they cannot be loomweights.  Firstly, their shape (with sharply angled edges at either end of the perforation) would have worn the warp threads.  Secondly, lead weights have never been found in the kind of loom groups which undoubted ceramic loomweights have been found in.  Thirdly, the warp-weighted loom (which is the only type to require loomweights) went out of use by the 13th century, but perforated lead weights seem to be more popular after the 13th century than earlier.

Date

Spinning using this technique spanned the Iron Age, Roman, early-medieval, medieval and early post-medieval periods.  The drop-spindle with which they were used continued in use at least until the 16th century in Norfolk (Margeson 1993, 184).

Dating can be difficult, particularly for undecorated versions. The central perforation can be indicative of date, with larger perforations present on examples from the early-medieval period onwards compared with those that preceded them (Walton Rogers 2007, 23-24).

Lead is the commonest material for spindle whorls on the PAS database. Few of these are found in excavated contexts, perhaps because they were far easier to recycle than whorls of bone, stone or pottery. None have been found in Roman contexts in Colchester (Crummy 1983, 67) but also none have been found in medieval contexts in Norwich (Goodall in Margeson 1993, 184-5) or York (Ottaway and Rogers 2002, 2736-7).

There is a much higher proportion of lead whorls from the enigmatic site of Meols, with at least 34 of lead, seven of ceramic and three of stone,all unstratified. This high proportion is explained as being due to the proximity of lead-mining sites in Flintshire, but it is acknowledged that there is no way of dating them closely (Griffiths et al 2007, 51, 173).

Terms to use in the description

Various terms have been used in the literature to describe the cross-section of a spindle whorl.  Biconical is commonly used, even though the cones are necessarily truncated by the perforations.  Plano-convex is also commonly used, and covers every shape from a tall dome through a hemisphere to a fairly flat shape which is rounded on one face.  Those which are flat on both faces are often called ‘discoidal’, but flat circular is more self-explanatory.

A more difficult shape is the thick disc, perhaps with rounded edges, where on either side of the perforation the cross-section is oval or rectangular.  Bun-shaped or doughnut-shaped are terms to avoid, as buns and doughnuts come in many shapes.

Although spindles were shaped with a swelling to retain the whorl, most whorls also have a tapering perforation.  In an asymmetric whorl, the wider end tends to be at the flat face of the whorl.  This is probably so that it can fit snugly onto the swelling spindle with what is usually the more neatly finished face of the whorl uppermost.

It is absolutely essential that all weights are weighed.  The weight of a spindle whorl depends on the weight of yarn and type of wool to be spun, and may help to distinguish the spindle whorls from weights of other kinds.  It is only with a large number of recorded weights that patterns can be discerned.

Iron Age spindle whorls

Many Iron Age spindle whorls were made from stone (Coles 1987, 157), and are thus unlikely to be recorded on the PAS database, although metal examples are known.  It seems that thinner spindles were used in this and the Roman period, as compared to later, and that spindle whorls can be expected to have perforation c. 4-8 mm in diameter.

Roman spindle whorls

Many Roman spindle whorls were made from reused ceramic sherds, or from stones such as shale. There are no lead spindle-whorls from Colchester (see Crummy 1983, 67).

It seems that thinner spindles were used in this and the preceding Iron Age period, as compared to later, and that spindle whorls of Roman date can be expected to have perforations c. 4-8 mm in diameter. Walton Rogers uses this to suggest that two spindle whorls with perforations of 5-6mm, found in mid 10th century contexts at Coppergate, are of Roman date (Walton Rogers 1997, 1743).

Date

Within the Roman period if a spindle whorl has been made from a vessel sherd, an earliest date can be suggested by the ware used, where known.

Examples

Search for all examples of Roman spindle whorls

Early-medieval spindle whorls

The excavated assemblage from Winchester contains one lead whorl from a mid to late 10th-century context and one from an 11th-century context, out of a total of 138 whorls (Biddle 1990, vol. 1, p. 225, nos. 194 and 196; see also vol. 2, p. 1128). There are also 14 lead whorls among the total of 236 whorls from Coppergate in York (Mainman and Rogers 2000, 2530; Walton Rogers 1997, 1732-3). A lead whorl on the PAS database (LIN-D92A22) is dated by its runic inscription to the first half of the 11th century.

Medieval spindle whorls

The London medieval assemblage (Egan 1998, 255-61) has two lead examples out of a total of 17 whorls.  At Norwich there were no lead whorls among the ten medieval and early post-medieval whorls excavated (Margeson 1993, 184-5). There is one lead whorl from a late 11th- to early 12th-century context in Winchester, and five from the 14th century (Biddle 1990, vol. 1, p. 225, nos. 192, 193, 195; vol. 2, p. 1128, nos. 4343 and 4344) among 138 whorls in total.

Decorated biconical lead whorls have been found in medieval contexts in Leicester (Austin Friars; Mellor and Pearce 1981, Fig. 51, No. 71, 39-41) and Codnor Castle, Derbyshire (Time Team excavation: Wessex Archaeology 2008, 18). They are usually decorated on both faces with raised dots and radiating or zig-zag ribs.

Post-medieval spindle whorls

A common post-medieval type are spindle whorls made from salt-glazed stoneware from the Rhineland (Egan 1998, 256); these often feature central grooves around their sides.  Moorhouse divides these into three types depending on their form (Hurst and Moorhouse 1981, 127; fig. 6).

Date

Stoneware spindle whorls were common in the first half of the 16th century (Gaimster 1997, 248-250; fig. 104), possibly within a wider date range (Hurst and Moorhouse 1981).

Key references

Griffiths et al. 2007