Spinning in ancient times

In Rome there’s a minor museum built onto the side of the Baths of Diocletian.  This is where old stuff that is unwanted by other museums ends up; it’s a sort of archaeological spare room containing odds and ends. While there, browsing through a long hall of funerary containers that once held the ashes of cremated ancient Roman citizens, I found this depiction of a man spinning flax from a distaff onto a spindle. [Click to enlarge.]

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Photo taken by me, Carrol Krause.

At first view this carving seems crude and unworthy of notice, but look at it again carefully. This image is interesting for several reasons. It shows that spinning in ancient Rome was equal-opportunity in terms of gender, so it wasn’t only women who did it. It also shows the distaff suspended from the ceiling (or wall) rather than being stuck on the end of a long stick, as it was done for hundreds of years afterward throughout Europe.  The man’s leg is not crooked as you might think on quick glance; in actuality his knee is bent because he is rolling the spindle on his thigh. This quick bent-leg gesture is done by most drop-spinners prior to dropping the spindle to turn freely while suspended in the air, and the motion is usually so quick that it is gone the next moment. The more I look at this carving the more I marvel at the way the sculptor captured that fleeting motion.

Here’s an ancient Egyptian image showing the same roll-on-the-thigh motion:

I assumed at first that these spinners were plying but instead they are spinning two spindles simultaneously, working from clumps of (presumably) flax fiber placed in pots on the ground, possibly with water in them to aid the process. (Linen needs to be spun wet.) We modern spinners would love to relearn the lost technique of doubling our work-product in this manner.

After nearly an hour of searching Google for images of spinning/spindles/ancient Rome, I came up with virtually nothing at all except later Edwardian and Victorian images that re-imagined the past.  Ancient Rome did not appear to favor images of women spinning, as ancient Greece did, so that single funerary image I found in Rome appears to be a rare standout. The only authentic ancient Roman depictions of spinning that I could find on the Internet were images of Nona (same as the Greek Clotho), one of the Three Fates who spun the thread of life:


She is holding a hand-spindle and twirling it with her fingers. This is not a drop spindle! For an excellent explanation of the difference between the two, see http://15thcenturyspinning.wordpress.com/2013/01/29/research-and-documenting-how-they-spun/. Here you will find detailed medieval images of hand-spindles painstakingly collected by a historic re-enactor.

My search for images did turn up this wall relief from Susa, one of the capitols of the ancient Persian empire:

Note that she is spinning right next to her dinner which waits on the table in front of her. One would think that the fish would collect bits of cast-off fluff floating in the air; but we all know that fervent spinners will not come to table to eat until the last bit of carded fiber is spun onto the spindle!

Do readers know of links to any authentic images of spinning in the ancient world? Let me know.




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