Grasping at Threads: A Discussion on Archaeology and Craft

  • Ulla Isabel Zagal-Mach Wolfe


When archaeologists claim to study social and cultural structures and phenomena, patterns of social engagement, and human interaction in general, the study is always based on the material culture of the past. It is understood that these objects have been created and crafted by people of the past, but the weight of this fact is not always recognized; the fact that no matter what phenomenon we might focus on, we are always studying the material expression of past manufactures and productions. This acknowledgement leads to the question of how and to what degree craft and technology can be said to be inherently human and to what degree they shape and mirror societies.

This question brought about the attempt to discern the complex of craft and production and to understand to what degree we can answer questions concerning the technological choices of the past. If we accept archaeological material culture as being a creation, then the artefact, or a structure, becomes not only form but also contains the idea of the form, the choices that were made, and the ideas about the function in the mind’s eye, as well as the social relations and interaction of the craftsmen all culminating in the gestalt that is the artefact we see today. The manufacture and objects of human beings will also be what shape the societies, minds, and bodies of the people involved.

I propose a research method that puts attention on craft-tradition, understood to mean the comprehensive complex of manufacture, the social relations and context, actants, and habitus of the craftsman. The research method is general in its design as it outlines the different levels of study necessary when studying a craft-tradition. The research method is tested on a case study that is concerned with the introduction of the sail in textile and maritime craft-tradition. During 500–800 AD, it would seem a change took place that eventually changed and combined the long-standing tradition of oar-driven boats with the blossoming of a skilled use of rig and sail. This is indicated in the depictions on Gotlandic picture stones and the remains of a developed rig found in the Oseberg ship and later finds. Exploring this claim, the textile craft-tradition from the Swedish region of Scania is outlined, and the context of manufacture and the craftsman’s habitus of the Late Migration and Vendel Period Scania are analysed.


Archaeology Research method Craft-tradition Sail Textile Technology Scandinavia 



This chapter is based on my PhD thesis which I finished in 2013. I would like to extend my gratitude to Lund University as well as the Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre for Textile Research, University of Copenhagen, for scholarship and funding. Thanks also to the editors of the present volume for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this chapter.


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© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ulla Isabel Zagal-Mach Wolfe
    • 1
  1. 1.Cultural Heritage SectionThe County Administrative Board SkåneMalmöSweden

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