Melting Snow Reveals Iron Age Sweater

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A boat neck sweater made of warm wool and woven in diamond twill was a dominating fashion trend among reindeer hunters 1,700 years ago, according to researchers who have investigated an extremely well preserved Iron Age tunic found two years ago under melting snow in Norway.

Announced last March, the finding has been detailed in the current issue of the journal Antiquity.

“Due to global warming, rapid melting of snow patches and glaciers is taking place in the mountains of Norway as in other parts of the world, and hundreds of archaeological finds emerge from the ice each year,” Marianne Vedeler, from the University of Oslo, Norway, and Lise Bender Jørgensen, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, wrote.

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Found in an hunting area on the Norwegian Lendbreen glacier at 6,560 feet above the sea level, the well-preserved tunic was made between 230 and 390 A.D., according to radiocarbon dating.

“It is a very rare item. Complete garments from early first millennium A.D. Europe can be counted on the fingers of one hand,” Bender Jørgensen told Discovery News.

Examinations with a scanning electron microscope and light microscopy revealed that two different fabrics, made of lamb’s wool or wool from adult sheep, are present in the tunic.

“There is no doubt that the wool was carefully chosen for both fabrics, and that both quality and natural pigmentation were taken into consideration,” the researchers said.

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Indeed, the fabric was deliberately and evenly mottled, the effect obtained using two light and two dark brown alternating wool threads.

Relatively short and constructed from a simple cut, the greenish-brown tunic would have fitted a slender man about 5 feet, 9 inches tall. It featured a boat neck, had no buttons or fastenings, but was simply drawn over the head like a sweater.

The cut and size of the tunic closely resembles that of a garment excavated more than 150 years ago in a bog at Thorsbjerg, Schleswig-Holsten. Now in the Archaeological Museum in Schleswig, Germany, it was found in an early first millennium weapon deposit offering, and presumably had belonged to an officer.

“The similarity between the two tunics is very interesting as it suggests that a specific style was intended, and that this ‘fashion’ was known over a wide area. Both are woven in a weave called diamond twill that was popular over large parts of northern Europe in the period,” Bender Jørgensen said.

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The sweater-like tunic showed hard wear and tear and had been mended with two patches.

“This suggest that the hunter looked after his clothing. He may, however, not have been its first owner,” Bender Jørgensen said.

According to the researchers, it is quite possible that the tunic was originally sleeveless, and that the sleeves were added at the time of the second repair.

“For the first repair the mender used a patch of the same fabric as used in the body section, while the second patch derived from the fabric used for the sleeves. The seams on this second patch are made with the same yarn as used for sewing on the sleeves,” Vedeler and Bender Jørgensen wrote.

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A question remains why the tunic was left in the mountains.

“The hunter may, perhaps, have been surprised by sudden fog or snow, and not been able to retrieve his garment. This can easily happen in these surroundings,” Bender Jørgensen said.

The tunic is not the only textile item recovered from the Norwegian ice patches.

“Currently, approximately 50 fragments await dating and analysis and, as global warming progresses, more can be expected. They promise to shed further light on dress, textile design and textile production in the first millennium AD — and earlier,” the researchers said.

Image: The Iron Age tuinc. Credit Marianne Vedeler/Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo.

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