Spindle whorl

Written by Sólrún Inga.


Last week a part of a spindle whorl was discovered during excavation, which was made out of red sandstone. Three parts of spindle whorls have been found during this summer’s excavation. They are all from around the 10th century AD. Spindle whorls from this era have been found around the country both in excavations and heathen burials. During the excavations at Alþingi a total of 12 spindle whorls have been recovered. They were made from wood or stone, imported as well as Icelandic.

The tradition of spinning a thread is thousands of years old and up to 9000 year old spindle whorls have been discovered in the Middle East. Often these tools of spinning are the only evidence we find of this old tradition. The oldest textiles that have been recovered are made of linen but the use of wool is belived to have started around 4000-3500 years BC. Spindle whorls have many different shapes, below there is a picture of spindle whorls from the 10th C BC, which were found in Greece.

spindle whorl greece


The spindle whorl is a part of a drop spindle, which was used to spin threads for weaving or making textiles. Most of the whorls are circular with a hole in the middle where a wooden spike called a distaff is lodged inside. The distaff is rarely found in excavations. A hook made of metal would then be fastend onto the top of the distaff on the end that comes up through the whorl. The spindle was then turned to spin the thread. The spindle whorls were made of all sorts of materials, stone, led, bone, clay or wood and they are usually flat on the underside and convex on the other side. Spindle whorls of this type have been found all around Scandinavia from the roman iron-age and later. They differ in weight and diameter, but these two factors have an influence on how tightly the thread is spun. A small whorl spins faster than the large one and does therefore make a tighter and stronger thread than the bigger whorl, which in return makes a thicker thread.

The whorl was not always on the top of the spindle, which is usually the case in Iceland, but was often on the bottom, which was more common in Europe’s mainland. These methods are called high-whorl and low-whorl. In Egypt of the Faro’s the whorl was most likely on the top, as can be seen on these hieroglyphs, which depict spinning.


During the 11th Century the spinning wheel appeared, in Asia first, and started to take over the drop spindle. I some areas the drop spindle was still popular, eg. in the North-Mediterranean. There the thread was spun while walking and one can imagine that this was the case in Iceland as well. In any case spinning wheels were not introduced in Iceland until early 18th Century and the drop spindle was used up to the middle of the 20th Century. Most of the weaving was done on a loom, from the settlement period and to around the middle of the 18th Century. It was a tedious and tiresome work but it produced two of the number one exports of the nation.

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Anna a mig

A drop spindle from Stóraborg. On it is written “Anna owns me” in a decorative casing with other decorations. This beautiful artifact was found in a floor layer from the early 17th Century, but it could be older.

A few wooden artifacts found at Alþingisreitur look quite like the distaff from the Stóruborg spindle, but they will be a subject for a later analysis. It seems likely that some of the distaffs would be preserved at Alþingisreitur, because the wood preservation is especially good.






David W. Anthony. 2009. The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton Univeristy Press. 17. 08. 2009.


E.J.W. Barber. 1991. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton University Press. 1991.


Elsa E. Guðjónsson. "Listræn textíliðja fyrr á öldum. Útsaumur, listvefnaður, skinnsaumur, knipl og útprjón".Hlutavelta tímans. Menningararfur á Þjóðminjasafni. Árni Björnsson og Hrefna Róbertsdóttir (ritstjórar). Þjóðminjasafn Íslands, Reykjavík 2004.


Elsa E. Guðjónsson. 1991. "Um rokka, einkum með tilliti til skotrokka". Árbók hins íslenzka fornleifafélags. Hið íslenzka fornleifafélag, Reykjavík 1991.


Guðrún Jóna Þráinsdóttir. 2011. Steinar í íslenskri fornleifafræði. Ritgerð til BA- prófs. Sótt á vefslóð:http://hdl.handle.net/1946/10009


Mjöll Snæsdóttir. 1980. "Anna á mig. Um snældusnúð frá Stóruborg". Árbók hins íslenzka fornleifafélags. Hið íslenzka fornleifafélag, Reykjavík 1980.


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