By Brendan Glenn, class of 2021
When one considers the objects of importance in one’s life, it is often the largest or most complex things which first come to mind. The buttons on my shirts or the zippers on my backpack, however, are as vitally important to my life, or at least to my lifestyle, as my phone or my computer. Such unseen but ever-present objects are probably more populous nowadays, in the age of mass-production and unobtrusive design, but they have doubtless existed for nearly as long as groups of humans have been producing things. One particular invisible object, a needle of carved bone, can be used to shed a little light on a certain group of humans: the people inhabiting the early Anglo-Saxon settlement of West Stow in the middle centuries of the first millennium. Despite the fact that it was likely taken for granted in its “life,” or perhaps because it was, it can if thoroughly noticed offer insights about those who created and used it.
The needle in question (Fig. 1) is a fairly simple object comprised of two main sections: a head and a shaft. The shaft is thin and cylindrical, descending from the head and tapering at the other end to a somewhat sharp point. The head is a roughly shield-shaped structure with a hole in its center, which is positioned directly in line with the shaft. The needle likely originates from a pig fibula which was carved down into a needle shape around its central axis, preserving the tensile strength provided by the original bone while also minimizing the space the item would have taken up.
This object was most likely used either as a simple dress-pin or for single-needle knitting. It shares with sewing needles found at and near West Stow a perforated triangular head and a simple design, although it is more elaborate than other needles due to the extra carving on its head which makes it shield-shaped. That this needle is fancier than other, similar objects, however, raises several questions about the people who used it. Why might someone want a more elaborate version of a bone tool whose uses were fairly mundane? The answer is likely that this needle’s relatively-ornate design served to highlight the bone-working skill of the person who created it, and therefore the status of its user. From this, one can infer that there was a certain amount of value placed on having finely-made things in the community at West Stow, which isn’t necessarily surprising, but also that this applied even to small, seemingly mundane items such as needles.
Why, then, didn’t a person with the means to have a nice needle have a needle made for themselves out of a higher-status material? Iron, silver and bronze dress-pins are present at the West Stow site, but no needles of anything but bone have been found. Why make metal pins but not metal needles? Since needles, unlike dress-pins, are unlikely to be buried with people, it’s possible that metal needles were used and didn’t end up where archaeologists could find them, but it seems unlikely that no metal needles would ever be lost, unlike the many doubtlessly-misplaced bone needles found in other excavated dwellings. Perhaps metal simply couldn’t be shaped into fine enough needles for the purposes of West Stow’s needle-users. Either way, the fact that this simple object is the nicest needle found at the site provides a glimpse, however murky, into the sorts of things that its people valued in their invisible objects.
Despite the fact that this needle was probably used for fairly mundane purposes, such as doing simple, decorative embroidery, it nonetheless is an object which could be said to have had a higher level of importance than other quotidian tools. The people of West Stow lived simple lives and had access, from the perspective of even people alive in their own time in places not terribly far from Britain, to very little indeed.
Despite that, however, they had the time and energy to make even their simple tools prettier than they necessarily had to be. Knit-work is useful for keeping oneself warm and dress-pins are necessary for holding certain types of clothing together, but there’s no need for the objects that facilitate knitting or pinned dresses to be nice. Despite this, some inhabitant of West Stow nonetheless wanted this needle to be prettier than it absolutely had to be, to make things nicer rather than simply do the bare minimum in a time and place where even achieving the bare minimum of survival was a fairly pressing task. It is things like this small, simple-yet-ornate needle which remind us that even the people who do not appear in histories have inner lives, and are, essentially, human.
Of course, producing this needle was not a task accomplished via the crafter’s deep belief in the innate human quest for beauty, but via bone-working tools and the leg of a slaughtered pig, which are much less romantic to ponder but substantially more useful. My own work to recreate this object was significantly less bloody and physical than its original creator’s, but did give me an appreciation for the effort required to produce such an object. Several of the issues which I encountered in my quest to convince Agisoft PhotoScan to produce a 3D model of the object could be taken as oblique metaphors for the experience of a human interacting with a needle like this one.
The program initially, for instance, had difficulties separating the needle from the background of the photos in which it was pictured. I have had the same experience multiple times when attempting to find similar small objects against backgrounds which seemingly ought to highlight their presence, and while I understood that PhotoScan was having a different issue than I do when I drop a red thumbtack and cannot find it on a solid green carpet, I still empathized with the program’s struggle. For reference, see Fig. 2, where the program constructed a horrible amalgam formed of photos of the object taken from many angles due to its inability to distinguish it from its background.
Likewise, the refusal of the program to assign any tie points to the object or its environs I assumed to be similar in aspect to my own difficulties when attempting to, say, seize hold of such small items as the needle. The solution for both of us in this sort of situation appears to be the application of additional computing power to the problem; I, on my second attempt, take time to resolve the depth of the evasive object before attempting to pick it up again, while PhotoScan required a greater limit for the number of points which it’s allowed to apply when aligning its images in order to sufficiently “acquire” the needle and model it sufficiently (see Fig. 3). In other words, I was able to experience an interaction with this item in vicarious fashion through the trials which PhotoScan went through in attempting to locate, acquire, and correctly model it.
Figure 3: My final model for (the upright perspective of) the needle.
The stories which something as simple and seemingly unimportant as a needle can tell are, honestly, surprising in their scope and occasional depth. Through attempting to understand this object one can learn not only about its history but about the concerns, both social and aesthetic, of its user or users. That this needle holds so much information within it despite the fact that it likely went almost unnoticed by those in whose lives it was present has induced in me a sort of paranoia concerning the materials with which I live my life. What will my shirt-buttons tell the archaeologists and college students of the future? My discarded coffee-cup lids? My headphones? It’s not paranoia in the sense that I feel threatened (though I suppose it’s always uncomfortable to consider the prospect that nameless others will understand in great detail how I live my life), but more in the sense that my every use of an object is now paired with the thought, “what will they think of this when they find it?”. This has the uncomfortable effect of making objects that ought to be invisible (like my suddenly-fascinating shirt-buttons) quite visible indeed. Perhaps the owner of this needle felt the same way when considering its shield-shaped head. “I hope” they might have thought, “that nobody notices how inconvenient the shape of this thing is for sewing.”
West, Stanley. West Stow, Suffolk: The Anglo-Saxon Village. 2 vols., East Anglian Archaeology Report 24. Ipswich, Suffolk: Suffolk County Planning Dept., 1985.
The Oxford Handbook of Anglo-Saxon Archaeology, edited by Hamerow et al. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011.
West, Stanley. West Stow Revisited. West Stow: West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village Trust, 2001.