Craft Fair: Funeral & Burial Practices


One of the areas our class spent time considering and researching was Anglo-Saxon burial practices. Due to the prevalence of cemeteries in the archaeological record, this is easier than researching clothing for example which tends to disintegrate while in the ground, but it is not without its own issues. The main challenge in understanding burials is deciphering why certain decisions were made. Without a well-maintained written record, archaeologists must infer based on objects that did not decay, such as those made of metal, and what texts have survived such as riddles and epic poems such as Beowulf.

Our group decided to explore burial practices through making by re-creating the burial process of grave 28 at the Little Eriswell cemetery in Suffolk, England. This consisted of making the grave goods and reenacting the procession and burial process at the craft fair. We were limited, however, by our own skills and experience, as well as time and access to appropriate materials. In order to assemble an exhibit that satisfied our desire to correspond with the materials but still echo an Anglo-Saxon grave, we limited the number of artifacts and substituted some of the metal objects for ones made of wood or clay. 

We procured many of our items from the costume department, including glass beads, the bases for our brooches, and a pillowcase to form a bag. We made the brooches, wrist clasps, belt buckle, and “ivory” ring from clay, and Elise made wooden replicas of the girdle hangers that well-to-do Anglo-Saxon women wore on their belts. The textile group made a peplos-style dress for our “body” (a borrowed plastic skeleton) to wear in the grave.


Grave Goods:


Brooches were worn by many Anglo-Saxon women: one on each shoulder and sometimes one in the center of the chest with beads strung between them. There were different types of brooches, some of which would have indicated higher status than others. There were also regional styles of brooches that could indicate where people were from or whether they had traveled in their lifetime. Some even display influences from cultures outside England itself, indicating contact with continental societies.

We suffered a slight complication in the display of our brooches which stemmed from a misreading of the architectural report from the Eriswell cemetery. The brooch pictured above is a square headed brooch and would usually be placed in the center of the dress. We instead placed a model of a bronze rivet in the center of the chest with a square headed brooch at each shoulder. In there Eriswell grave, two cruciform brooches would have adorned the shoulders of the dress, keeping the peplos on the body. See Gale R. Owen-Crocker’s “Dress in Anglo-Saxon England” for further readings on brooches and their ritual significance.

More information on brooches can be found here or here


The girdle-hangers were metal key-shaped items discovered hanging from the belts of a few different buried Anglo-Saxon women across Early Medieval England, and likely indicated that they were of high-status. The significance of they girdle-hangers is that they either resembled keys or had keys hanging from them, and symbolized the individual as the ‘keeper of the household’ because they held the keys.

More information on girdle hangers can be found here


Wrist clasps are small rectangular pieces used to hold together the sleeves of women’s dress. They would have been symbols of status due to the specific skills required to cast them. Ours were made of clay like many of the other representations rather than their original bronze. Due to the need to make inferences about what the dress would have looked like, we are unsure if these clasps were functional parts of a long sleeved dress or merely decorative adornments to a cylindrical gown

More information on wrist clasps can be found here 

Belt Buckle:

The peplos garment would have been belted and the belt buckle would have held the belt together. Though they were often made of bronze, fancier belt buckles made from other materials such as silver indicated that some women were of wealthier means.


Most women wore beaded necklaces as accessories, though finer pieces were probably worn by wealthier women. They often became heirlooms, passed down for several generations from mother to daughter (or daughter-in-law), and as a result archaeologists have found necklaces in graves that were already decades old when they were buried.


In addition to girdle hangers and other items that hung from the belt, women carried bags made of cloth with a sturdy ring to shape the opening. The ring in the Eriswell grave that we copied was made of ivory, but our recreation was made of unfired clay.


A dress in the traditional style of East-Anglia, it is belted at the waist and secured at the shoulders with a pair of brooches. Because clothing rots away and does not exist in the material record, we based the dress of of contemporary dresses from the continent and the archeological remains of more durable materials such as fasteners like brooches or belt buckles.

More information on textiles can be found here

Funerary Pottery:


Many Anglo-Saxon graves were found with pottery, usually containing ashes. However, other “storage pottery” have been found; usually, the type of pottery found in these graves were funerary urns or food bowls/pots. It was also common for normal food pots to be repurposed into funerary urns.

For more information about Anglo-Saxon pottery click here or here 

The grave itself: 

Though it is difficult to know exactly the significance of every single detail of Anglo-Saxon burials, archaeology can provide some information for us as we went about digging and preparing the grave in which the deceased was to be buried. The grave was designed to accommodate a supine burial. It was oriented north to south, lined at the bottom with wooden sticks and the edge surrounded with stones.


Anglo-Saxons cremated their dead by burning them with a pyre, though it is debated how it was done. One idea is that the Anglo-Saxons would stack the wood on top of the body, but there are debates against this, as some people believe there wouldn’t be enough oxygen to sufficiently burn the entire body. Another idea is that the body was instead stacked on top of the pyre that was filled with brushwood. The cremation process was most likely a public event.

Burial Presentation:



There is little known about actual Anglo-Saxon ritual funeral practices beyond how bodies were prepared, because the rituals do not leave traces in the record. However, evidence can be found in primary sources such as Beowulf, and also deduced from what does remain archaeologically.


We began with the body prepared and displayed on the island where the rest of the fair took place. It was meant to symbolize the preparation and display of the body and all of its grave goods within the Anglo-Saxon village before it was to be buried.

Classmates and visitors alike helped to pick up the body and carry it over to the grave site. Everyone walked together with the body as Elise, leading the procession, read laments from The Word Exchange, including excerpts from “The Husband’s Message,” “The Riming Poem,” and “The Song of the Cosmos.” When we reached the grave, the body was placed inside and Elise then gave a eulogy for the deceased which had been planned beforehand by her and Spencer. (See video below)


The eulogy for the deceased, “Ecgwynn,” described some of her accomplishments during her life and the significance that she had based on the burial context and grave goods chosen to be buried with her.

The girdle-hangers were meant to signify that she was the keeper of the household, and the eulogy indicated this by describing how Ecgwynn advised her husband and took charge of various duties within the household, such as making clothing and overseeing the production of food. It was also significant that, under her care, none of the family was cast out, all debts were paid, and nobody starved or froze.

To indicate the generally poor health of the Anglo-Saxon people, the eulogy claimed that Ecgwynn died of the ‘black pox,’ which is an ambiguous name for any number of diseases that may have killed the deceased.

Another important detail about Ecgwynn’s life would have been her role as a mother and the contributions that her children had made to the household. It was described that her two oldest sons, ‘Aescwig and Aldwin’ were warriors who effectively defended the household’s herds from another neighboring clan.

Craft Fair: Ceramics

The table that I sat at during the portion of the Craft Fair when it was not raining cats and dogs was the ceramics table.


The ceramic table displayed several examples of the ‘Anglo-Saxon funerary urns’ that my classmates and I had made in the College’s pottery studio early in the term, as a means of striving towards a holistic method of understanding material culture. Essentially, one of the best ways to learn about something, especially if that thing is traditionally hand-made, is to make it yourself, with your hands, and with as much of authentic materials and methods as you can achieve.

Students beginning to create coil pots

Students shaping and smoothing coil pots

Students decorating the outsides of their coil pots with patterns

Of course, there are limitations on the authenticity that can be achieved by a bunch of undergraduates an ocean and a millennium away from the original makers of the crafts. However, through our time in the pottery studio we were at least able to gain an appreciation for the amount and work and skill that goes into making in a lumpy, asymmetrical pot.

Like traditional pots from this period, the pots that we made were coil pots. This kind of pot is easy to make, even for a person as unskilled as me and my classmates or an unspecialized Medieval farmer. Making a coil pot involves creating a flat, circular base and coiling thick strings of clay around the perimeter of that base. The layers of coils are smoothed and blended as they are stacked, and the length of each layered coil controls the radius of each part of the finished pot. In the case of funerary urns, this results in a curvy shape that is narrow at the base, wide in the middle and tapers at the top before flaring outward at the lip.

an example of a traditional Anglo-Saxon funerary urn, from a crematory site in Suffolk

Coil pots are made without the usage of a pottery wheel, and usually without the usage of a turn table, so they tend to end up being lumpy and/or asymmetrical within both the archaeological record and college pottery studios. Traditionally, these pots were fired in bonfires rather than in kilns, and were not finished with a glaze like many modern wares, so they lack the shine and durability of many ceramics that would be found in a pottery shop today.

The urns that we made were also featured at other locations throughout the Craft Fair.

Some urns were used to weigh down the tarp under the body that was used for the mock burial at the end of the Craft Fair

One was used to hold quills at the calligraphy table

And another few were filled with ashes and placed around a mock crematory pyre

The ubiquity of ceramic vessels around the craft likely resembles how commonplace pottery would have been in rural Early Medieval Britain, as these wares were created on the household scale.

The interactive element of the Ceramics table consisted of quantities of play dough that I made from scratch with the help of a friend.

The play dough was made with common ingredients, and was pretty easy to make.

For one batch, we used two cups of flour, one cup of salt, four tablespoons of vinegar, two cups of water, three tablespoons of vegetable oil, and a bunch of chopped up grass from behind the house that held the kitchen we used. I also kneaded in a handful of ash from the fire during the craft fair.

Grass and ash are not usually used in play dough, but I decided to incorporate them as a way of mimicking how the clay used in creating traditional Anglo-Saxon pottery was ‘dirty’- containing fossils, ash, vegetative matter, and whatever else was in the ground where the farmers dug up their clay.

I also put food coloring in the play dough. This resulted in it being somewhat unfortunately flesh-colored, but also similar in color to the fired ceramics on the table.

measuring out ingredients…

mixing them over medium heat…

until a mass of play dough begins to form.

Spreading it out so that it can cool…

before balling it up so that it could be taken to the craft fair! This was one batch out of the three we made.

As a part of my exposition at the table, I would briefly discuss the nature of traditional Anglo-Saxon ceramics, talk about why and how our class made ours, and invite people to make coil pots using the play dough.

The table had few visitors (as did most of the craft tables, as an hour and a half into the craft fair it began to thunderstorm and all of the tables had to be covered. Most of the fair’s visitors came to the later half of the event, for food and for the mock burial. However, the people that did visit the table seemed to enjoy it.

Craft Fair: Early Medieval Textiles

“Of all the proceeds of human artifice, string is perhaps the most widespread and least appreciated.” -Tim Ingold


Basic Textile History

Textiles were certainly an important part of life during the Early medieval period. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the materials used, there are very few remnants from this period. Much of the information surviving about clothing from this period comes from a few scattered objects found on the European continent, or from supposition based on archeological records. The design of early Anglo-Saxon women’s dresses, for instance, has been surmised based on the surviving metal fasteners, including brooches and wrist clasps, found in women’s graves scattered throughout early British burial sites. Indications of the processes of such as spinning, weaving, and rope-making are occasionally left by indentations and patterns of decay in graves or the sites of decayed buildings, not to mention the discovery of many loom weights and spindle whorls in domestic areas. Given the lack of textual or remaining physical evidence of Early Anglo-Saxon textiles, many of their nuances may remain a mystery, but they will likely continue to fascinate historians due to the tremendous impact they had on the everyday lives of ordinary Anglo-Saxons.


Spinning & Weaving

Spinning in Early Medieval England began with carding and cleaning the wool, unless you wanted to leave the lanolin in to make the cloth more waterproof, in which case you would leave it unwashed. The wool was then spun into yarn using a drop spindle, basically a stick with a bead-like spindle whorl on it to help it turn. We procured a drop spindle and tried out spinning some wool into yarn, but most of ours was over-spun, causing the yarn to twist around itself and break off of the main cloud of wool more often.

Demonstrating a drop spindle.

We didn’t get a chance to try out weaving our minimal amount of yarn, since we had made nowhere near enough yarn to weave so much as an inch of cloth. However, Early Medieval people would use giant looms with sticks to pull out alternating threads on the frame to speed threading yarn through it.


Making Clothing

Since linen would have been available, if not exactly common, during the Early Medieval period, we set out in search of tablecloths (we definitely didn’t have time to weave our own cloth). Sadly, Target didn’t have cheap, non-printed tablecloths, so we instead went for a sheet set. Fast forward through several hours of ripping the seams and elastic out of a fitted sheet, and we begin attempting to figure out how to make an Early Medieval gown.

The sources we had showed what was basically a large cylinder, the two sides pinned together at the shoulders with brooches, tied around the waist with a considerable amount of extra fabric bunched over the belt. So we began by pinning together the sides at various different widths, trying to figure out how wide, exactly, the cylinder needed to be to allow enough extra room for arm holes without making it look like we were actually wearing a sheet.

There was also the question of whether we should sew the gown in a straight cylinder, or taper it a bit at the top to give it the slightly more drapey look in the pictures in our sources. In the end, we settled for more or less a perfect cylinder, a few inches longer than the person it would fit to allow for the bunched, loose top over the belt. Sewing was a straightforward affair: we just hemmed the bottom and stitched up the single seam at the sides. The two shoulders we pinned together with safety pins, as we were short authentic Early Medieval brooches.

On the skeleton we used at the fair for our burial, the gown was a bit loose, but it looked satisfyingly authentic. And it was, after all, a skeleton fairly short on flesh.

Ecgwynn in full Early Medieval regalia.


Making Rope

Rope making is one of the foundations of farming communities like those of the early medieval period in England. It is the area where textiles leave the exclusive domain of the home and become part of the larger economic driving force used both in domestic and more industrial settings such as farming and fishing. We took inspiration for this activity from the descriptions of Tim Ingold in his philosophical treatise Making. In it he describes the process of making two core rope with palm leaves as a means of discovering the full possibilities involved in creating through the hands. Our somewhat less ephemeral purpose, was to explore the process involved in this basic medieval craft, and to find a greater appreciation for the labor involved and the quality of the rope obtained. This began with a search for materials that would best serve our purpose. Palm leaves seldom grow in Minnesota (nor do I imagine they were common in medieval Britain) so it was necessary to find an alternative source of fiber. In this case, rather than trying to find the fibers that would have been used by the early Anglo-Saxons, we focused instead on how they would have solved the problem themselves, they would have found the best material they could source locally. We followed suite using the dried leaves of last year’s prairie grasses we collected as a substitute fiber.

Collecting Grass in the Carleton Arboretum

Once we had collected the leaves, the most arduous step of the process was tearing them into long strips that were thin enough to be incorporated into rope. This time consuming step would have occupied craftsmen a good deal longer than the actual creation of the rope and, depending on the amount of rope desired, might have taken weeks or months to complete. After this process was complete, the fibers had to be soaked overnight to make them pliable for weaving (enter our authentic medieval trash can).


After this step, we were ready to begin the rope-making process. Using the process of ‘hand rolling’ string described in Ingold we attempted to weave the rope. This involved rolling two bunches of the fibers between the two hands before lifting one bunch over the other so that the twists work against one another to hold the rope straight.

Weaving Process. Willeke Wendrich, The World According to Basketry (Los Angeles: Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Publications, 1999), 299.


While Ingold suggested using your hands to roll the rope, I found this to be much more difficult than weaving it on my lap. I discovered that rolling the rope in hands would have been difficult, especially for women with smaller hands, and that they likely would have rolled in on another surface (though it also stained everything it touched which suggests that aprons or some other sort of covering for clothes must have been used for similar tasks).


Some finished rope from the fair.

Actually recreating some of the textile items Early Medieval people would have used allowed us to get a sense of the logic behind their creation process that we wouldn’t have gathered simply by reading about it or seeing it in a museum. For example, the cylindrical gowns would have allowed for easy adjustment during periods of growth — useful in a place where creating fabric was an arduous, multi-person task and children might or might not survive the next year. Spinning and weaving would probably have been a task for multiple people, as the many different tasks necessary to perform could have been done fairly simultaneously. Our efforts gave us a better understanding of the world of Early Medieval England, beyond the farming and fighting that we usually associate with it. Also, making rope is a strikingly applicable skill in braiding hair:

Further Reading

Owen Crocker, Gale. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 2004.

Leahy, Kevin. Anglo-Saxon Crafts. Brimscombe Port Stroud, UK: The History Press, 2003.

Ingold, Tim. Making. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Fleming, Robin. Britain After Rome. London: Penguin Books, 2011.

Craft Fair: Early Medieval Anglo-Saxon Cooking

Culture is a multifaceted thing that expresses itself in hundreds of ways, from the manner in which people of a certain culture dress to the types of structure in which those people live. It is arguable, however, that cuisine is perhaps the most important part of any culture. It is certainly used very often as a symbol for cultures and peoples: what does a hamburger signify if not America? Who but the French are brought to mind by a baguette? Their function as synecdoche is, however, not the only cultural function for the dishes people eat. Everyone in the world needs food in order to live, after all, and so the mere act of maintaining one’s own existence is tied via eating to one’s culture. It is possible, therefore, that we in the modern world may through replicating the creation and consumption of dishes from the cultures of the past gain some understanding of the way in which the people of those cultures lived. As such, we set out to recreate dishes from Early Medieval England for both ourselves, our classmates, and the visitors to our fair, in the hopes of allowing all of us to become more connected in some small way to a people separated from us both by distance and by time.


1. Deciding What to Cook

The first of many decisions we faced was what sort of food we wanted to make. We didn’t want to represent the higher class of Early Medieval society with their roasted meats and elaborate feasts — for one, it would have been near-impossible to roast a deer on a college campus, let alone procure one; and for another, we wanted to represent a group of people often overlooked by textbooks and history novels: the average person in Early Medieval England. Online, we discovered the Early English Bread Project, which told us about the various different flours used to make hearth cakes, a staple in the Medieval diet. We initially selected wheat and barley flour to mix for bread dough, but a lack of barley flour in local stores led us to fall back on oat flour, which may not have been used along with wheat by contemporaries, but certainly would have been available. Hearth cakes, we learned, are the simplest of creations: nothing but flour and water mixed into dough and baked like pancakes on an open fire. No grease, no salt. (Although they would have been consumed with butter or cheese to disguise their bland taste.)

Naturally, a diet of hearth cakes alone would have left one wanting for a good many nutrients, so after perusing a few books, we decided on stew as the second component of our meal. Stew would have been ubiquitous to Early Medieval England, made with whatever vegetables and meats were available thrown into a pot together. Fava beans, onions, garlic, carrots, and a few select spices all would have been around, and we chose to add in bacon as well, as most meat would have been heavily preserved with salt, like bacon.


2. Cooking

The process of learning how one makes a hearth-cake in the Anglo-Saxon style began, for us, in the kitchen on 2nd Cassat with a frying pan, some bags of flour, and a faucet. Since we planned to make a few mistakes and could regulate the stovetop’s temperature more easily than a fire’s, we decided to prototype our bread there before making our cakes properly in the fire-pit at Mai-Fête Island. Our first few attempts to bake these cakes were flawed: we mixed together our oat and wheat flour more or less randomly in a bowl and added water, as we had been instructed to do by our recipe.

A dough which turned out to be too wet

When we flattened out our cakes and laid them in the pan, however, they remained wet for far too long and, when they finally cooked, had both an unpleasant chewiness and a leathery toughness to them that made it clear we were doing something wrong.

We discovered, after experimenting and eventually reducing the amount of water in the mixture, that this was a drier dough than that of, say, a pancake, closer to the consistency of modern bread dough than we had initially thought. Once that problem had been fixed, we discovered that our hearth-cakes tasted quite acceptable, if a bit chewy, and moved on to preparing the ingredients of the bean stew.


To begin with the stew, we prepped the carrots (a bag full of about 9 carrots) by washing them in the sink and chopping them into appropriate chunks. Initially, we were unsure how thick a stew carrot should be. We started with chopping one-third inch thick cylinders, but then proceeded with a diagonal slicing motion, which yielded jagged peaks. However, if we could have gone back, we should have made the carrot pieces even smaller because as long as we cooked our stew for, they still came out undercooked. For the onions (three of them, two round one flat) we peeled the skins off and sliced away any signs of decay, and diced them. For garlic (two cloves), we merely peeled the skins off and threw them directly into the pot.

The stew prior to cooking


Unfortunately, none of Northfield’s local stores carried fava beans, so we had to make do with Lima beans (six hearty cans). After dumping in all of the ingredients, we poured in a 3:5 ratio of water and set them to cook over charcoals for about 2 hours, mixing approximately every 5 minutes to prevent the stew from sticking to the bottom.

The stew being served

Making the hearth-cakes in the fire on Mai-Fête was a substantially different task than making them on the stove in Cassat had been. The problem in Cassat was figuring out the proper ratio of ingredients to use in order to create the cakes, while the problem on the island was ensuring that the we didn’t burn or undercook the cakes in the uneven heat of the fire. All in all, however, despite the edges of every cake being routinely burnt and some cakes occasionally being produced which somehow managed both to be undercooked and burnt, the quality of bread production which we managed to achieve at the fair itself was higher than in the Cassat kitchen.

Two cooked hearth-cakes; note the ash

Hearth-cakes, it turns out, taste better when made in the cooking fires for which they were developed (and when accompanied with goat cheese or butter). Our visitor taste-testers even found them palatable, and there was something pleasantly hardcore about having to pull the cakes out of a fire and brush literal ash off of their outsides before eating them. We were connecting with Early Medieval people via an experience they would have had on a daily basis.

Making the hearth-cakes


3. Insights

Our overall experience left us with considerably more faith in Early Medieval cooking than we’d previously had. The main challenge of cooking a stew of charcoal was the time it took; we did not anticipate it taking any more than an hour and a half, but it went well over that time, closer to two hours. It delayed our funeral procession, which allowed the rain to roll and, once we got moving, rain on our parade. There was a limited supply of charcoal as well, and we expended a good amount of lung-power into breathing and sustaining the life of the embers. However, once we started running out, we realized we could retrieve the burnt wood from our firepit, where the hearth-cakes were cooking, to feed our supply and keep the soup cooking.

The hearth cakes, while rustic and rather chewy, were actually quite palatable with salted dairy products, and the stew wasn’t half bad with bacon. Moreover, we gained some insights into the specific knowledge and skills that people in Early Medieval England would have had that we otherwise wouldn’t have been aware of. Through trial and error, we learned what the ratio of oat flour to wheat flour to water should be in dough to keep it from getting either too sticky or too dry, how thick the hearth cakes should be for even baking, where they should be placed in the fire to minimize scorching on the exterior without leaving the inside doughy. Bakers of hearth cakes a thousand years ago would have had this process down to a science, barely needing to think about how long to leave their bread on the fire for or how much water to add to their dough. Even for us, towards the end of our three hour festival the process became a bit more streamlined, and we turned out fewer charred and rock-hard cakes. In the end, the world of Early Medieval people became just a bit more real to us through their cooking.

Craft Fair: Early Medieval Calligraphy in the British Isles

While the book can be traced back to the second century AD, calligraphy did not come to the Anglo-Saxons until their conversion in the late sixth century. Calligraphy and book-making existed almost entirely in the ecclesiastical sphere, and we have no evidence for English books before the arrival of the Christians. However, manuscript writing had come to Ireland centuries earlier with the arrival of St. Patrick’s mission in the fifth century. The unique, geometric Celtic art style would be integrated into the Britons’ illuminated manuscripts, cultivating a unique illumination style known the Insular style. This style of illumination was used famously in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Monks made their books out of parchment, pages made from the skins of animals, commonly those of cattle, sheep, and goats. The parchment-making process was very similar to the hide-making process; the skin would be soaked, scraped, treated with lime to get the fat out, and dried. Vellum was a fine and costly type of parchment, an extremely soft page made from calf skin. Since parchment was dependent on animal skin, bookmaking was an extremely expensive process in early medieval England; it has been argued that a single page of vellum would have been the product of 400 hectares (almost 1,000 acres) of land.

While no quills survive from Anglo-Saxon England, they were almost certainly used by scribes. Quills have been depicted in contemporary descriptions of early medieval scribes and alluded to in Anglo-Saxon riddles. Commonly a swan or goose feather, the quill was made by cutting out the fletching and outer tissue of the tube. Scribes would then carve the tip of the quill out of the front of the feather with a small knife and cut a small incision in the center of the nib for an ink font. Scribes are often depicted holding this naked quill in one hand and a knife in the other. The knife was very likely used to quill sharp over the course of the transcription.

Black ink would have been made by mixing charcoal with gum or alternatively by combining tannic acid, found in oak galls (those small, apple-like growths one can find on oak trees), with ferrous sulphate. Anglo-Saxon books were usually written in Old English or Latin, although monks occasionally wrote in Greek and Hebrew. The Old English alphabet was originally a runic system, but runes were gradually supplanted by a variation on the Latin alphabet in the ninth century.

I did not want to focus my recreation on book-making. As such, I used modern paper instead of parchment and my ink was store-bought, not handmade. My intent, rather, was to have the visitor try their hand at writing in Old English script with a quill. To do this, I printed and laminated two pages of the Beowulf manuscript, dating back to the 10th-11th centuries. This manuscript is in Latinized Old English, so it would allow visitors not only to try out medieval transcription, but also to do so in the vernacular language of the Anglo-Saxons.

I then made three quills out of goose and turkey feathers. To do this, I trimmed away the fluff near the bottom of the feather. I then made a diagonal incision at the base of the feather and scraped out the inner tissue. After this, I soaked the feathers overnight. This process makes them more malleable for the coming carving jobs. I next heated up sand in a pan over a stove and heated the tubes of the feathers in the sand. This hardens the edge, so that the feather won’t have to be constantly sharpened.

Finally, I made a longer diagonal cut along the grain at the base of the feather and carved down the sides of the tube so that I had a flat nib. Then I made a cut across the feather, giving the nib the flat shape of the tip of the quill. Lastly, I made a small cut down into the nib to make an ink well.

At the Fair
I set out these quills, the laminated pages, two bottles of ink, a penknife, and scrap paper out at my station. I also had three unmarked feathers and intended to demonstrate quill-carving at my booth. Many of my visitors were very happy writing with ink and quill. However, not very many tried their hand at copying the Beowulf manuscript. More wanted to write in modern English or runic script. However, it seemed that the chance to write with ink and quill enticed many visitors.


Cutting away the fluff.

Making the first diagonal cut.

Soaking the feathers.

Heating the feathers.

Making the longer cut.

Making the square cut.

Making the ink well.

The calligraphy booth.


Further Resources

For more information on book-, quill-, and ink-making:

Anglo-Saxon Crafts, by Kevin Leahy, pp. 89-93

On monastic life in Anglo-Saxon England:

Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400-1070, by Robin Fleming, Chapters 6 and 12, “Missionaries and Converts: The Later Sixth to Early Eighth Century” and “Clerics, Monks and the Laiety: The Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Centuries”

On quill-making:

An excellent tutorial on modern-day quill-making processes by the New York Public Library.

ORP: Bone Needle

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.

I bet whoever owned this lost it on purpose. Would *you* want to sew with it? It's made of a pig's leg and its head probably gets stuck in every piece of fabric it passes through.

Figure 1: An image of the bone needle I reconstructed, and one of many photographs used in that reconstruction.

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.

Finely-made needles have been important tools and status symbols in many societies.

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.

Pictured: two residents of West Stow

    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.

Not quite.

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.

And when the shapeless thing in skies above/does take the sun within its charnel form/the sky will tear itself apart for love;/ the stars despite that darkness will us warm.

Figure 2: an in-progress screenshot of my attempt to model the needle.

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.

Please ignore the blobs near the head, or imagine that they are there so as to avoid the wrath of God by the creation of a perfect thing.

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.