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Medieval North European Spindles and Whorls

© 1995, 1999, 2000 Carolyn Priest-Dorman


This document discusses spindle whorls and shafts found throughout the areas Scandinavians lived in during the Middle Ages (800-1500 CE). Many hundreds of spindle whorls survive from the Scandinavian Middle Ages. In the Viking Age they were frequently buried with women, and throughout the period many were lost or discarded at settlement sites, only to be dug up centuries later.

Each of six major published works assembles a number of spindle whorls from medieval Scandinavia and areas of Scandinavian influence. Eva Andersson analyzes over 230 Scanian whorls from fifth through eleventh century Sweden. Jan Petersen refers to 450 whorls and five spindles from Viking Age Norway. Ingvild Øye carefully analyzes 410 whorls and 31 spindles from twelfth through fifteenth century Bergen, Norway. Lena Thunmark-Nylén marshals photographs of 27 whorls from Viking Age Gotland. Penelope Walton Rogers carefully analyzes 149 whorls and 5 spindles from York, England, in periods ranging from the ninth through the fifteenth century. The World of the Vikings CD-ROM assembles images of at least 90 whorls and 5 spindles that are not represented in any of the other works above. The resulting corpus numbers some 1356 or so whorls and 46 spindles. Information from those six sources comprises the bulk of this document, supplemented by write-ups on smaller numbers of finds.


The surviving whorls are made of many different materials: amber, antler (elk), bone (cattle, pig), clay, coral, glass, metal (iron, lead, lead alloy), and wood (oak). Many types of local stone were also used, such as chalk, limestone, mudstone, sandstone, schist, siltstone, slate, and soapstone. In Norway and Iceland, where soapstone can be quarried, and in the areas such as Scotland, Greenland, and Newfoundland that were influenced by Norway and Iceland, more soapstone whorls survive than whorls of any other material. Often soapstone whorls were made from reused fragments of cooking vessels.

Surviving spindles were made of many different types of hard and soft wood. Hard woods included ash, aspen, birch, maple, oak, and willow. Soft woods included juniper, pine, and yew. Walton Rogers also mentions two bone pieces that might be spindles (Walton Rogers, p. 1735), and Grenander Nyberg mentions one (Grenander Nyberg, p. 74).


Generally speaking, the heavier the material, the smaller the whorl. The most common weight range in medieval northern European whorls is between about 10 and 30 grams, although some weigh over three times that much. Whorls in various sizes are known. A soapstone one from post-Viking Greenland, 2 centimeters in diameter (Fitzhugh and Ward, p. 425), is one of the smallest. An oak whorl from pre-Viking Age Elisenhof in North Germany, at 10.5 centimeters in diameter (Grenander Nyberg, p. 74), is one of the largest. Soapstone whorls frequently measured between 3 and 5 centimeters in diameter.

Complete surviving spindles usually range in length between 20 and 30 centimeters, although some are shorter. Information on holes drilled in the York whorls indicate that the diameter of a spindle shaft there typically ranged from seven to twelve millimeters, with most in the nine to eleven millimeter range (Walton Rogers, p. 1736).


Throughout the period and location under study here, the most common shape for a spindle whorl, especially in soapstone, was plano-convex. A plano-convex whorl has one flat and one rounded side; depending on how flat the rounded side is, it may range from hemispheric to bun- shaped. Walton Rogers indicates that at York (Viking Age Jorvík) the flat side of such a whorl faced toward the middle of the spindle (Walton Rogers, p. 1736).

Other whorl shapes such as discoid, sub-conical, globular, and bi-conical were also used. Walton Rogers has also established that there was a gradual change in preferred shape from the Anglian period's plano-convex whorl through the Viking period's whorl with two parallel faces (discoid, cylindrical, doughnut, or biconical) to the later medieval period's globular whorl (Walton Rogers, Fig. 805, p. 1737). The Bergen material, however, reveals much less evidence for a progression in shape; plano-convex whorls dominated there throughout the medieval period, while globular whorls were comparatively unpopular (Øye, Table II.7.1, page 43).

Some spindles had slits or notches carved in their ends, while others were smooth on the ends. Medieval Scandinavian spinners used both top- and bottom-weighted spindles, depending on the type of yarn they wanted to produce. Many spindles are double-notched, indicating that they could do double duty for either bottom- or top-weighted spinning. Other spindles were lathe-turned with a prominent swelling in the middle tapering toward smooth pointed ends, such as the ones from medieval Bergen (Øye, p. 35). These last may well have been used without whorls, either hand-manipulated or suspended; whorl-less spindles employed in both fashions are depicted in medieval and Renaissance illuminations and paintings.


Many whorls were completely undecorated, but some were decorated with carving. Typical Viking Age decorations included concentric bands around the whorl and vertical lines parallel to the spindle. One Swedish bone whorl has grooves in the shape of a cross on one flat face (World of the Vikings, reference numbers 2399 and 2409). One Norwegian whorl from Koland adds to the cross shape a concentric ring around the spindle hole (Petersen, plate 166). A soapstone whorl from the Shetlands even has runes carved into it (World of the Vikings, reference numbers 4014 and 6815). Whorls after the Viking Age may sport ring-and-dot work, arcading, zig-zag hatching, hatched segments, or hatched bands. A Norse one from post-Viking Age Greenland also has runes carved in it (Fitzhugh and Ward, p. 338). One globular stone whorl from Angevin York alternates horizontal bands of red paint and zig-zag hatching (Walton Rogers, 6571, Fig. 808, p. 1740).

Some spindles were decorated with one or more grooves around their middles. Twenty-four sticks from Bergen, all in the size range for a spindle, have particularly elaborate knob terminals and may have been spindles (Øye, pp. 36-37).


Andersson, Eva. "Textile Production in Late Iron Age Scania-A Methodological Approach." Textiles in European Archaeology: Report from the 6th NESAT Symposium, 7-11th May 1996 in Borås, ed. Lise Bender Jørgensen and Christina Rinaldo, pp. 167- 176. GOTARC Series A, Vol. 1. Göteborg: Göteborg University Department of Archaeology, 1998.

Over 230 whorls from southwestern Sweden dating between 400 and 1050 CE, in a variety of shapes

Arneborg, Jette, and Østergård, Else. "Notes on Archaeological finds of textiles and textile equipment from the norse western Settlement in Greenland," Archäologische Texilfunde--Archaeological Textiles: Textilsymposium Neumünster 4.-7.5. 1993, ed. Gisela Jaacks and Klaus Tidow, pp. 162-177. NESAT V. Neumünster: Textilmuseum Neumnster, 1994. (ISBN )

Briefly catalogues eight soapstone whorls from the post-Viking period, two of which are fragmentary.

Arwidsson, Greta. "Spinnwurtel [Spindle Whorls]," Systematische Analysen der Gräberfunde, ed. Greta Arwidsson, p. 97. Birka: Untersuchungen und Studien II:3. Stockholm: Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akadamien, 1989. (ISBN 91-7402- 204-0)

Brief catalogue of a few spindle whorls from burials at Birka. She notes that 38 additional ones were found not in graves but in excavations of the Black Earth, or settlement layers, at Birka.

BØe, Johs. Norse Antiquities in Ireland. Viking Antiquities in Great Britain and Ireland, III. Oslo: H. Aschehoug & Co., 1940.

Three stone whorls from the burial at Kilmainham, near Dublin, one with annular decoration.

[Council of Europe "Cultural Routes" Programme.] 1994. The World of the Vikings, CD-ROM for Windows. York Archaeological Trust, National Museum of Denmark, Multimedia Management and Past Forward, Ltd. [There is also a Macintosh version.]

Images of a large number of Viking Age spindles and spindle whorls from locations all over Scandinavian world, with museum information attached. No measurements and very little supporting information, however.

Fitzhugh, William W., and Ward, Elisabeth I., eds. Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press/National Museum of Natural History, 2000. (ISBN 1-56098-970-x)

One plano-convex soapstone whorl and a complete but unrelated spindle, both of them loosely dated to the Norse (post-Viking) period in Greenland.

Graham-Campbell, James. Viking Artefacts: A Select Catalogue. London: British Museum Publications Limited, 1980. (ISBN 0-7141-1354-9)

A plano-convex whorl from Jarlshof, Shetland, middle Viking period.

Grenander Nyberg, Gertrud. "Spinning Implements of the Viking Age from Elisenhof in the Light of Ethnological Studies," Textiles in Northern Archaeology, ed. Penelope Walton and John-Peter Wild, pp. 73-84. North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles 3 [NESAT 3]. London: Archetype Publications, 1990. (ISBN 1-873132-05-0)

Some early Viking Age spindles and whorls, with comparative information plus some consideration of the issue of bottom- versus top-weighting.

Ingstad, Anne Stine. The Discovery of a Norse Settlement in America: Excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland 1961-1968, trans. Elizabeth Seeberg. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1977. Distributed by Columbia University Press, 136 South Broadway, Irvington-on-Hudson, NY 10533. (ISBN 82-00-01513-0)

Re-used soapstone potsherd whorl, plano-convex; early 11th century. There is a plate of a Greenland whorl almost identical to this one

Mortensen, Mona. "'When they speed the Shuttle': The role of textile production in Viking Age society, as reflected in a pit house from Western Norway." Textiles in European Archaeology: Report from the 6th NESAT Symposium, 7-11th May 1996 in Borås, ed. Lise Bender Jørgensen and Christina Rinaldo, pp. 167-176. GOTARC Series A, Vol. 1. Göteborg: Göteborg University Department of Archaeology, 1998.

Fifteen soapstone spindle whorls, mostly plano-convex.

Øye, Ingvild. Textile Equipment and Its Working Environment, Bryggen in Bergen c 1150 - 1500. The Bryggen Papers, Main Series, Vol. 2. Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1988. (ISBN 82-00-02537-3)

Statistical and comparative analyses of 410 whorls and 31 spindles from twelfth through fifteenth century Bergen, Norway.

Petersen, Jan. Vikingetidens Redskaper [Viking Age Tools]. Skrifter utgitt av det Norske Vienskaps-Akademi i Oslo, Vol.2 II--Hist.-filos. klasse Skrifter, no. 4. I Oslo: I kommisjon hos J. Dybwad, 1951.

Brief consideration of about 450 whorls from Norway, many soapstone; most plano-convex, others truncated cones or discoid.

Roesdahl, Else; Graham-Campbell, James; Connor, Patricia; and Pearson, Kenneth, eds. The Vikings in England and in Their Danish Homeland. London: The Anglo- Danish Viking Project, 1981. (ISBN 0-9507432-0-8)

An annular whorl from Coppergate, York, in the Viking period; no photo but text notes parallel to Jarlshof.

Roesdahl, Else, and Wilson, David M., eds. From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1992. (ISBN 0-8478-1625-7)

A discoid whorl from the Black Earth at Birka, middle Viking period, with arcading.

Thunmark-Nylén, Lena. Die Wikingerzeit Gotlands II: Typentafeln. Stockholm: Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitets Akademien, 1998. (ISBN 91-7402-287-3)

Photographs of 27 whorls found in graves from Viking Age Gotland. Large size range, moderate shape range, but undecorated plano-convex dominates.

Walton Rogers, Penelope. Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate. The Archaeology of York, vol. 17, Fascicule 11. York: Council for British Archaeology, 1997. (ISBN 1-872414-76-1)

Careful analysis of 149 whorls and 5 spindles from York, England, in periods ranging from the ninth through the fifteenth century. Lots of line drawings! Useful catalogue in the back.

This page was created on 29 May 2000 and last updated on 5 July 2000.

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