Loom weights are the unassuming tools used for warp weighted looms, which have a pretty obvious function: adding tension to some of the weaving threads in order to facilitate the weaving of other yarns in between these weighted threads. Specifically, they add weight to the warp yarns to remove most of the slack an otherwise untensioned yarn would have inherently. This form of tensioning warp yarns was spread over a large geographical area, from Egypt to Ireland, traveling in a westerly direction. For a greater explanation of how the warp weighted loom came into existence and how the technology traveled geographically, read the lovely chapter regarding looms in E.J.W. Barber's book entitled Prehistoric Textiles.
In archaeological contexts, looms weights (and spindle whorls) are often found within the confines of houses, and occasionally they are found at kilns (not typically at industrial kilns). However, the association with these contexts doesn't given scientific proof that if things which look like loom weights are found in houses and at kilns, they are in fact not necessarily loom weights. Frustrating, I know. But it's important to find ways to confirm that these objects are mostly likely loom weights. As of now, the current amounts of research available to those inquiring about these objects is paltry. Textile studies is gaining ground with new research into identifying how the shape and weight of loom weights can influence the types of cloth produced, and using experimental archaeology to bring new insights to old artifacts.
In the paper Shape of Things: Understanding a Loom Weight (Martensson 2009), the author comments that her investigation into replicating warp weighted woven textiles using authentic tools is part of a pilot study--sometimes the answers present themselves in practice. This was an amazing read for me, since I secretly desire to be an experimental archaeologist (among other things). I will do my best to summarize the findings, but you should read this paper if you can find it--check your library.
The author found a correlation between the bottom line of the warp threads (where the loom weights are attached) being as wide or slightly wider than the top border and producing a length of fabric which is easy to weave and almost perfectly rectangular. Her other tests included using fewer warp weights or many warp weights and assessing the changes in width of the fabric when comparing the top to the bottom. More tests should be conducted to verify this research, which may have already occurred, just to further confidence levels in the greater archaeological community. The results of these experiments are so crucial to our understanding of the kinds of woven textiles people were making without requiring preservation of the actual textiles, and aids archaeologists who are trying to determine whether a community was producing cloth on a family-needs level or on a larger economic-needs level.
Some of the important minor epiphanies included the necessity that all of the loom weights hang at the same level to minimize the abrasion of warp threads as the counter-shed is created during the weaving process. This seems like a 'duh' moment, but as I've learned personally, sometimes doing an experiment helps us to understand why things are the way they are...like the time I stupidly warped my loom with a lace silk single. Those basic rules come back to bite us, but are otherwise archaeologically impossible to identify on the face.
The results from these experiments will certainly encourage archaeologists who find these kinds of artifacts to accurately record the weight of the loom weights, and their thickness. Based on this information and the documented empirical results, archaeologists can make preliminary deductions about the textile-producing capabilities of a group of people, thereby furthering our understanding of the entire site, not just the stuff which preserves. In addition, by recording the weight and thickness of the loom weights, textile experts can perform further experiments without needing to see the weights in person and record these characteristics.
For my personal goal of making a woven length of fabric with a warp weighted loom, this is practically a how-to guide for making the desired British Iron Age loom weights, and setting up the loom for an optimal weaving process. As I begin the next process, actually crafting the loom weights and building the loom frame, I'll flesh out more of Martensson's paper. I also hope that the next warp weighted loom update won't take so long to publish...I've been caught up with another paper that I'm writing, which will hopefully be ready to submit to a journal in July.
I've also updated my bibliography, in case you are keeping up with me:
Albarella, U., Johnstone, C., & Vickers, K. (2008). The development of animal husbandry from the Late Iron Age to the end of the Roman period: a case study from South-East Britain. Journal of Archaeological Science, 35(7), 1828-1848.
Andresen, S. T., & Karg, S. (2011). Retting pits for textile fibre plants at Danish prehistoric sites dated between 800 bc and ad 1050. Vegetation history and archaeobotany, 20(6), 517-526.
Degano, I., Ribechini, E., Modugno, F., & Colombini, M. P. (2009). Analytical methods for the characterization of organic dyes in artworks and in historical textiles. Applied Spectroscopy Reviews, 44(5), 363-410.
Frei, K. M., Berghe, I. V., Frei, R., Mannering, U., & Lyngstrøm, H. (2010). Removal of natural organic dyes from wool–implications for ancient textile provenance studies. Journal of archaeological science, 37(9), 2136-2145.
Good, I. (2001). Archaeological textiles: a review of current research. Annual Review of Anthropology, 209-226.
Joosten, I., van Bommel, M. R., Hofmann-de Keijzer, R., & Reschreiter, H. (2006). Micro analysis on Hallstatt textiles: colour and condition. Microchimica Acta, 155(1-2), 169-174.
Mårtensson, L., NOSCH, M. L., & STRAND, E. A. (2009). Shape of things: understanding a loom weight. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 28(4), 373-398.
Rast-Eicher, A., & Bender Jørgensen, L. (2012). Sheep wool in Bronze Age and Iron Age Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science.
Ryder, M. L. (1987). The evolution of the fleece. Scientific American, 256(1), 112-119.
Strand, E. A., Frei, K. M., Gleba, M., Mannering, U., Nosch, M. L., & Skals, I. (2010). Old Textiles—New Possibilities. European journal of archaeology, 13(2), 149-173.
Tomlinson, P. (1985). Use of vegetative remains in the identification of dyeplants from waterlogged 9th–10th century AD deposits at York. Journal of archaeological science, 12(4), 269-283.
Vanden Berghe, I., Gleba, M., & Mannering, U. (2009). Towards the identification of dyestuffs in Early Iron Age Scandinavian peat bog textiles. Journal of Archaeological Science, 36(9), 1910-1921.
Viklund, K. (2011). Flax in Sweden: the archaeobotanical, archaeological and historical evidence. Vegetation history and archaeobotany, 20(6), 509-515.