By Irene Skals and Maj Ringgaard

Textiles found in Danish soil are usually brown, muddy and decomposed. Most of the finds are waterlogged wool. They used to be dried in air without special precautions. The result is that particles of dirt and earth cannot now be removed and the threads are flat and stiff.

Close up of cloth (3mm across) with particles of soil stuck between the fibres

The original colour is seldom preserved during burial. The textile is coloured brown through absorption of humic substances. Occasional traces of the original colour can sometimes disappear as soon as the textile is exposed to oxygen in the air. The vanished dye can sometimes be identified by chemical analysis of its remaining components.

Preserved colours from the Iron Age. A fragment found in the Iron Age grave at Lønne Hede, west Jutland, in the 1960's. The grave contained the body of a woman dressed in a costume with well preserved colours (2cm across).

On the right: The girl in blue. This watercolour by M.Ørsnes recreates the colour and appearance of the costume.


It is always difficult to expose and handle textiles in an excavation without destroying them. Chemical methods for strengthening fragments before lifting were already being tried in 1848:

"On Thursday the 10th of August State Adviser Thomsen and the assistants from the Oldnordiske Museum, Strunk and Herbst, together with Regimental surgeon Ibsen, who had kindly prepared a shellac varnish for the costume's conservation, set out again [to Hvidegaard]..."

"...If these [textiles] had not been impregnated with a consolidating liquid before one tried to move or lift them, the result would have been as nearly always happens with brittle finds: everything would fall to dust.
Let us hope that the successful result which crowned their efforts will lead and encourage others to use the same care and consideration."
(Annaler for Nordisk Oldkyndighed, 1848)

Fragment from Hvidegaard, North Copenhagen. A Bronze Age site excavated in 1848. The fragment was treated with shellac during the excavation. It now crumbles at a touch. (detail is 2cm across)

Today, we know that adding a consolidant to textile fibres makes subsequent Carbon-14 dating and dye analysis difficult. Experience has shown that it is just about impossible to remove an impregnant after it has hardened.

We advise, therefore, that textiles should be removed together with the surrounding soil, so that their extraction can be completed in the workshop, under the best conditions and without using consolidants.

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