Reconstructing the Princess of Zweeloo Wardrobe

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Group entry by Elska á Fjárfelli, OL (Susan Verberg), Baroness Aranwen Ap Rhys Verch Gwalter (Teresa Nall) and THLord Robert of Ferness (Ken Stuart) for the Passing of the Ice Dragon Arts & Sciences Pentathlon Competition, April 2019.

By Elska á Fjárfelli, of the Dominion of Myrkfaelinn.

Who was the Princess of Zweeloo?
In 1952, an unusual grave was found during the excavation of an early-medieval graveyard. The graveyard could not be fully recorded because probably a large part was destroyed due to commercial sand excavation. It was not until sand was taken from under the bottom of an ash tree that the discovery of a significant number of old objects initiated the archaeological survey. Grave finds indicate the graveyard started being used at the end of the imperial era or at the beginning of the Migration Period, in the late fourth or early fifth century, and ended in the eighth to ninth century. When a large equal-armed fibula and a row of large beads were found in the field, the locals and archaeologists alike were convinced of the wealth of the grave. On the basis of the burial gifts it could be established that this was a female grave, dating from the middle of the fifth century. Considering the wealth, it was decided to remove the skull and the torso of the ‘princess’ in-situ in order to continue excavation in laboratory conditions at a later date.

Princess 1
Left: grave finds of torso in situ (Es & Ypey 1977, 14). Right: Archaeological reconstructions. (Vons-Comis 1988, 42)

It was during the laboratory excavation that the two strings of beads and two disk brooches of gilded iron were discovered within the coffin. Different fabric residues were found behind both brooches and corroded against a number of the bronze rings from the belt. Over the years, several reconstructions of her clothing were made on the basis of these remnants. The woman buried in the grave wore a linen garment woven in diamond twill with woven-in card-trim which was closed on the shoulders with two round gold-plated pins. Placed on her waist area was a string of extremely large glass beads, likely spindle whorls, and two bronze keys. She wore two long necklaces, suspended from her shoulder brooches: one of large amber beads and one of single-colored and multi-colored glass beads. She had a beaver tooth around her neck as well as a silver wire toiletry set. She wore a bronze bracelet around her wrist. But she received the nicknamed of “Princess of Zweeloo” not because of all that splendor, but because of an even more splendid very large gilt bronze equal-arm brooch which likely closed a woolen cloak.

Our project
After seeing the museum reconstruction when our family visited the Museum Drenthe in Assen, I realized my initial reconstruction was not quite right. Back in the States, I set about tracking down the original archaeological reports – with the invaluable help of Robert – to see where I’d gone wrong and what was truly known about her and her grave finds. I found many re-enactors fascinated by the Princess and making their own creations, as seen from the many websites and blogposts online. But like me, it seemed most were working off limited resources: if lucky, one Dutch academic article, and if not, often each other, especially in the case of those not reading Dutch or German.

To spread the information and help other re-enactors avoid the traps I fell into, I translated the German and Dutch articles into English. For my do-over, I then found specialists within the Kingdom of Æthelmearc, as well as mundane merchants, to help source and recreate specific parts of the costume. Together we created a plausible museum-similar recreation – as much as we can afford – of the Princess of Zweeloo wardrobe. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I have enjoyed this collaborative challenge!

Who did what?
Aranwen took on the challenge of duplicating the flamework glass spindle whorl ‘belt’ including the small bronze rings which were part of the assemble.

Elska sourced the materials we could not produce ourselves, which included the natural linen, the broken diamond twill wool, the plain glass beads, as well as the bronze shoulder brooches and equal armed brooch. She hand sewed a linen under tunic and a wool peplos, fringed the wool shawl, assembled the glass bead necklace, and carved the amber necklace.

Robert undertook the challenge of making shoes where there were none found, working from contemporary sources of the same region and era. He also helped source the lesser well-known articles through Inter-Library Loan.

How did everything come together?
Even with limited resources (thank you, everyone, for buying maple syrup at Ice Dragon) I think our recreation got pretty close. It would have been better to work with a dedicated metal artisan then trying to fashion a toiletry set myself, and I overestimated the size of the amber beads resulting in a string slightly larger than the original. The historic beads measured so much larger than anything I could afford, that by the time I decided to make them from scratch I figured I’d make them as large as I could to sort out size later. Who’d have thought that was not the smart assumption to make!

Aside from my not always as successful as I liked contributions, the additions of my fellow artisans were right on point. Both the spindle whorl collection and the Iron age shoes looked spot-on and only need another 2,000 years of burial to look just like the extant artifacts!

The ‘belt’ of spindle whorls, as compared to the extant piece:

Princess 2
On the Left is Aranwen’s collection (photo: Teresa Nall), on the right is the extant piece as photographed by the museum of Assen.

Iron age shoes contemporary to hypothetical shoes belonging to the Princess:

Princess 3

Iron age shoes from Weerdinge, Drenthe, The Netherlands. Dated to 300 – 600 A.D. Image and caption from https://historicalcostumes.nl/The_Early_Middle_Ages_peplos.php

The Iron age shoes as imagined and executed by cordwainer Robert of Ferness.

Princess 4
The wardrobe assembled and on display; one version at Ice Dragon, and one at the Museum in Assen:

 

Left: Our group Ice Dragon entry. Right: The original beaded necklace, amber necklace, and spindle whorl belt on reconstructed broken diamond twill linen peplos, as displayed at the Museum of Assen in the Netherlands (photo: Susan Verberg).

Princess 7 Elska Aranwen Robert

Aranwen, the Princess, Elska and Robert posing at Ice Dragon (and no, we did not color-coordinate on purpose, I guess great minds think alike LOL)

I found Ice Dragon to be a great venue to inspire each of us to the best of our abilities, and although this type of group project does not quite fit the current categories there is already chatter on addressing that for future years. Group projects could concentrate on diverse subjects, covering many disciplines. For example, one team could enter a forged sword, a decorated scabbard, chape, and belt with fittings. Another team could prepare a meal of main dish, side dish, dessert, and drink. A third team could make a leather-covered, calligraphed, and illuminated parchment book. I think group projects like this are a great way to approach a larger project from the medieval mindset where for each part there is a specialist crafter who is often a specialized-Guild member.

Approaching more involved projects like recreating the Princess of Zweeloo wardrobe from the combined skill sets of multiple artisans also avoids putting all the different skill requirements onto the capabilities of one person. Even in our current Middle Ages artisans often specialize according to their interests and skills. Utilizing this specialization could lead to a higher quality outcome, as my not-quite-right metal accessories showed: it really does pay to work with the experts of their field. Experimental archaeology by experts now that is something to behold! So… who’s next?

Want to learn more? Make your own interpretation? You can find all our information as well as our resources at the link below:
https://www.academia.edu/38845292/Reconstructing_the_Wardrobe_of_the_Princess_of_Zweeloo