In Search of Roman and Pre-Roman Distaffs

Background: Dr  Elizabeth Barber and Kim Caulfield are investigating Roman and pre-Roman distaffs and are seeking help finding examples, since they are often misidentified in collections.  I include both the pdf they sent me as well as a html version of their “Wanted Poster” below since I could not extract some of the images (best seen in the pdf).

The PDF: distaff flyer

WANTED

We are studying ancient hand-held distaffs of various materials (wood, bronze, bone, ivory, etc.), and especially the spiral glass distaffs made by the Etruscans and Romans. The glass ones (and some of the others) have a ring at the bottom through which the spinner passes her little finger so as to hold the distaff in a relaxed way (making it possible to spin for much longer periods of time). Making cloth and clothing was extremely important, and time-consuming, in ancient cultures.

We would appreciate information about distaffs in museums and private collections, and we are also looking to study some of these artifacts straight from the excavations, before they are placed in museums. The reason we are sending this “Wanted poster” around is that distaffs are frequently misidentified, so that it is extremely difficult to “search” them in electronic databases. Such artifacts are frequently described as “Wine Stirrers” or “Stirring Rods,” “Dippers” or “Spatulas,” a few even as “medical” tools. Those found at archaeological excavations, instead of on the art market, however, virtually always occur in textile contexts. Please keep an eye out for them, no matter what aliases they may have: they can be hiding in plain view! Have you seen any of the following?

Glass Distaffs

3 glass distaffs from a private collection. 

These artifacts are usually 20-30 cm. (8-12 inches) long; they have slender twisted glass shafts formed into a loop at one end. They often have a bird on the other end, though sometimes just a knob or flattened piece of glass. Some, like one distaff in this picture, have a whorl on the shaft. These are of particular interest to us, as they have a special function in spinning.

Bone and Ivory Distaffs

The Romans sometimes made distaffs of bone. We are particularly interested in distaffs with a loop on the lower end (for support by the little finger) and also possibly one or more discs on the shaft (to support the fibers as they are paid out into the thread). Bone and ivory distaffs of this type sometimes have animals carved on their tops, but many have goddesses. Here is a lovely example with a goddess.

from http://artefacts.mom.fr/en/result.php?id=QNL-4034&find=QNL&pagenum=1&affmode=list

Metal Distaffs

There are a few Roman bronze distaffs with finger loops. Here is an example.

from http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/244570

The bronze distaff below is from Jordan, 1500-1300 BCE. We would like to know of others that are similar—that is, with a whorl fixed near the middle of the shaft (where it makes use as a spindle very difficult, but aids use as a distaff). This one was called a spindle, so others may be mislabeled as well.

from a private collection

Thin bronze shafts with multiple discs or whorls fixed along the shaft, each at about a finger-width distance from its neighbors, may also have been distaffs, although usually catalogued as cloak pins. (In spinning, such discs help to control paying out the fibers into the thread as it forms.) Clearly, information concerning exact find-spots will be needed to sort out this problem.

According to ancient literature, there were also distaffs made of silver and gold. We would like to know of any examples.

Others

There are, of course, other forms of ancient hand-held distaffs, and we would like to learn of them too. These were of wood, metal, bone, ivory, or glass. Again, they were generally 20-30 cm (8-12 inches) in length. Some had support rings—that is, whorls or rings fixed on the shaft for the spinner to rest on top of a finger, both to support the spindle and to draft fibers over. Some had movable whorls across their shafts. There are other artifacts that are not unsimilar and often confused with distaffs, including spoons, hair pins, medical tools, and sometimes spindles. Sometimes it is hard to be sure what an artifact is without handling it, or experimenting with a reproduction.

We are hoping to learn of what are probably numerous distaffs in museums and private collections, and we would like, if possible, to collect statistics such as length and weight, as well as photographs. But we are also hoping to locate distaffs as the excavators discover them, in the hopes that they will be easier to study closely before they go to museums or sales. There are some key attributes, such as balance, that can be evaluated only by touch.

Vital statistics:
Current location:
Accession or reference number:
Place of origin (provenance):
Date of artifact:
Material:
Length:
Weight:
Photograph(s)

We are trying to understand both the evolution and the use of these surprising tools, and are happy to share what we are learning. If you spot a distaff, or a possible distaff, please contact Dr. Elizabeth Barber at barber AT oxy.edu or Kim Caulfield at kimcaulfield AT mac.com

Many thanks for any time and attention you can give to this quest!

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One thought on “In Search of Roman and Pre-Roman Distaffs

  1. Several of those look a lot like those “Roman voting sticks” that keep cropping up on eBay. The sellers get quite defensive when questioned about proof of such a thing

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