Textiles and Provenance – University of Copenhagen

Textiles and Provenance

Provenance studies of Pre-Roman Iron Age textiles – methods development and applications, was the title of an innovative cross disciplinary PhD project conducted by Karin Margarita Frei (2007-2010). 

This cross disciplinary project combined among others Earth Sciences and Archaeological Sciences. The aim of this project was to develop a method which allows for an isotope-geochemical characterization of ancient textile’s raw material, in such way that this information could be used for tracing its origin/provenance. Such information contributes with important aspects of the socio-economic relations in prehistory as well as reveals new networks in ancient societies.

Isotopic compositions and trace element patterns are analytical techniques which are often used in Archaeological Sciences. Among these, strontium isotopes have shown to be good mobility indicators in prehistory.  For studies of human mobility tooth enamel it often the material that is analyzed. The strontium concentration of teeth often ranges from 50 to 500 ppm. However, the strontium concentration of wool/hair is much lower (0.05-15 ppm). 

Wool’s low strontium concentration and post deposition contamination issues, present great analytical challenges when investigating the raw material of ancient textiles. However, the rigorous geochemical protocol developed during this PhD thesis, allows performing provenance tracing analysis of small thread yarn fragments of ancient textiles, after following the developed decontamination procedures.

Furthermore, textiles made of plant fibers and wool yarns dyed with organic dyestuffs have also shown to be good candidates for provenance studies by also applying this new methodology.

This new archeometric tool has already proven to provide unexpected results from the Danish Pre-roman Iron Age.


Frei K. M. (2010) Provenance of Pre- Roman Iron Age textiles –methods development and applications, PhD thesis, SAXO Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark (available at the Danish Royal Library).

Frei K.M., Frei R., Mannering U., Gleba M., Nosch M.L., and Lyngstrøm H., (2009) Provenance of Ancient textiles-a pilot study evaluating the Sr isotope system. Archaeometry, V 51, 2, 252-276

Frei K.M., Skals I., Gleba M., Lyngstrøm H; (2009) The Huldremose Iron Age textiles, Denmark: an attempt to define their provenance applying the strontium isotope system, Journal of Archaeological Science, V 36, 1965-1971

Frei, K.M., Vanden Berghe, I., Frei, R., Mannering, U., Lyngstrøm, H. (2010) Removal of natural organic dyes from wool- implications for ancient textile provenance studies, Journal of Archaeological Science, V 37. 2135-2145