The Spindle Whorl – Part 2

12th October 2014 — 11 Comments

Whorl2The blog about Sarah the Spinner and the ubiquitous spindle whorl proved to be very popular. Books on the subject are few if non-existent. Rather like some detectorists, archaeologists don’t seem particularly interested either. Yet, I find them fascinating!

Mick's Whorls

Detail from a larger selection of whorls by Muddy Mick ©

How so many spindle whorls get into the middle of a field we can’t be sure. You can make up your own scenario as to the reason for that. There can be few in the hobby who haven’t found a lead disc with a hole through its centre. We all know that they give a loud and healthy signal, sparking thoughts of optimism that this time, it could be the BIG ONE!  When they are seen to be nothing of the kind, they are sometimes tossed casually into the finds bag … or even the nearest hedge! What a pity, for they are good finds, some of them dating back to the Iron Age. This tangible link with history is explained in Part 1 –  Sarah the Spinner and the Spindle Whorl.

The detectorists’ database, the UKDFD tells us that the dating of lead spindle whorls is problematic, as similar examples have been found in contexts that span the period from Roman to late medieval times. One thing is indisputable. The spindle whorl is virtually undatable, especially when found out of context. The consensus is that most of them date to the later medieval period, like the one shown below, found in Lincolnshire and described as …

A biconical cast lead spindle whorl, decorated on both sides with moulded radial lines. Some of the lines are connected by perpendicular bars, which impart the appearance of the letter ‘H’.


Courtesy of the UKDFD – Click to enlarge

Heirlooms and Spinsters

I’ve always been interested in words. Spinning and weaving have always been an important occupation … well, until the introduction of the spinning wheel around the 15th century. Words from that earlier period have been handed down to us. The women using the looms were said to have supernatural powers and able to weave into the cloth some spell for good, but most likely, evil! The loom was much treasured and often willed to the eldest daughter on the understanding that they would also pass it on when they died. From this comes our word heirloom.



A spinster. Author unknown.

Spinning too has brought us a word, but not much used today, and that is spinsterit is now always a derogatory term, referring or alluding to a stereotype of an older woman who is unmarried, childless, prissy, or repressed.

As might seem obvious, this word derives from spin. It is a reference to the spinning of yarn from wool. Any woman who spun wool for a living was known as a spinster beginning in about the 13th century. Eventually, the word came to be appended to a woman’s name as an indication of her occupation. By the 17th century the term was used to signify any unmarried woman, and it was used in legal documents for that purpose. Later, however, spinster came to apply to older, unmarried women.

Hand spinning finally disappeared, it is thought, by the late 16th century though even today there are women in this country who are still spinning merrily away as a hobby. There are some wise words on spindle whorls from the late Jim Patterson (Old Yellowbelly), who said in a Searcher article from twenty years ago:

As a broad rule of thumb your lead spindle whorl will be from the period Iron Age to late Medieval with the plain ones being perhaps the oldest, though note that some exist with characteristic period decoration. The later whorls are those with decoration aplenty, usually simple geometric patterns … there is a school of thought that is reluctant to accept that what appear to be whorls are just that, preferring to hazard that they are variously net or thatch weights … It may be that spindle whorls were so common that they were used for other purposes, especially after the need for them disappeared.

For a fine display of spindle whorls, I have relied on Roger Gamblin. This is just a small display of the whorls he has collected!


© Roger Gamblin

Michael Smith (Muddy Mick), once moderator on the now defunct Detectorist Forum says that he believes that spindle whorls of whatever age all have the same size hole in the middle … although he has found the odd one that disproves the theory.

Mick's Whorls 2

© Muddy Mick

Kathelyne Aaradyn shows a close-up of her spindle hand spinning a spindle in slow motion while attempting to re-create a spinning style which may have been used in the 15th century. You can see her research on the subject of spinning HERE. There are some super pictures and more videos.



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11 responses to The Spindle Whorl – Part 2

  1. Another interesting post John.
    The number of Spindle Whorls we find when metal detecting means there must have been a lot of careless Sarah’s spinning wool in the fields while their menfolk were working the land also they must have carried a few spares and they must have had holes in their pockets and work bags.
    Between myself and now deceased two detecting mates we have found hundreds of them all mostly patterned, I had one with what looked like runic wording on it.

  2. Another great read, I also share an interest in spindle whorls and this article has given me a bit more insight into how they were used.

  3. Looks so easy.LOL.Jerry.

  4. Its strange that having been a detectorist for a 6 years now and with a wide collection of finds from a small Roman Hoard, numerous hammered coins and a wide range of artifacts – I have yet to find a spindle whorl. Are they more common in other parts of the country perhaps? I detect in Herts, Bucks, Beds area generally.

  5. Great read John! The majority of spindle whorls are found in a rural farming community context. I guess in periods like harvest, during a the daily break for bread and cheese the women involved used the time to spin? With such long working days and the cost of candles for the poor at least you had some natural light to work by!

  6. Found one today in Newark on Trent
    Nice to know its use my first 10/5/15

  7. Yes these items are surprisingly common in plough soils as metal detecting finds though you dont see many turn up in the published small finds reports for archaeological excavations. Perhaps the machine removal of soil layers before excavation begins relegates them to the spoil dumps so they are not found.

    My FLO was a bit vague on their precise date when i recorded my last batch, most get lumped in with a broad “Medieval” date so perhaps there is an opportunity for some bright young thing to research them for a PhD thesis ? There are a few thousand on the PAS database to start with along with a few in excavation reports and perhaps more to come when the many decade long backlog of unpublished reports finally see the light of day

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