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Colours from yesteryears

Colours from yesteryears
Archaeological wool from a salt mine

Hallstatt textiel

Coloured textiles of more than 3000 years old that look as good as new? This seems to be possible thanks to the salt in the mine at Hallstatt. Hundreds of textile fragments were preserved underground in ideal conditions. Today's art and design students transformed research data into a brand new vision of ancient textiles.

There very few archaeological textile finds from the Bronze and Iron Ages in Europe. Material with preserved structure and colour is even more rare. In the Hallstatt salt mine archaeologists found more than 500 textile fragments that have maintained a relatively good condition due to the low temperature, absence of light and salty environment. Although the original function of the textiles is usually impossible to trace, further investigation has yield much information about the dyeing, spinning and weaving techniques used.

Aerial view of the Hallstatt Hochtal. Photo: Aerial Archive, NHM Vienna.

Aerial view of the Hallstatt Hochtal. Photo: Aerial Archive, NHM Vienna.


Ground salt in the interior of Europe is quite rare. Salt was also a valuable trade commodity for many centuries. The Hochtal Hallstatt in Austria is one of those rare places. Since the 16th century BC, residents of the area have employed mining to bring this precious commodity to the surface. Salt blocks were carved out with bronze pickaxes from 'terraces' in enormous mining chambers. Broken tools and clothes, torch remnants and other no longer usable work implements were abandoned there and now form a true archaeological treasure trove.


These mines have been in use since the Bronze Age, which is evident from the different layers of finds. Miners of the 18th century who stumbled onto such a layer thought this was heathen rubbish. This is the reason they named this layer 'Heidengebirge'. Many finds, especially the textile fragments, were exceptionally well conserved due to the preservative effect of the salt. This is a unique situation for such organic materials, which normally completely disappear or are highly affected by the environment.


Between food scraps, broken-off tips of bronze tools, pieces of birch bark cordage and a wooden ladder, more than two hundred textile fragments were found dating from 1400 BC. Most fragments cannot be traced to garments. Some are thick, woollen carrier bags, which workers used to carry salt from the mine in the Bronze Age (up to about 800 BC). Numerous fragments of the most diverse types of textiles, from cleaning cloths to clothing, were dated from the Iron Age (800-400 BC). They were apparently torn into pieces before being brought to the mine, but their purpose is not yet clear.

Woven woollen textile from Hallstatt, Iron Age. Photo: NHM Vienna.

Woven woollen textile from Hallstatt, Iron Age. Photo: NHM Vienna.

In good condition

It is exceptional that these prehistoric textiles are still in such relatively good condition, both the material and the colours.  This is unique for Central Europe and has three causes. Firstly, the textile fragments are saturated with salt that has preserved them well. Secondly, the climate in the mine remained constant and the textiles were not exposed to light for thousands of years. Thirdly, most fragments have a strong colour: yellow, green, olive-green, brown, red-brown, blue and black.


The Hallstatt textiles fragments are now in the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna. Since the mid-19th century this museum has been involved with excavations at Hallstatt, which besides the mine also has an extensive grave field. The museum asked the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands to investigate how the textiles from the mine were made and whether the present colours have changed form the original. The researchers extensively examined the textiles with an electron microscope, an X-ray spectrometer (X-ray radiation provides an inside view of an object) and liquid chromatography (a technique used to separate elements in a liquid mixture). The textile fragments were proved to be made of wool.

Wool from Hallstatt found to contain the blue dyes

Wool from Hallstatt found to contain the blue dyes of and indigotine and indirubin. Photo: RCE.

Dyeing methods

The researchers also discovered more about the dyeing techniques. Analysis by liquid chromatography showed that the inhabitants of the Hallstatt region used three dye methods to colour their woollen textiles. They extracted dyes from plants by heating them in water together with the textiles. In this dye bath the dye attaches directly to the fibres, but fades quickly in the sun or with washing. The Hallstatters knew two other methods that were more laborious but which produced wash and light fast textiles. Some dyestuffs were first fermented (as is done with tea). The dye was colourless, but while drying in the open air the textile develops its hue. In the third dyeing method, the textile is pre-treated with metal salts (e.g., aluminium). Such mordanted textiles hold dye more strongly.

Woollen fabrics dyed with madder and chamomile and others

Woollen fabrics dyed with madder and chamomile and others, exhibited in the NaturhistorischesMuseum in Vienna. Photo: NHM Vienna.

 ... and dyestuffs

Some fragments were found to have been dyed yellow with berries, others with weld. Weld occurs throughout Europe and has been the most commonly used plant for yellow for centuries. Most red dyes in the mine fragments could not be traced to currently known plants. In one case, the red came from scale insects, probably Polish cochineal or kermes, species that do not occur in the Hallstatt region, but which must have been imported from Poland or from the Mediterranean. Remarkable was the discovery of orchil, a lichen-like plant that produces a purple dye with poor light fastness. That the colour is still preserved is owed to the particular environment (darkness!) in the mine.

Binding tapes from Hallstatt: top-original, reconstruction below.

Binding tapes from Hallstatt: top-original, reconstruction below.

Complex ribbons

In 2008, the Hallstatt FWF project started, which focused on woven ribbon from the Hallstatt 'collection'. They once served as a finishing and decorative trim along the neckline and sleeves of a garment. The spinning and weaving techniques of these tapes are complex, especially when considering the total textile collection from Hallstatt. The researchers attempted to trace the historical techniques of the binding tapes and reproduce them. Wool from archaic breeds of sheep, similar that used by the original creators was used. Based on the analysis results plants were grown, harvested and prepared for use as dyestuffs. The wool was finally dyed, spun and woven.

Necklace by Anna Moser (2012) with a woven 'binding tape' of silver thread.

Necklace by Anna Moser (2012) with a woven 'binding ribbon' of silver thread. Photo: A. Moser.

Contemporary design

The knowledge gained by the researchers and the reconstructions were used to focus attention on these exceptional textiles and the Hallstatt region. This was achieved through a collaboration project with students of contemporary fashion, design and art at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. Inspired by the materials, techniques and colours of the Hallstatt textiles, they designed clothing and textile installations that were shown during an spectacular fashion show and later in the exhibition, Colours of Halstatt: textiles connecting science and art (Naturhistorisches Museum Wien, 2012-2013).

Andrea Liebl, 'immerse fade connect', 2012. Linen samples dyed with an extract

Andrea Liebl, 'immerse fade connect', 2012. Linen samples dyed with an extract of bearberry, a heath-like plant.