Reconstructing Norway’s Oldest Garment: the Tunic of Lendbreen

The Discovery

An ancient tunic was discovered at Lendbreen Glacier in Norway.

On August 4, 2011, a hot summer sun exposed the upper edges of Lendbreen Glacier at the Lomseggen mountain in Breheimen National Park in Norway. An archaeological team was on the scene to excavate the area for potential findings from prehistoric times. After a treasure trove of a day with artifacts littering the ground, including ancient shoes, hunting gear, tent pegs, and even horse dung, the most significant surprise was when archaeologists came across what appeared to be a crumpled up piece of cloth. When examined it at the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, it turned out to be an incredibly well-preserved 1,700-year-old tunic, the oldest piece of clothing found in Norway and one of only a few surviving garments from the 1st millennium A.D. in all of Europe.

“It’s very rarely that we find well-preserved clothing from prehistoric times,” explains Marianne Vedeler, professor at the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo to Yngve Vogt of the Apollan Research Magazine. “Only a handful of clothing like this has been found in Europe.”

Since the find, archaeologists and conservators have worked to study this tunic to learn more about its mysterious past. Who wore the tunic? Why was it left in the glacier? How was it made? What raw materials were used, and how time-consuming was the process? Vedeler and Swedish handweaver Lena Hammarlund recently published an article about the reconstruction process to find the answers.

The History

With climate change rapidly melting glaciers across the world, archaeologists have been able to uncover the story behind the ice. The day of discovery on August 4 revealed much more than the tunic and multitudes of other artifacts. Researchers also discovered the area was once a glaciated mountain pass.

As visualized in this eight-minute video on the history and reconstruction of the Lendbreen tunic, the Lomseggen mountain, home to the Lendbreen glacier, now separates the modern villages of Lom and Skjak. Archaeologists determined that this was once a passage used during the Iron Age as a transport route for people traveling between valleys, such as Bøverdalen and Ottadalen.

“The upland areas in which snow patches are found are little frequented by humans today, but hunting and trapping have been carried out there since prehistoric times. Reindeer often congregate on snow patches in late summer to regulate their body temperature and to avoid parasitic insects, making them attractive hunting grounds,” explained a study by Vedeler and Nordic archaeologist Lise Bender Jørgensen back in 2013.

Fieldwork at the Lendbreen Glacier where archaeologists stumbled across the tunic (Source: Secrets of Ice/Twitter).

Why was the tunic left behind? Many hypotheses are up in the air. Mai Bakken of the Norwegian Mountain Center in Lom described how treacherous the mountain passes were in the ancient past. “It was quicker to go over the mountain pass than to go round. The glaciers in those days were much bigger, and easy to walk on. The tunic may have been lost on just such a trip,” Bakke told Medieval Histories back in 2014. But given the extended use of the tunic, Vedeler and other archaeologists don’t see how it would have been carelessly cast aside. Another possible account is that the tunic was left at a place where people had camped to hunt reindeer. Perhaps the hunting party had gotten caught up in a storm and died.

 

The Reconstruction

In the realm of archaeology, textiles are difficult to preserve over time. “Artifacts from different periods are found deposited in the ice patches, many of them made of organic material rarely preserved elsewhere,” indicates the study. “Ice patches often provide exceptionally good conservation conditions for textiles.”

The original Lendbreen Tunic (Source: Secrets of the Ice/Twitter).

The Lendbreen tunic is estimated to have been made between 230 and 390 A.D. and gives archaeologists and historians a glimpse of what life would have been like 1,700 years ago. Woven from sheep’s wool, it is of a basic cut and was evidently frequently used with repaired patches on the back, indicating its extensive use 1,700 years ago. It is also relatively short, with historians concluding it was meant for a man or boy of slender build. Overall, specialists claim the yarns and patterns in the tunic were of a standard Iron Age practice and not requiring expert knowledge to produce.

However, it is evident the tunic was time-consuming to make. “In prehistory, the time spent on fiber preparation, spinning, and weaving must have varied greatly depending on differences in the raw materials and the tools used, and the knowledge and skills of the people producing the textiles,” stated the study, “It must still have been a very time-consuming task to produce a textile. This applies to everyday fabrics as well as to the most valuable ones.”

Regarding the reconstruction process, Vedeler and Hammarlund had two goals with the Lendbreen tunic project. The first one was to create two new tunics as similar as possible to the original, using old-fashioned techniques in hopes to recreate the process. But there was also a broader aim to the reconstruction, according to the study: “to gain greater knowledge of time and labor used in each step of the chain of production by analyzing the original fabric. It is known that prehistoric textile production was a very time-consuming process, but timing each step of the process gave a more detailed picture.”

With the reconstruction process complete, it took 760 hours for handweavers to reproduce the tunic from scratch using old-fashioned techniques. They used wool from traditional breeds of sheep in western Norway that could have been used to create the yarn in the tunic. Although Vedeler and Hammarlund quickly discovered it would be too expensive not to use machines, they indicated it was still an incredibly laborious process to accurately stitch the tunic.

An image of the Lendbreen tunic reconstruction (Source: scientiflix/Twitter).

The Legacy

Today, the museum curators at the Norwegian Mountain Center in Lom and the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo are busy preparing the new exhibits that will showcase the tunic and its reconstructions. The original Lendbreen tunic will be on display alongside one its reconstructions at the Norwegian Mountain Center, while the other will be part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo.

Bakken of the Norwegian Mountain Center shared with GlacierHub the excitement surrounding the tunic and its reconstruction. “We look forward to having the original in our new exhibition. It was exciting to follow the reconstruction of the tunic and very nice for the museum to have an authentic copy,” she told GlacierHub. She additionally described that they are both an important part of the exhibition, “Spellbound,” opening in June.

With climate change melting glaciers like the Lendbreen at unprecedented rates, hundreds of artifacts emerge from the ice every summer, presenting clues to piecing together the lives of communities dependent on glaciers and the interconnected relationship between the humans and the rest of the environment.

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Nuns in Nepal Rebuild Sustainably

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Two hundred nuns sleeping under one big blue tarp. (Photo: Tsechu Dolma)

For more than eight months I have been working on a project to help restore a remote mountaintop Tibetan nunnery in Nepal, which was devastated by the earthquake last year. These activities draw directly on the religious traditions of the nuns and on indigenous building practices of the region.

Four days after the earthquake on April 25, 2015, I took a private rescue flight to Bakhang, Sindhupalchowk district in Nepal. I found a ghostly landscape of flattened and damaged buildings.  The earthquake killed one nun and left all the others, about 200 in all, homeless. Thirty of them were seriously injured.  All the nunnery houses—which had been hand-built by the nuns—were destroyed. Sixty-four residents of nearby villages were also killed. In this rugged landscape, with glaciated mountains reaching over 5000 meters in elevation, active landslides created additional damage.

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Construction of the model home using containment reinforcement with wires. Local Sherpa masons and carpenters were hired and trained. (Photo: Tsechu Dolma)

The conditions were extremely difficult. Two hundred of us slept under one large blue tarp. Many nuns kept crying, mourning the dead and expressing great distress. Moving out from the shells of their homes created a spiritual crisis for the nuns, because they felt they violated their faith; according to Buddhist beliefs, it is not permitted to leave in the middle of spiritual practice, even in the face of a disaster like a fire or a flood.

I was soon joined by my colleague from the Mountain Resiliency Project, a social enterprise dedicated to strengthening remote mountain communities in Nepal, and by others from the Hunnarshala Foundation and the Tibet Fund. We stayed for three weeks, providing psychosocial counseling to the nuns and assisting them with the first steps of the recovery. During that time, we did not receive any assistance from any government or international aid group. The members of our Tibetan and Sherpa communities in Kathmandu were the first to mobilize support. To date, more than half of the funds we have gathered are individual donations from within our community. American Jewish World Services, a non-sectarian humanitarian and emergency relief non-profit organization, has granted also $287,000 to our rehabilitation effort.

Tibetans face difficulties in seeking help from the Nepali government, since they are largely refugees who lack legal documents. As refugees, they were also cut off from their families. The majority of the nuns come from my mother’s home district in southern Tibet, Dingri, the northern base of Mt. Everest. Many of them are my relatives. The nunnery itself is less than a day’s walk from the border between Nepal and Tibet, five to seven days’ walk to Dingri. The nunnery is located high on a mountain, a day’s walk from the nearest road. Where cars cannot travel, mountain people journey on foot. The nunnery has sheltered many Tibetan refugees who fled Chinese occupation to exile in India.

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3D image of the design and construction of a home. (Image: Hunnarshala Foundation)

The nuns were sent by their parents to Nepal at early ages— typically in their teens— because of the lack of prospects for them in Tibet. Their average age is now around 38.  Isolated from their relatives for decades, they lack familial support systems. Nonetheless, their childhood memories of home and strong cultural ties are central to their lives. In recognition of this identity and affiliation, our team emphasized the importance of reconstruction with a strong inclusion of traditional Tibetan building techniques while also incorporating techniques to make the buildings resilient in the face of earthquakes. This team included the Mountain Resiliency Project, along with the Hunnarshala Foundation and the Tibet Fund, and a local service society that supports the nunnery.

“Many people in Nepal are lulled into this false sense of security with reinforced cement buildings and put off natural building materials as poor man’s resources. However, if another big earthquake hits the region, the cement homes will cause devastation of catastrophic measures,” Mahavir Acharya, Managing Director at Hunnarshala Foundation, stated.

At present, we are building a nunnery that will house up to 207 women. It is made of 99 percent naturally-sourced, sustainably-acquired and locally-available resources. Each home is built with stone masonry mud mortar that is held with thin wire extended from foundation to ceiling and wrapped around the house. This process creates reinforcement. We started in January, and with a completed model house and dug foundations, we plan to finish 40 houses per month.

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Nuns digging mud clay to use for their home construction. (Photo: Tsechu Dolma)

Initially, I was very worried about how to make sure the nuns were at the forefront of the decision-making. At the Mountain Resiliency Project, we spent many hours leading small focus groups and having individual conversations to make sure the nuns understood the importance of their voices and leadership. As the project developed and construction started, the nuns spontaneously emerged forward. The nuns are leading the building process as they have been salvaging wood and stones from fallen homes. They have also been digging clay mud 10 hours a day, seven days a week, with the hope that they can return home and resume their spiritual practices as soon as possible.

Tibetans have unique, traditional construction songs that date back centuries. There are songs and dances specific to every stage of construction, from excavating the planned building area to pounding the mud on roofs. Currently, the nuns are singing earth excavation songs that are filled with messages of hope and determination to rebuild.

༄༄ས་འདི་ཁྱེམ་གོ་གང་ལ་ སྒྲུབ་པའི་ལྷ་ཁང་བཞིང་ཡོད་།

On this very earth we are consecrating a religious home

ལྷ་ཁང་ནང་དུ་བཞུགས་མཁན་ སྐྱབས་མགོན་ཡིད་བཞིན་ནོར་བུ་།

Inside the home lives the Great Protector Wish-fulfilling Gem

སྐྱབས་མགོན་ཡིད་བཞིན་ནོར་བུ་ འགྲོ་བ་ཡོངས་ཀྱིས་སྐྱབས་གནས་།

The Great Protector Wish-fulfilling Gem is the protector for all beings

ཁྱེད་ཀྱི་གཟི་བརྗིད་འོད་ཟེར་ བོད་མི་ཡོངས་ལ་ཁྱབས་ཡོད་།

Your rays of brilliance has spread to all Tibetans

During my most recent trip to the nunnery, nuns were starting to put small religious materials in the foundations of their homes, a traditional practice blessing the building. One of my nun relatives told me, “This is a start of a new beginning with traditional aspects for us. This type of construction work almost feels like being back in our motherland [Tibet]. We are the first mass permanent housing project [post-earthquake] to start in Sindhupalchowk and hopefully the region can use us as an example of sustainable and resilient building.”

Many of the hired masons and carpenters from nearby villages are also directly learning from the nunnery construction. Bal Bahadur, a local hired mason for the nunnery, told me “We are waiting to build our permanent homes after the nunnery not only because our salary here pays for our houses, but also because this type of natural technology seems very feasible and resilient.”

For now the nuns are laboring hard and singing, feeling a closer connection to a sense of home. Knowingly or unknowingly, the Bakhang nuns are setting a model of inclusive rehabilitation unprecedented in our community. As a Tibetan woman myself, I find it deeply heartening.

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