The Llan-gors textile: an early medieval masterpiece

Excavations at Llan-gors Lake in 1991. The textile was discovered in the silts beyond the oak palisade visible in this trench.
Excavations at Llan-gors Lake in 1991. The textile was discovered in the silts beyond the oak palisade visible in this trench.
The lump of charred textile, as found lying on a piece of wood.
The lump of charred textile, as found lying on a piece of wood.
Part of the decoration preserved on the textile, showing a group of birds framed by vines. Unfortunately none of the original colour was preserved in the textile, making the design very difficult to see without assistance. It is picked out here with super
Part of the decoration preserved on the textile, showing a group of birds framed by vines. Unfortunately none of the original colour was preserved in the textile, making the design very difficult to see without assistance. It is picked out here with superimposed white lines. The total area shown is roughly 9cm tall by 7cm wide (3.5 x 2.8 inches).
Digital-simulation of colour on a photograph of the original textile.
Digital-simulation of colour on a photograph of the original textile.

In 1990, archaeologists working at a site on Llan-gors Lake, near Brecon, made an unexpected discovery - the remains of a magnificently decorated textile, over a thousand years old.

Just off the northern shore of Llan-gors Lake lies a crannog (a man-made island) built as a royal site for the ruler of Brycheiniog in the 890s - a turbulent period in the kingdom's history.

At this time, Brycheiniog was under pressure from several neighbouring kingdoms, and Llan-gors must have seemed a safe retreat. However, excavations of the site have shown that this haven was short-lived, being destroyed by fire in the early 10th century.

Much of the archaeological work at Llan-gors focused on the waterlogged silts that surrounded the crannog. It was here that the textile was discovered, badly charred and very fragile.

Through careful conservation treatment it was possible to separate and clean its many layers revealing this unlikely lump to be among the most important finds of early medieval textile yet found in Britain.

The base material of the textile was a very fine plain-weave linen. Silk and linen threads have been used to decorate the textile with birds and other creatures within a framework of vines, and with borders containing repeating patterns or lions.

The skill with which this work has been accomplished continues to be a source of wonder. The linen has 23 threads to the centimetre - a magnificent achievement given the equipment available in the 9th and 10th centuries AD.

The textile appears to be part of a garment, perhaps a tunic or dress - it has a hem and a belt loop - but unfortunately too little survives to indicate its detailed shape.

Its owner was a person of considerable status since the silk that decorates it must have been imported to Britain, while the quality of the needlework suggest that it was produced in a specialist workshop.

So how did this fine textile come to be lost? A clue can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for AD916, which records that in this year a Mercian army from England destroyed a site called Brecenanmere (Brecknock-mere = Llan-gors Lake) and captured 'the wife of the king and 33 other persons'.

Was this the event that saw the burning of Llan-gors and the loss of the textile? It is tempting to believe so.

Background Reading

'A fine quality insular embroidery from Llangors Crannog, near Brecon' by H. Granger-Taylor and F. Pritchard. In Pattern and Purpose in Insular Art edited by M. Redknap, S. Youngs, A. Lane and J. Knight, p91-99. Published by Oxbow Books (2001).

'Worn by a Welsh Queen?' by L. Mumford and M. Redknap. In Amgueddfa, vol. 2, p52-4 (1999).

'The Llangorse textile; approaches to understanding an early medieval masterpiece' by L. Mumford, H. Prosser and J. Taylor, in C. Gillis and M.-L. B. Nosch (eds), Ancient Textiles: Production, Craft and Society, 158-62. Published by Oxbow Books (2007).

Article Date: 3 May 2007

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