hallstatt

Leather, furs and skins from the Hallstatt mines

In the mine, hides and fur served as raw materials for various purposes. They were used to make carrysacks and belts, or for protective devices in the form of palm-protectors. Several hides were perhaps sewn together to serve some transportation purposes. Hides and furs were used to make headgear, shoes, and presumably also clothes; whether they were everyday wear or special clothes or shoes specially adapted to the conditions in the mine is still an open question. As with the textiles, we also have to consider secondary uses.

Original material and conservation
Differences in real value
Composition of animal skins
Tanning
Mechanical softening
Tailoring
Seams
Furrier work, straps, etc.
Animal species
 

Original material and conservation

The starting material in the production of leather is animal skin. Since natural putrefaction starts as soon as the animal dies, the skin needs to be preserved in order to keep it as unaltered as possible. The climate and the available technical means are decisive in the choice of the conservation method. A preserved hide is however not the same as leather. In prehistoric Hallstatt, the following conservation methods were available: salting, drying or cooling. But skin and fur might also have been immediately processed without any prior conservation treatment.
 

Differences in real value

Since not every rawhide is suitable for the production of leather, it is important to know the properties of the natural material. Basically, any animal skin can be tanned, but the skins and pelts of the various animals differ greatly in structure and practical value. The latter depends on the breed, age, sex, and on the living environment and conditions.
 

Composition of animal skins

Animal skin is made up of three layers: epidermis, dermis and subcutaneous tissue. The thin epidermis consists of keratin epithelial tissue and is removed during the production of leather. The dermis forms the largest part of the cross section and is again composed of two layers, the upper papillary and the lower reticular dermis. The characteristic arrangement of the hair pores can be seen if the papillary dermis has been preserved intact, and it is possible to associate the find with the corresponding animal species. The subcutaneous tissue, the lowest part of the skin, is not suited for the production of leather and is removed by mechanical means. Hallstatt finds bear working traces and remnants of subcutaneous tissue on the reticular dermis.
 

Tanning

The process of transforming skin into leather – which does not decompose – is tanning, a mainly chemical, ideally permanent process. We know of various prehistoric tanning methods and tanning-like processes, but we are not completely sure about the methods applied by the Hallstatt people. Since no tannins have been found so far, they do not seem to have used vegetable tanning agents; neither is there any evidence of alum tanning. The method most probably used would be a tanning-like procedure resulting in a ‘rawhide leather’ (known from descriptions in the Iliad and in Roman texts). The final product is a cleaned, possibly depilated, fleshless skin dried in stretched condition and repeatedly greased.
 

Mechanical softening

To obtain a loose fibre texture or to separate fibres stuck together, leather or hide is mechanically softened, using tools or by hand. Finds from Hallstatt show working traces possibly caused by mechanical softeners. This treatment is particularly useful with pieces meant to be sewn.
 

Tailoring

To make the requested items, the leather or fur has to be further processed, that is to say it is normally cut to the required sizes and forms. The carrysacks, shoes, caps and ‘bracelets’ found in Hallstatt bear witness to the careful execution of this cutting.
 

Seams

Prior to sewing, holes had to be pricked by means of an awl, or slots were made using a knife. Finds frequently show very coarse seams that seem to indicate that the items were patched-up. Repairs were done with bast or strips of hide. The technical details are not the only impressive features of the Hallstatt leather items. We frequently find beautifully formed ornamentation such as zigzagdecorated hems and brim edges, carved geometric patterns or openwork (as seen in the so-called ‘bracelets’).
 

Furrier work, straps, etc.

There is a group of unspectacular, yet very interesting finds consisting of straps, ribbons, strings and belts of various sizes. They were used as sewing materials, for tool bindings, or as shoelaces, and were lengthened by knotting together several strings or by threading the ends through slots. Some fur fragments indicate the contemporary furrier’s art. Two pelts of different colour were joined together, presumably deliberately, to get a lovely interplay of colours.
 

Animal species

Microscopic and macroscopic analyses performed on 229 Iron Age finds have revealed that various animal species were used to produce leather and fur. The finds came mainly from livestock, and revealed that 70.5% of the pelts were sheep, 21.5% goat and 8% cow. Thirty two percent of the finds analysed came from wild animals. The fact that the hair structure of red deer very much resembles the structure of goat hair caused some problems with the identification. With about 11% of the total finds, we can only assume that they are pelts from chamois and Alpine ibex. There are two pelts presumed to be from dogs, and several marten and hazel dormouse pelts among the finds.

(Russ-Popa, G.)