When is a whorl not a whorl?

I’ve written before about the spindle whorls in the Leeds City Museum collection, which come from the 1896 British Museum excavations at Enkomi. There are four disc-shaped whorls with a low conical profile, two made of stone and two of bone, as well as a further biconical stone whorl. The fact that they were included in tomb goods is intriguing; did they belong to someone buried there, or were they gifts for use in the afterlife? They would have been practical rather than prestigious objects.

Spindle whorls from Enkomi

Small objects from Enkomi shown on a lantern slide…


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…and the remaining objects today.

I’ve learned a lot from Lindy Crewe’s fascinating study of spindle whorls from prehistoric Bronze Age Cyprus. She explains that it can be hard to distinguish between a spindle whorl and a bead, pendant or toggle, which might be very similar in appearance. On arrival in Leeds in 1902, the four low conical spindle whorls from Enkomi were recorded by the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society as ‘disk-shaped ornaments’, suggesting some uncertainty about their function. I decided to revisit the whorls to see how the evidence stacked up.

Crewe sets out a number of criteria for determining whether an object is a spindle whorl. In order for a whorl to fit tightly onto a spindle, the hole through its centre must be straight in profile, or slightly conical. The hole  must also be central in the whorl, and its diameter should be no less than 4mm. The size and weight of the whorl are also factors; Crewe identifies a weight range of between 10g and 169g in the examined assemblage of Cypriot spindle whorls, and suggests that whorls would have a diameter of at least 20mm, most beads being smaller than this.

So how do the Leeds objects measure up to these criteria? All the holes are central, straight-sided or very slightly conical in profile, and between 5mm and 7mm in diameter – so far, so consistent with them being spindle whorls. The stone objects weigh between 12g and 16g, but the bone ones are around 9g, so a bit lighter than the suggested minimum; a whorl that was too light wouldn’t be able to act as a flywheel and help the spinning process. However, it’s possible that they may have lost density and weight as a result of the taphonomic processes they would have been subject to during their long burial in the tomb.

Identifiable usewear would have the potential to tell us something about the early history of these objects – were they used in ancient Cyprus for spinning, or were they destined to be funerary offerings from the point of manufacture? There are some small chips around the central hole and diameter of some of the whorls. These are hard to interpret – they could be the result of accidental damage at any point in the whorls’ history – but they seem consistent with the kind of usewear which would result from spinning.

Biconical 3 s

Possible usewear on the biconical spindle whorl…

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…and on one of the stone spindle whorls.

On balance, it seems fairly safe to identify these as spindle whorls, although there is a question mark over the bone objects due to their lightness. We can only conjecture about the identity of the people they were buried with; due to the lack of records from their 19th century excavation, we don’t even know if they all came from the same tomb. It’s conceivable that they might have been closely associated with the person or people buried with them – rather like burying a relative with the glasses they always wore – but we don’t have the evidence to go beyond speculation. It’s relatively rare for small, non-precious objects like these to be preserved from early excavations, so we are more than usually lucky to have them.