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…


DSC01455 a s

…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.


Latest discoveries

Last week I decided to do some more rummaging through the archives and collections at the Leeds Museums Discovery Centre, in the hope of finding out more about the ancient Cypriot acquisitions made by Henry Crowther, curator of the Museum from the 1890s until the 1920s. I’ve previously blogged about his glass lantern slides which include objects donated by the British Museum from their excavations at Enkomi and Klavdia, and had a feeling that there might be more to be discovered.

I had underestimated quite what an avid collector of lantern slides Henry Crowther was – there must be hundreds, if not thousands. However, I was lucky enough to come across a couple which shed some further light on the Enkomi donation.

Small Enkomi objects s

Lantern slide showing small objects from Enkomi (c) Leeds Museums and Galleries

This slide is labelled ‘Crete’ in Crowther’s writing, which is an unusual slip, as the objects it shows are definitely from Cyprus (an identification helped by the fact that one of them has ‘Enkomi, Cyprus’ written across it). It shows seven objects, including the four spindle whorls from Enkomi still in the collection. But it’s the two objects in the centre and bottom left that interest me.

The list made by the British Museum detailing their donation includes hand-drawn sketches of the objects, as well as descriptions – a practice which is invaluable for helping identification and which I make use of myself, despite my negligible drawing skills. This list includes ‘2 stone beads’, one of which, the biconical example in the centre of the bottom row on the slide, still exists. It’s possible that the object at the bottom left is the other bead, although neither the photo nor the drawing are really clear enough to be sure.

2 stone beads

‘2 stone beads’, from the British Museum list

What is easier to identify is the object in the centre. The list mentions a ‘Bone ornament in the shape of pomegranate’ which doesn’t seem to have survived in the collection (at least, I haven’t found it yet…). But there can be little doubt that it’s the object shown on Henry Crowther’s lantern slide.


Image of pomegranate-shaped ornament (c) Leeds Museums and Galleries


‘Bone ornament in shape of pomegranate’, from the British Museum list

It’s good to know that it did come to Leeds, and to have an image of all the small stone and bone objects from the British Museum’s Enkomi donation together.

In an unrelated discovery, I also came across a manuscript letter from Henry Sandwith, brother of Thomas Sandwith, who managed sales from the latter’s ancient Cypriot collection, displayed at the 1875 Yorkshire Exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, to help relieve famine in Cyprus. It relates to a purchase made by a Mr Robertson, and reads:

Todwick Rectory


Oct 12.

My dear Sir,

Mr Robertson, whose letter I enclose, has suggest a safer means of transport for his pottery. Will you therefore kindly see that the basket, packed as previously suggested, is delivered to the Guard of the Liverpool train for Lime Street Station on Friday next, the 14th, at the time mentioned by him, viz 11am. I have written to him (Mr R) to fix Friday instead of Monday, which will give you more time.

Faithfully yours,

Henry Sandwith

We already know from other correspondence that Mr G. Sinclair Robertson was minded to buy ‘the £5 vase’ from the Sandwith collection, and that he donated ‘a large early Greek pottery vase’ to the Liverpool Museum in 1876, though it’s not now identifiable in the Museum’s collection, and was possibly lost to WWII bombing damage. So this letter doesn’t really give any new information, but does paint a picture of the way in which sales from Sandwith’s collection were managed – a very different world, in which one could arrange for the delivery of baskets of ancient Cypriot pottery via a local train guard.

I have a strong suspicion that there’s more to be found in the archives, and am looking forward to finding out!

Nathan Bodington, the British Museum and Cyprus

The links between the Leeds City Museum and the University of Leeds go back a long way; both organisations grew out of the social and cultural development of Leeds in the nineteenth century. The first Vice-Chancellor of the University, Sir Nathan Bodington, was also an active member of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, and contributed to the intellectual life of Leeds in many ways. He had a direct connection with the current Museum’s Cypriot collections, having been instrumental in gaining donations of ancient Cypriot artefacts from the British Museum for the benefit of the students of the Yorkshire College, a forerunner of the University. He also visited Cyprus and made a small collection of his own, which is now in the Museum.

Portrait of Nathan Bodington, from the memoir by W.H. Draper

Portrait of Nathan Bodington, from the memoir by W.H. Draper

Nathan Bodington was born in Birmingham in 1848, and studied Classics at Oxford, teaching at a number of institutions before being appointed Professor of Greek and Principal of the Yorkshire College in 1882. Here his talents as a leader and administrator came into their own, as he steered the College through membership of the Victoria University federation of colleges, and its development into the free-standing University of Leeds in 1904, when he became its first Vice-Chancellor. He was knighted in 1908 in recognition of his services to education. Bodington’s wide-ranging responsibilities at the College and University left him little free time, yet he still managed to participate in the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society (serving as President from 1898-1900), write literary reviews for the Manchester Guardian, take up photography, and travel extensively overseas, including to Cyprus.

His first recorded involvement with the Leeds Cypriot collections came in 1895, when he wrote on behalf of the Yorkshire College to A.S. Murray, Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, thanking him for the offer of ‘a selection of antiquities from recent excavations in Cyprus’.What happened to these artefacts is something of a mystery, to which I will return another time. However, this contact seems to have been the beginning of a friendship between Bodington and Murray; the British Museum archives record several letters from Bodington in subsequent years, mainly dealing with the traces of Roman roads in the Leeds area, a long-standing interest of his. In 1902 a further donation of Cypriot artefacts was made by the British Museum to the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, arranged by Murray following a request from Bodington.

26 items were dispatched to Leeds, mainly from Enkomi and Klaudia, including this Mycenaean stirrup jar, and some beautifully decorated spindle whorls.

Mycenaean stirrup jar Leeds Museums and Galleries

Mycenaean stirrup jar
 Leeds Museums and Galleries

Spindle whorl Leeds Museums and Galleries

Spindle whorl
 Leeds Museums and Galleries

Spindle whorl Leeds Museums and Galleries

Spindle whorl
 Leeds Museums and Galleries

Most of the artefacts, helpfully documented by Murray, are still in the collection today; some tantalisingly appear in Henry Crowther’s slides, but have since vanished, including this bowl and juglet.

Extract from Murray's list of items sent to Leeds

Extract from Murray’s list of items sent to Leeds

Bowl and juglet, photographed by H. Crowther.   Leeds Museums and Galleries

Bowl and juglet, photographed by H. Crowther.
 Leeds Museums and Galleries

Tracing these artefacts back to the British Museum’s excavations, and understanding the links between them and those remaining in the British Museum, are some of the most fascinating aspects of my work with the Leeds Museum collection.

In 1907 Bodington married Eliza Barran, daughter of Sir John Barran, sometime Leeds M.P., J.P. and Mayor, who was also active in the establishment of the University. Bodington was 59 at the time, and their marriage was to be short-lived, as he died just four years later. Six years after his death, Eliza Bodington donated several objects collected by him in Cyprus to the Museum of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society. It is a small but varied collection, including this well-preserved Archaic amphora, a bronze mirror, and a knucklebone, presumed to have been used as a gaming-piece. Bodington’s interest in ancient Cypriot artefacts is not surprising, given his life-long passion for classics and the ancient world.

Archaic amphora  Leeds Museums and Galleries

Archaic amphora
 Leeds Museums and Galleries

Bronze mirror  Leeds Museums and Galleries

Bronze mirror
 Leeds Museums and Galleries

Knucklebone  Leeds Museums and Galleries

 Leeds Museums and Galleries

Nathan Bodington was a wise and generous man, phenomenally hard-working, who did a huge amount to establish the University to which I am proud to belong today. It’s therefore particularly pleasing that he has a personal connection to items in the Museum’s ancient Cypriot collection, which gain interest through their association with him.

Dedication of W.H. Draper's memoir of Nathan Bodington

Dedication of W.H. Draper’s memoir of Nathan Bodington