“Fulling is essentially the art of cleansing, shrinking and thickening cloth.” (Jeffery 1991, 97). The end result is not only clean cloth but thicker, semi-waterproof cloth. The process dates back as far as 5000 BC and was practised all over Europe. It is quite a simple process requiring warm and cold water and a detergent of some kind. Pot ash or stale urine was some times used. Unfortunately our knowledge of the existence of any detergents in ancient Ireland is poor. One of the earliest references to them come from the landlord of Gibbstown estate near Navan, Co. Meath. He allowed his labourers to mow the thistles and ragwort that covered the 1400 acres of arable farming land in his estate. In return he let them keep what they mowed, so they could burn it and sell it as potash. If the exploitation of plants for use of detergents was going on in the 17th century, then the realisation of its worth may have become know a long time beforehand. I think there is no doubt in any mind that stale urine was available in ancient Ireland. From the earliest times mothers must have noticed that the soiled areas of their babies nappy’s washed slightly cleaner than the rest. With this realisation must have came the fact that stale urine makes an excellent detergent. When fulling cloth several things must be present, firstly a good supply of water e.g. a stream or river. The cloth is then soaked in water, it is ‘waulked’ i.e. force is applied to clean the cloth, and a detergent is then added to take the natural grease out of the material. To do all this a large tub is needed, the trough from a fulachta fian being ideal. A place to heat up stones for the water is also needed. The hearths from a fulachta fiadh site would do. Finally a small stream or band of water in which the material can be further waulked is needed. Most fulachta fiadh are positioned near a stream so water would have been in plentiful supply. Fulachta fiadh would have been ideal for this purpose. If we return to the Ballyvourney site, the ‘butchers’ block’ could have been used for preparing or cutting cloth, the hut for storing cloth or detergent, the ‘meat rack’ for hanging the cloth out to dry and the trough for fulling. The find of a spindle whorl at a fulachta fiadh at Coarhamore, Valencia Island, Co. Kerry places the site well into the context discussed above.
Fulachta fiadh may also have been used for dyeing material. You do not need much to be successful at dyeing. “Basic necessities are a water source, a container, a heat source and dye materials” (Cannon, 1994, 11). We know that dyeing was practised in Britain and Northern Europe at a very early date and there is no evidence that the techniques were not known in Ireland. Dyestuffs are easy to attain. Basically anything that releases colour when boiled can be used as a dye. Most leaves from plants, barks from trees, berries from bushes and even some soils produce a dye when boiled. So if the bark from a tree or the leaves of a bush fell into a pot of boiling water and coloured it, the realisation that they could be used for dyeing could have came about. Preparation of dyestuff involves crushing, kneading and finally fermentation in cold water. The chosen dyestuff is then added to a large container of hot water along with an alkali (optional) and fibre. When the dye process was finished the material was hung out to dry. Again a fulachta fian would have been perfect for this fermentation process.
There is some evidence of cloth production in bronze age Ireland. In Armoy, Co. Antrim a woven woollen bag was found dating from the bronze age (Henshall 1950). As we move onto the iron age and Early Christian Period more evidence begins to turn up. This includes evidence for dyeing. Logically cloth had to be made. Our prehistoric ancestors had to produce their clothes somewhere.
One last point to discuss is the fact the fulachta fiadh could easily have been ritual dyeing places rather than ritual bathing places. Some of our first mentions of dyeing in Ireland show that it was far from a mere domestic act. Dyeing was considered to be a somewhat magical process, and was strictly a women's craft, there being a taboo on dyeing fabric in the presence of men. The book of Lismore contains a passage in which St. Ciaran's mother tells him to go out of the house, since it is unlucky to have men in the house while dyeing cloth. He curses the cloth so that it dyes unevenly, then later recants. There were also rules about which days of the month or week were proper for dyeing (Mahon 1982). In ancient Ireland dyers had a reputation for being herbal healers, since many dyestuffs were also used in folk medicine (Mahon 1982). It may be that fulachta fiadh were ritual dyeing sites were cloth was prepared and dyed for special occasions. At the moment fulachta fiadh seem a most likely candidate for centres of the production of clothes. They may have also had a ritual context.
What are fulachta fiadh? |
Arguments for cooking |
Arguments for bathing/saunas |
Arguments for textile centres/laundries |
A compendium of excavted fulachta fiadh | The study of textiles in archaeology | Bibliography |
The washing experiment | The dyeing experiment | The fulling experiment | Results and concluding thoughts |