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  The Orkney Hood

It is rare for organic materials, such as leather, wood or cloth, to survive through the ages. In normal circumstances, they decay rapidly, over a relatively short period of time.

But thanks to the preservative qualities of peat, one of Orkney's most unique discoveries looks almost as good today as when it was created, over 1,700 years ago.

This artefact, a fringed, woollen cloak, now known simply as "the Orkney Hood", is unique among Orkney's many archaeological discoveries. Although countless non-organic artefacts have turned up over the years, it is much rarer to find material or clothing - especially in such a superb state of preservation.

In the case of the Orkney Hood, the garment was lost, or deliberately deposited, in a peat bog, and into conditions that ensured its survival for almost two millennia. The lack of oxygen in the peaty conditions of the bog served to practically halt decay.

The circumstances surrounding the discovery of the hood are vague, although it is known that it was found in 1867, near the farm of Groatsetter, in Tankerness. The rare find then managed to find its way into the hands of the National Museum of Scotland (NMS) in Edinburgh where it has remained for well over 100 years.

Radiocarbon-dating by the National Museums of Scotland established that the Orkney Hood dated from between AD250 - AD615. Contemporary with the Iron Age site of Minehowe, the garment is probably the oldest, best-preserved sample of textiles in Britain.

The hood is thought to have been made for a child, the fringe along the base originally coming from an adult's garment.

Reconstructing the hood

A replica of the Orkney Hood was recreated in 2002, as part of the Minehowe Knowhow event - a combined arts and archaeology interpretation project using Minehowe in Tankerness as a focus.

Following her work recreating the Ice Man's cloak and shoes, for the Bolzano museum in Italy, experimental archaeologist Jacqui Wood was commissioned to create the Orkney replica. Having studied past work on the hood and prepared with sample fleeces and weaving, Jacqui Wood researched the hood at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and firmly believed that through the process of recreating the garment that new discoveries will be made about the ancient hood.

She was right, and her educated guesswork paid off with new insights as the replica hood began to take shape.

It proved to be a five-and-a-half-month task of discovery as new facts dawned on her about how the original cape was made and who made it.

Step one was the construction of a prehistoric loom before weaving with the 0.5 millimetre single spun thread.

A report written in the 1950s had suggested how the hood had been constructed, but 40 hours into the job, it became clear that this method was not working - the chevron bands across the garment would simply not match up with each other.

"Only by going to the incredible lengths, you really discover what it is really like," explained Jacqui Wood.

"I started measuring the bands and they were not fitting into the original measurements I had taken in Edinburgh. Some of the bands are spun ten rows per centimetre, some eight rows per centimetre, some nine rows per centimetre.

"There are four different thicknesses so some of the bands with more rows were narrower than the bands with less rows."

There could only be one conclusion - from her work recreating the hood it began to look increasingly likely that four people had woven the original garment.

"The project took five and half months and a total of 230 hours to actually make it. But it is fascinating to do something like that. It is as important to Britain as the Ice Man's cloak is to Italy. We have not got any garments at all like this, only scraps if we are lucky."

The quality of the original thread of the fringe also pointed to its very high status.

Jacqui believes the fringe possibly belonged to a powerful, wealthy person, that was eventually recycled to make the child's hood. Four eighths of a millimetre threads were spun together to make the half a millimetre thread used throughout the fringe.

"From my own impressions, a mother or father found a very nice quality piece of fabric and made the hood for a child," she said.

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