Friday, March 1, 2024
Victoria Priola
Victoria Priola, a doctoral student in the University of Iowa’s Anthropology program, holds a replica spindle whorl she based on those found in Europe during the Neolithic, Copper Age, and early Bronze Age (around 7,000–1000 BCE). Priola says such tools were likely used to spin wool or plant fibers into thread (photos by Cale Stelken).

Victoria Priola is determined to uncover the mysteries behind prehistoric textiles and ceramic textile tools. The Pennsylvania native and 2023 Archaeology of Portugal Fellow is currently in her sixth year at the University of Iowa’s Anthropology graduate program, studying ancient textile production in southwestern Iberia during the Copper Age and early Bronze Age (approximately 3000-2000 BCE).

While working towards a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology at the University of Central Florida (UCF), Priola got her first taste of archeological fieldwork at an Iron Age site in Turkey. 

“I had just the best time, and I fell in love with it,” she recalls. “One of the archaeology professors at UCF got a big grant and was looking for students to come for the summer to work on the project.”

An enthusiast of both European archaeology and feminist anthropology, Priola says the University of Iowa offered a unique opportunity to continue studying said topics at a graduate level.

“My advisor, Dr. Katina Lillios, is an expert in Iberian prehistory, and so I was really excited about the opportunity to work with her,” she explains. “And then there are a lot of other great faculty members here who are feminists anthropologists or archaeologists.” 

Priola says a teaching assistantship at Iowa sealed the deal. 

“Getting the opportunity to work on my teaching, as I'm doing my grad program, and to be supported by the university—what a great way to be able to go to grad school and continue studying archaeology,” she exclaimed.

Discovery through replication

Priola’s research focuses heavily on ancient ceramic fragments found at archeological sites, which are hypothesized to be pieces of weights used for weaving textiles on a vertical loom. 

“These are from the surface layer, so they don't have any context,” she explained. “I'm studying the form and frequency of these ceramics, but I'm also trying to think about how they would have functioned.” 

In attempt to better understand prehistoric textile practices, Priola crafts her own loom, miniature experimental weaving models, spindle whorls, and replicas of two types ceramic loom weights known as crescent and plaque weights, which are based on the fragments uncovered at the sites she studies for her dissertation.

“I basically try out different ways that this technology could have been used to give us a deeper understanding of what these ceramic fragments mean when we find them at archaeological sites, the labor that went into making textiles, and the types of materials that could have been made with these tools,” she explains. “My goal is to bring more visibility to weaving and textile production in the past. It's one of those tricky areas where we don't have a lot of evidence for it. The textiles themselves don't survive, and a lot of the equipment like the looms and fibers don't survive either. But we do have a lot of these ceramic fragments, and so the goal is to take the fragments that we do have to make a more complete picture of the past.” 

Victoria Priola's ceramic pieces
Authentic ceramic fragments from a Copper Age archeology site in Portugal, thought to be prehistoric loom weights for textile production (left), and complete crescent loom weight replicas created by Priola (right).


Priola says her experimental research has found that, despite their small size, the crescents provide enough thread tension to serve as loom weights and therefore function in the way researchers hypothesize they would have to make textiles with threads made of linen or other local plant fibers.

Around the same time period archeologists are finding said loom weights, they also find spindle whorls of varying shapes. Priola has created replicas loosely based on those found in Southwest Asia and Europe during the Neolithic, Copper Age, and into the Bronze Age (around 7,000–1000 BCE). She says they were likely used to spin wool or plant fibers into thread. As a teaching assistant in World Archaeology, Priola challenges her students to try their hand at spinning wool into thread, which she says exemplifies the productiveness of experimental archaeology as well as feeds into questions of societal roles of ancient peoples. 

“You can really understand the function of something a lot more when you try it out yourself. It helps you learn more about how the form of a tool influences how it actually works—but also the time and labor that goes into it,” she cites. 

Her time at Iowa has provided a wealth of opportunities to foster her research. In 2019, Priola received a Stanley Grant to visit the archaeological sites where these ceramics are found for the first time and meet the archaeologists organizing the excavations in Portugal and Spain. That summer, Priola’s advisor was co-directing an excavation in Spain, which gave the student a month of experience working at a Bronze Age site. In 2022, two years after receiving her MA in Anthropology, Priola also served as a teaching assistant at a field school in western Kansas, directed by Professor Matt Hill.

“That was a really great experience, not only getting to work on another excavation, but also having a hand in helping it run smoothly. Teaching students archaeological field methods, hands on, was experiential learning for them, but also for me, too. I learned a lot about how to run a field school and how to teach in that different setting,” she recalls. “That was a really cool opportunity provided by the university.” 

She continued her dissertation research in Portugal and Spain during the summers of 2022, supported by the T. Anne Clear Award for International Research, and 2023, with the AIA: Archaeology of Portugal Fellowship.

Feminist archeology in relation to ceramics and textile production

One of Priola’s inspirations to study ancient textiles and textile production was her undergraduate classes focused on gender archaeology and household archaeology, which often reinforced the idea that textile production was viewed as a strictly gendered, domestic task. 

“I came to grad school wanting to know more about ancient textile production. I think that there is a lot more to say about this topic beyond that it was probably a gendered domestic task in the past,” she insists.

Victoria Priola's loom model
Priola demonstrates weaving on her miniature hand-made frame loom, which she uses to teach students about ancient loom technology and prehistoric textile production.

Within the time period Priola is studying, there are no texts, writings, or associated human remains, so archeologists have little to reveal who is using said tools, she explains. Ceramic fragments are found at settlements or in generally neutral contexts but they are also found, sometimes in large quantities, at more complicated sites that are often interpreted as aggregation centers for feasting or seasonal activities. 

“Textile production is often associated with women and ‘women's work’ in the past, and I think it's great to bring attention and value to that,” Priola cites. “But, when you find these materials without any other evidence related to this idea, I hesitate to make this connection. I don’t think we can say textile production could only be done by women, and that it can only be done in domestic settings. So, it can sometimes be one of those complicated topics.” 

The doctoral student notes the majority of contemporary fiber artisans she encounters are female and that many of them identify with this gendered association. 

“A lot of them really resonate with the idea that textile production is ‘women's work,’ and so it can be a powerful idea for a lot of people,” Priola says. “But it can also be limiting in the way we think about and approach these materials in archaeology.”

Future endeavors in the field

While she is eager to formulate her dissertation, Priola also looks forward to potentially teaching a general education class on Sex and Gender in Archaeology next fall. She says the introductory course would draw on feminists approaches and offer a way of looking at the past that questions our assumptions about this subject in archeology.

“I am very excited to be able to engage with students and have discussions with them about the ideas that have been put forward in the past 30-40 years when it comes to sex and gender in archaeology,” she explains.

“It's going to be a great learning opportunity for me—designing and leading a course and hearing what students think about this kind of work today,” Priola adds. “And I also think it'll be really cool to get into the stuff that we don't get to talk about as much in the World Archaeology intro class.”

Priola is open-minded about career opportunities after receiving her doctoral degree but hopes to continue teaching while advancing her experimental work. 

“If I could continue to engage with students and help them engage with this kind of technology and these kinds of ideas, I think that would be a lot of fun,” she says.