The cloak also changed the life of a former student weaver who was later given a key role at this prestigious institution.

Discovered in a Swedish peat bog a century ago, the Gerum cloak is one of the country's most celebrated ancient treasures. Safely kept in storage at the Historical Museum in Stockholm, it is rarely put out on display. 

Initially thought to date back to the Bronze Age, the artifact was later reassessed with the radiocarbon dating method C-14 to place it in the pre-Roman Iron Age, from 500 BCE to 1 BCE. 

To shroud the cloak in further mystery, it was found to contain holes consistent with a sharp object being used to make them. The person wearing it some 2,500 years ago had probably been stabbed to death. 

As we shall see, bogs are considered the most perfect locations to preserve such material, but these conditions may not have safeguarded any blood stains.

Cloak and dagger

With the Gerum cloak kept out of public view for so long, the expert who has studied the garment more closely than anyone, Amica Sundström, is the Senior Curator of Textiles at the prestigious Stockholm institution where it is kept. 

In her office, Sundström carries out her work alongside a large image of the Gerum cloak, the near intact original being two meters long and 250 centimeters wide. "When it was found, it had been carefully folded and held in place by three stones," Sundström tells The Viking Herald.

"They thought that the cloth contained a treasure of some kind. They didn't realize that it was the cloak itself that was the treasure."

On the slopes of the Gerum mountain overlooking their native Hjortmossen, southwest Sweden, in June 1920, Johan Fredrik Klasson and Erik Rydberg had been cutting peat when they came across the garment. Finding no gold or silver inside, Klasson took the garment home all the same, and hung it to dry.  

Sensing that it might be quite unusual in some way, he contacted the most prominent museum in the region, Falbygdens, in the main town of Falköping. They, in turn, informed the Historical Museum in Stockholm, who requested the garment in order for specialists to examine it. 

Despite the murky circumstances of its discovery, it was immediately clear that the item required serious analysis. Three experts nationally recognized in their fields set to work, one assessing it from a textile point of view, another carrying out a pollen analysis, which placed the garment in the Bronze Age. 

Indeed, a book was duly published on the subject in 1925, Bronsåldersmanteln från Gerumsberget i Västergötland
 ("The Bronze Age mantle from Gerumsberget in Västergötland").

The cloak would then stay in the Swedish capital, despite a fruitless attempt by Falköping to borrow it back for a special exhibition in 1994 – which is where Amica Sundström comes into the story.

"Because they weren't able to display the actual cloak, Falköping decided to produce an exact replica. They arranged with the Historical Museum that they could have two weavers carry out a close study of the original garment in order to have them recreate it."

A reconstruction of the fabric made for a weaving magazine. The cushion fabric corresponds to what the fabric looked like in the mantle when it was new. Photo: Courtesy of Historiska Museet 

Weaving secrets

At the time, Sundström and her friend, Lena Hammarlund, were studying at the School of Handweaving on Borås. 

When they were called upon to undertake this unique task, involving them traveling down to Stockholm to spend long hours in close proximity to the cloak, little did Sundström know that the commission would change her life, transforming her from weaver to specialist textile curator.

In turn, thanks to Sundström's expertise, the process of recreation has allowed us to know far more about the garment in question, how it was made, the instruments required to do so – and the implications for our knowledge of this period of Scandinavian history.

"Four light and four dark threads play into the weave structure," says Sundström. "This produces its houndstooth pattern."

Sundström's counterpart from a century ago, Emelie von Walterstorff, had been director of the textile collection at the Historical Museum since 1914. Considered a pioneer in her field, when studying the garment's wefts – the transverse yarns that fill out the lengthwise warps to create fabric – von Walterstorff hit upon a remarkable discovery. 

None of the wefts runs completely across the whole cloak: each comes in from one side, meaning that two people must have weaved it at the same time. Moreover, one was quicker than the other and/or had longer arms, for the wefts do not meet exactly in the middle. 

As we know that the item is two meters wide, this means that it originally would have been around 230 centimeters in width to allow for shrinkage during the so-called drawing-in stage at the end.

As outlined in her subsequent book on the subject, Von Walterstorff praises the handiwork of these pre-Roman weavers, for the meeting place of these two sets of wefts, slightly to the left of the center, is hardly visible. 

She duly traced the lines on the cloak with a silk thread and, a trained draftsman when she started work at the Historical Museum in 1903, made intricate drawings of the patterns also contained in the 1925 publication.

The clothes of the Moorleiche woman of Huldremose. Photo: Nationalmuseet / Lennart Larsen / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

The mystery deepens

Eighty years later, a new permanent exhibition was unveiled at Stockholm's Historical Museum. The Gerum cloak was to be put out on display for the first time in more than 30 years. In advance of this major event, Amica Sundström was again called upon to work on an entirely new research project with the help of modern-day technology. 

Questions had long surrounded the validity of the assumption that the cloak dated back to the Bronze Age. Until the 2005 study, no one had yet identified the type of loom that had been made to produce the garment. 

Previous textile finds from the Bronze Age indicated the use of a plain weave – why would the manufacture of a single cloak in southern Sweden be so technologically advanced?  

The answer was simple: the pollen dating carried out in the early 1920s was wrong. Working nearly a century later, another specialist, Eva Lundwall, paid particular attention to the top and lower edges of the warps, which would indicate the type of loom used. 

After microscopic scrutiny of the direction of the threads, Lundwall suggested that this almost certainly indicates the use of a vertical, two-beam, tubular loom, more sophisticated than the plain weave method, and therefore dating the cloak to a more recent age.

There was more. Calling in Sweden's National Forensic Center, whose work is usually carried out at crime scenes, researchers discovered that there would have been at least five cuts carried out by the perpetrator. This would have been while the garment was being worn, from the neck to the stomach. 

For an even deeper analysis, the team turned to Denmark, which is where we come back to bogs. Usually associated with cadavers dating as far back as the Mesolithic Age 10,000 years ago, bogs can naturally mummify bodies, retaining their skin, internal organs, and even hair and nails, depending on the density of acidic water and proximity to the sea for salty air.

Given these prerequisites, Denmark is a particularly rich source of such rare finds. One such is the Huldremose Woman, discovered in 1879 and, unusually, clothed in garments produced at a similar time to the Gerum cloak. With something to compare it to, researchers looked at two key areas: the wool used, and the dye. 

The wool is thought to have come from sheep that grazed in the same region but not in the immediate vicinity. 

As for the dye, while the Huldremose Woman was wrapped in a skirt dyed with woad and shawl dyed with madder, no such material could be determined where her Swedish counterpart was concerned. Wools of that natural color would probably have been used.

When exhibited in 2005, the Gerum cloak was draped over a mannequin as if at a fashion show. Once put away for safekeeping afterward, it has been laid flat ever since to maintain its shape and consistency.

"It will probably be several years before it is on display again," says Sundström. "I dream about them finding something similar here in Sweden."

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