Keywords: drop spindle, spinning, cloth making, history of textiles, women’s history
Not surprisingly, many pieces of art are much more impressive when seen in person than when seen as a picture. For me, this was especially true for the Venus de Milo. It is an absolutely gorgeous piece of art – even without her arms. Now, I never considered the possibility that someone would be able to make an evidence-based argument for what the position of her arms were. But I came across such an argument in Woman’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This is an excellently researched discussion of the history of making cloth.
To understand the argument, it is necessary to know what a drop spindle is. It is a weighted stick with a hook that is used to spin yarn or thread. Prior to the invention of the spinning wheel (between 500 and 1200 CE), all yarn was spun by spinning a stick. The drop spindle was, and is, a primary form. (It’s pretty awesome to contemplate that all early cloth – clothes to bedding to sails – was produced from manually spun yarn.)
It takes a lot of time to produce quantities of yarn. So, most women throughout pre-technological history spent as much time spinning as they could – which turns out to be a large percentage of their time. Even today, fiber artists sometimes spin while walking down the street. Barber documents that that even queens spun. Thus, the idea that the goddess Venus was associated with textile creation and spun is consistent with the culture of the times. Examination of the arm positions and musculature still extent on the statue, along with the existence of other statues holding drop spindles, provides an evidence-based argument that the Venus de Milo was using a drop spindle.
The truly amazing thing here is that modern archeological and historical techniques can do something like reconstruct a statue’s missing arms.