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The Durham Archaeological Museum ‘Old Fulling Mill’ and a bit of fulling history

In Durham there stands an old fulling mill besides the River Wear. But long before this one, there was an older fulling mill there; a mill from the 12th century, to be exact, because around this time the mill dam was mentioned for the first time.

mill dam in Durham

In the 15th century there were even two fulling mills which were owned by the Bishop of Durham and later by the cathedral’s Prior. The money gained from the fulling mill was used for the upkeep of the Jesus Altar in Durham Cathedral. By 1771 there was only one mill left, the so-called Abbey Mill. In the 19th century the mill was referred to as the Old Fulling Mill and was in use till 1833 when it was turned into the first university museum of Durham.

The ‘Old Fulling Mill’ in Durham

But before I show you some artefacts exhibited in the museum, I would like to have a closer look with you at a fulling mill or rather the process of fulling itself.

Before the groundbreaking invention of the waterpowered fulling mill, fulling was a time consuming workload.

The first indication of fulling wool comes from Cyprus, from the Late Neolithic (5th millenium BC) site of Ayios Epiktitos-Vrysi where lumps of fuller’s earth have been found scattered about the site in built plaster containers (Robertson 1986). Fulling has also been proposed as an option for the use of the so-called fulachta fiadh in Bronze Age Ireland (Jeffrey 1991; Denvir 1999 (?); Downes and Thomas 2008):

Possible function of burnt mounds (Irish: fulachta fiadh) in textile production
from: Jeffrey 1991, fig. 2

With written evidence, wool production and trade is much easier to follow.

Whereas woolen cloth was not very popular in Ancient Egypt before the Greco-Egyptian period (a washing powder for wool is for example mentioned in the 4th century AD Stockholm papyrus as is the use of  ‘fuller’s plant’ or ‘fuller’s herb’ (Jensen 2008), the wool cloth industry boomed in Mesopotamia and became a tremendously important economic factor not only as export good but also as ration (‘payment’) par excellence (Good 2007, 151; Veenhof 1972, 79-88 and 130; Algaze 2008, 82). Economic texts from the Ur III period (early third millenium BC) describe the textile industry under Ibbi-Sin, the last king of the Ur III period, and give a hint of its importance within the royal economy. In Ebla the house of wool (é-siki) was synonym with the treasury (Andersson et al. 2010, 160).

Bolts of wool were repeatedly washed, rolled, pounded, and trampled, as well as repeatedly treated with oils and alkalines (i.e. soap) and repeatedly rinsed in water in order to shrink and strengthen the cloth in preparation for dying (Algaze 2008, 85f.). Until the invention of fuller mills, the process seems not to have changed dramatically through time. The church of Notre Dame in Semur-en-Auxois has a 15th century stained glass window which illustrates the process quite nicely:

Waetzoldt (1972, 159) examined the work load connected with the process of fulling. According to his studies, to obtain 1 kg of low quality wool, a late third millenium fuller at Lagash spent 6.6 workdays (a workday being 12h per day). A high quality wool needed 71-81 workdays (!). This of course excludes all other steps of the production process like pasturing the sheep, plucking the wool, washing the wool to remove dirt and lanolin, sorting and separating the cleaned wool according to quality and colour, transport of the wool to storehouses, combing (carding) the wool to prepare it for spinning, spinning the wool, dyeing the yarn where applicable, delivering the yarn to the weavers, weaving, colouring of the whole cloth after fulling (Algaze 2008, 86-7). Not surprisingly, the learning of the trade itself required an apprenticeship of 6 years (Sayce 1924, 70).

While in Mesopotamia and later in Egypt a kind of soap, made from oil and potash in a 1:5.5 ratio with the occasional addition of soapy plants like soapwort or asphodill (Waetzoldt 1972, 158) was used, this knowledge was not transmitted into the Roman period.  According to Pliny the Elder, soap was a Celtic invention; he described soap as an invention of the Gauls, made of suet, ash (with beech tree being the most suitable), and goat’s milk (Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis xxviii, 191). Romans used other substances, for example lixivium (an alkaline  solution obtained by leaching wood ash with water), nitrum (soda ash = sodium carbonate), creta fullonia (fuller’s earth , a very fine-grained clay with water content), alkaline marl (a lime-rich mud) and human or animal urine.

Human urine was collected in dolia curta, earthenware urinals, placed along the streets for the conveniance of the Roman male population. Interestingly, a urinal vessel has been found in a Roman fullery in Schwarzenacker, Germany:

matula (night potty) from a latrine belonging to a fullery in Schwarzenacker, Germany
© Saaländischer Museumsverband e.V.

In ancient Rome, the fuller’s trade was at least as important as in Mesopotamia: It included the processes starting from the cleaning and walking (fulling) of raw wool, the colouring, and the cleaning and pressing of worn clothes.

In Pompeii several buildings were dedicated to the cloth industry. The most famous is the fullonica (fullery) of Stephanus (Reg I, Ins 6, 7), mainly because it re-used a posh former residence with an atrium (open central court in a villa). The former impluvium (rain catchment basin) was converted into a washing/fulling basin (for a convincingly different view on re-use of atrium houses see Flohr 2011b).

fullery of Stephanus animation

In the peristyle (an open courtyard or garden surrounded by a colonnade) of the fullonica of L. Veranius Hypsaeus (Reg I, Ins V.8.20) there were paintings which related to the fullery’s daily chores (now in the museum of Naples). Among other scenes it depicts the process of either fulling the woven textiles in basins or dyeing them.

© Barbara McManus, VRoma Image Archive, University of Arizona

Re-investigations between 2006 and 2008 (Flohr 2011) showed that many similar workshops were also dedicated to the cloth industry. Most were probably cleaners but some had heatable vats, too, and could either re-dye cloth or were full wool processing workshops (e.g. Reg. VI Ins. XVI. 3.4).

water basins and vats in a cleaning shop
Pompeii Reg V, Ins. I.4
© Julia Kruse
Heatable vats, probably for dyeing
Pompeii, cleaning shop Reg V, Ins. I.4
© Julia Kruse

In other Roman cities the situation was not much different. In Ostia, too, there are large numbers of fulleries producing cloth and tending to textiles (Flohr 2011).

Here you can see some real stalls with their dividing walls from a workshop in Ostia:

Fullery behind the temple of the ship carpenters, Ostia
from: De Ruyt 2001, fig. 3

Fulleries were known for their stench, after all rotting urine (see above) for cleaning and sulphur for bleaching the cloth were used.

Bradley (2002, 37-8) writes about health problems due to exposure  to detergents like dermatitis and lung problems because of the burning of sulphur. While these health risks can be readily accepted because of the prevalent conditions of work, pathological prove is difficult. However, other work related strains and illnesses can actually be proved, thanks to a recent excavation in Casal Bertone near Rome (Musco et al 2008). A large scale fullery (or possibly a tannery) with several large basins, 90 vats, further 44 dolia (large earthenware containers) as well as drainage canals which divided the compound into several production areas.

Overview over excavated area in Casal Bertone
modified from: Musco et. al. 2008, figure on page 36

Even more intersting is the fact that there is a cemetery contemporaneous with the fullery and a large mausoleum connected to the site. 166 individulas haven been studied so far and palaeopathological investigations interestingly showed signs of alterations which are consistent with those to be expected when working in a fullery:

Illustration of the body parts subjected to alterations caused by arduous work
Musco et al. 2008, figure on page 39

As already mentioned, the process involved in the production of cloth did not change very much through times. However, in the late 12th century, monks were at the fore front of a minor ‘industrial revolution’ that saw the introduction of fulling mills into Britain. The introduction of water technology revolutionised the fulling process. In AD 1185 two mills were set up by Knights Templars in Temple Newsham, West-Yorkshire and Barton-on-Windrush, Gloucestershire, respectively. Through the monastic ‘information network’ the technology quickly spread beyond the Brithish Isles.

In a fulling mill the cloth was beaten with wooden mallets in a trough, usually in three steps. The first one with stale urine, the second with fuller’s earth, and the third one with hot soapy water. Each step lasted around two hours with additional time for rinsing.

The pounding of the cloth obviously created a great deal of noise and thus a fulling mill could be heard from great distances. And this noise went on and on for centuries; even Don Quixote had to suffer under the constant clamour of the mills:

They [Don Quixote and Sancho] had gone about a hundred yards farther, when at doubling a point, the very cause, for it could be no other, of that horrible and dreadful noise, which had held them all night in such suspense and fear, appeared plain exposed to view.

It was, kind reader take it not in dugeon, six fulling-hammers, whose alternate strokes fromed that hideous sound. Don Quixote, seeing what it was, was struck dumb, and in the utmost confusion.”

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra 1605, translated

by Charles Jarvis (Jervis), London 1819, Part I, Chapter VI

Durham’s fulling mill, one of the earliest fulling mills in the country, still honours the wool production in its exhibitions. The upper floor is dedicated to wool, rare species of sheep and modern products manufactored in the old traditions.

Felted woolen sarcophagus, Durham Museum of Archaeology


Algaze, G. 2008. Ancient Mesopotamia at the Dawn of Civilization, Chicago.

Andersson, E., Felluca, E., Nosch, M-L., and Peyronal, L. 2010. New Perspectives on Bronze Age Textileproduction in the Eastern Mediterranean. The First Results with Ebla as a Pilot Study, In Matthiae et al. 2010, Proceedings of the 6th International Congresson the Archaeologyof the Ancient Near East, Wiesbaden 2010, 159-76.

Bradley, 2002. It all comes out in the wash: Looking harder at the Roman fullonica, Journal of Roman Archaeology 15, 20-44.

Denvir, A.-M. 1999 (?). Fulachta Fiadh – An Irish Mystery. Online article based on BA dissertation. http://www.angelfire.com/fl/burntmounds/

Downes, J. and Thomas, A. 2008. An Integrated landscape approach to prehistoric sheep husbandry and wool production in Northern Europe. Draft paper to accompany 10-minute presentation at WAC-6. link

De Ruyt, C. 2001. Les foulons, artisans des textiles et blanchisseurs. In: Descoeudres, J-P. (ed.) 2001. Ostia – port et porte de la Rome, Geneva.

Flohr, M. 2011a. Cleaning the Laundries III. Report on the 2008 campaign, The Journal of Fasti Online, Folder 214. http://www.fastionline.org/docs/FOLDER-it-2011-214.pdf

Flohr, M. 2011b. Reconsidering the atrium House: Domestic fullonicae at Pompeii. In: Poehler, E., Flohr, M., and K. Cole, 2011. Art, Industry and Infrastructure, Oxford.

Jeffrey, S. 1991. Burnt mounds, fulling and early textiles. In: Hodder, I. and Barfield, L.-H. (eds.) 1991. Burnt mounds and hot stone technology, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council, 97-108.

Jensen, W. B. (ed.) 2008. The Leyden and Stockholm Papyri, translated by Earle Radcliffe Caley, University of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. http://www.che.uc.edu/jensen/W.%20B.%20Jensen/Books/Leyden%20&%20Stockholm%20Papyri.pdf

Musco, St. 2008. Le complexe archéologique de Casal Bertone, Les Dossiers d’ Archéologie 330, 32-9.

Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (Historia Naturalis), translated by J. Bostock et al. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:latinLit:phi0978.phi001.perseus-eng1:1.dedication

Robertson, R. H. S 1986. Fuller’s earth: A history of calcium montmorillonite (Mineralogical Society occasional publication), Hythe, UK. (Cited in Denvir 1999).

Sayce, A. H. 1924. Babylonians and Assyrians. Life and Customs, New York.

Veenhof, K. R. 1972. Aspects of Old Assyrian Trade and its Terminology. Studia et Documenta vol. X, Leiden.

Waetzoldt, H. 1972. Untersuchungen zur neusumerischen Textilindustrie, Rome.



The fulleries in Ostia: http://www.ostia-antica.org/dict/topics/fullones/fullones.htm

Miko Flohr’s webpage: http://www.mikoflohr.nl/archaeology/

The Old Fulling Mill Museum of Archaeology in Durham : http://www.dur.ac.uk/fulling.mill/

Anne-Maire Denvir’s webpage on Fulachta Fiadh: http://www.angelfire.com/fl/burntmounds/

Fullonica of Stephanus in Pompeii: https://sites.google.com/site/ad79eruption/pompeii/regio-i/reg-i-ins-6/fullonica-of-stephanus

Pompeii in pictures: http://pompeiiinpictures.com/pompeiiinpictures/index.htm




Leave a comment


  1. Fascinating. Thank you for such a detailed assessment.

    • Thanks 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it. You have a great blog yourself ^^

      • Merci! BTW, in the blog that I just put up on the jewish community at elephantine, s.egypt (4-5C. BCE), there is mention in one of the mss. of the purchase of woolen garments ‘ I may blog about that, and other personal items mentioned in these interesting records.

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