Amber Distaff

The amber distaff modeled below contains 24 discs that make up its mere 20 centimeter length. While it is fragile and small in stature, its history and significance is substantial and rich. Although it was excavated from a Roman burial site, the life of this distaff extends beyond the grave. Its symbolism and genderedness make it a wonderful addition to the Maastricht Collection.

3D model of the Amber Distaff

The amber most likely came from the Baltic Coast near what is now modern-day Kaliningrad (Center Ceramique, 2007). It was crafted during the 2nd century CE. The distaff was discovered in Stein, Netherlands along with other burial goods.

This object belongs to the following theme:



Place of Origin
Stein, The Netherlands

Time Period of Use (ca.)
55 BCE – 450 CE


Dimensions (cm)
Length: 20, Width: 2, Height: 2,5

3D Model

Canon EOS 80D

Processing software
Agisoft Metashape Professional Edition

Nicole Schanzmeyer & Orla Barr

Connecting to the Past

The South of the Netherlands (then part of Germania Inferior) had Roman settlements from 50 BCE (Rüger, 1996). The artefacts found from the Roman period are valuable in informing us about life at the time. Initially excavated in Stein, Netherlands, the lightweight distaff containing twenty-four discs was found alongside cremated remains dated back to the second century C.E. (Dijkman & Amkreutz, 2017). Standing at twenty centimeters tall, this amber distaff represents the life of a married woman in the Roman empire. It is fragile, with some cracks representing the long passage of time. Distaffs are a tool used for spinning. They are used to hold unspun fibres to make the spinning process more manageable by preventing fibres from tangling. 

The purpose of similar artefacts has been debated, with scholars believing they were scented sticks used during funeral ceremonies, rods for applying perfumes, scepters or the handles of hand fans. However, their purpose as distaffs is now widely accepted amongst historians (Dankovic, 2019).

The Amber Road

Roman Empire, the colony of Aquileia was one of the most important trading places along what has been dubbed the “Amber Road” (Gregoratti, 2013). The Amber Road is an ancient trading road used to transport amber from the Baltic and North Sea coasts to the Mediterranean Sea (Singer, 2008). However, the Amber Road was not solely used by Romans but have been used to transport precious stones since the Prehistoric age (Gregoratti, 2013). The materials used to craft this particular distaff came from the Baltics and ended up in Maastricht, one of the significant trading settlements of the Roman Empire (Dijkman & Amkreutz, 2017).

Main route of the Amber Road of the Roman Empire (Wielowiejski, 1980)


Various distaffs were common at this time, fashioned from materials such as amber, glass, ivory, bronze, wood and bone, although many wooden distaffs could not be preserved (Meadows, 2015). With regards to amber distaffs, researchers have categorized them into four types. The one depicted on this page falls in Aquileia Type A, “characterized by cylindrical, smooth beads with a subtype in which they can be spirally twisted or fluted” (Danković, p.219).

Due to the size and fragility of the distaff, it is improbable that it served any other purpose besides religious ceremony. The inner segments of a distaff are typically held together by an iron rod (Aurisiscchio et al., 2022). These ceremonial distaffs were often found in women’s graves, leading researchers to speculate that these distaffs were symbolic since wool-working and cloth-making were a vital part of Roman life (Stemberger, 2014). This significance is partly due to the Roman ideology that “wool symbolizes a good relationship with nature because, unlike leather, it comes from an animal that continues to live.” (Danković, 2019, p.222). The continual life ties in with the role of women at the time in their society which mainly centered around being a wife and mother. In Roman mythology, the Parcae (known in English as the Fates) are three sisters that spin life’s thread at birth, determining one’s destiny from birth (Hill, 2015).

The Three Fates by Paul Thumann
Image Source

Their names are Nona, Decima and Morta, and they each played a separate role in one’s lifespan. Nona means “ninth” because, as the goddess of pregnancy, she was called upon by women due to give birth in their ninth month (Nona, DBpedia). Decima measured the thread of life with her rod and was responsible for the births (Decima, DBpedia). Morta was the goddess of death and was responsible for cutting the life thread (Morta, 2022). The Parcae were responsible for the spinning and weaving of the lives of humans (Bartusik, 2022).

Gender in Roman Times

Since the giving of life is an inherently female characteristic, it is no surprise that the distaffs are a gendered object. In Ancient Rome, the bride or attendant often carried these decorative distaffs with a spindle as a rite of passage during their marriage ceremony (Larsson Lovén, 2007). The distaffs were used as a status symbol to highlight the educational status of a woman in her wool-working abilities, which was critical at the time because it played a prominent role in everyday life (Stemberger, 2014).

Sound of wool ripping

These skills were vital as a woman’s job was maintaining the household, including spinning wool. Female epitaphs from this period frequently incorporated the phrase lanam fecit, meaning “she worked with wool” (Danković, 2020). One example of this is a grave of a woman named Claudia. Her epitaph informs that she was married, had two sons, one who had died before her, was pleasant to talk to, took care of her home and “she worked in wool” (Warmington, 1940, p. 13). At the end of a woman’s lifetime, these decorative distaffs were buried alongside the woman whom they were given as a symbol of their status during their lifetime (Danković, 2019). The word distaff became so closely associated with women that it now also refers to the female side of a family (Lichenstein, 2021). This distaff also represents gender as amber in Roman times was also associated with women. The largest consumers of amber were wealthy women (Lundgren, 2018). Pliny the Elder (1938, p.187) wrote that amber was used mainly by women because it was a useless luxury. Pliny also (1938, pp.202-203) stated that in a poem, Emperor Nero described his wife’s hair as amber-coloured, inspiring many respectable Roman women to dye their hair in a similar fashion.

Inclusion in this Collection

The association of both amber and distaffs with women makes the inclusion of this object in this collection vital. Within the history of the world, “male” is primarily viewed as the default (Zissner, 2016). This default has meant that women’s history has often been excluded from the narrative. As Smith states, “there is virtually no historical, social or demographic change in which women have not been involved and by which their lives have not been affected”(2008, pp. XIX–XXI). Museums, as cultural institutions that conserve artefacts and items of cultural, artistic and scientific importance (Yasmin et al., 2017), must preserve objects to represent multiple narratives. In recent years, museums have realized that ideologies, hierarchies and values of dominant society beliefs and values are encoded within their displays, and cannot be truly impartial (Sandell, 2007, pp. 3–4). Museums worldwide are reorientating themselves to engage with new diverse audiences to represent multiple narratives (Daybell et al., 2020). This distaff is essential to the collection; as a gendered object, it widens the history and ensures that the male experience does not represent a universal experience.


This distaff represents a rich history. It shows the life of a wealthy married woman from the Roman period and the religion involved throughout her life. It reminds us of the importance of including female lives in history. Despite the long history of the distaff, it continues to be used in modern times. It now exists as a symbol connecting women of today to women of the past.

As a 3D model, it now will have a new element to its history, living in the digital world. This distaff that lives in Centre Ceramique in Limburg can now be viewed by people around the world and educate those who may never have a chance to view it in person.

Written by Orla Barr & Nicole Schanzmeyer