What If We Called It the ‘Flax Age’ Instead of the ‘Iron Age’?
Correcting the Historical Bias Against Domestic Materials
Archaeology has traditionally had a fundamental bias against fabric. Fabrics are after all highly perishable, withering away within months or years, and only rarely leaving traces behind for those coming millennia later to find. Archaeologists—predominantly male—gave ancient ages names like “Iron” and “Bronze,” rather than “Pottery” or “Flax.” This implies that metal objects were the principal features of these times, when they are simply often the most visible and long-lasting remnants. Technologies using perishable materials, such as wood and textiles, may well have been more pivotal in the daily lives of the people who lived through them, but evidence of their existence has, for the most part, been absorbed back into the earth.
There are exceptions, of course, and traces can and do survive, usually thanks to an unusual climate: freezing, damp anaerobic conditions or extremely dry ones. The climate in Egypt, for example, is ideal for preserving all manner of usually perishable things and we subsequently know far more about ancient Egyptian textiles than those from most other regions. As archaeology has matured and diversified, scholars have increasingly looked for—and found—evidence of fine, complex textiles stretching farther back than anyone would have guessed. Their beauty and the skill needed to make them suggest a very different image of our earliest forebears than the club-wielding, simpleminded thugs of popular imagination.
The objects that most commonly survive, and from which archaeologists and anthropologists infer larger-scale textile production, are the tools that were used to make them. Spindle whorls—small weights, often made of stone or clay punctured with a small hole so that they can be jammed onto the end of a spindle—are found in abundance at many sites. They make it easier to draft and twist the fibers and help apply the force of the twist evenly along the length of the thread being worked upon. And, although they are so simple, whorls can help reveal the kinds of fiber being worked and the desired properties of the finished product.
Heavier ones are better suited to sturdier raw materials, thicker threads made from long-staple fibers, such as flax, while, conversely, if you are making particularly fine thread from short-stapled fibers, like cotton, then you would use a smaller, lighter whorl. An experienced spinner can use a simple spindle and whorl to superlative effect. Indian hand-spinners were said to be able to stretch a single pound of cotton into gossamer-thin thread over 200 miles long: our modern machinery isn’t capable of such dexterity.
Looms also leave some traces. They were used to make larger pieces of textile and to help keep threads that were soft and floppy taut. Weaving at its heart involves two elements, the first set of threads, or weft, being inserted through a second fixed set, the warp. The purpose of a loom is to hold the warp in place, leaving hands free to weave the weft (these words, incidentally, spring from the same source). Like spindles and whorls, looms come in different forms, but were presumably often made of wood, so were unlikely to survive. We do know they existed, though: a depiction of a ground loom (one stretched between pegs set into the ground) was found in a dish placed in a woman’s grave during the early 4th millennium BC at Badari, in Upper Egypt.
Another variety is called the weighted or warp-weighted loom. This consists of a tall vertical frame with a high horizontal crossbar from which the warp threads hang and are held taut by little weights attached to their lower ends. Use of this kind of loom has been posited at Neolithic and Bronze Age sites all over Europe and Asia Minor. One is thought to have been used at Chertovy Vorota (“Devil’s Gate”), a cave in what is now Russia, around 18 miles from the Sea of Japan, that was inhabited around 6,000 years ago. When the site was excavated in the 1970s, it was found to have contained some kind of wooden structure, built in the center of the cave and containing a veritable Neolithic trove of shells, bones—human and animal— and potsherds.
Carbonized fragments of textiles were found too, although spindle whorls were absent, leading researchers to assume that the threads were made, painstakingly, entirely by hand and woven on a warp-weighted loom. More concrete remains were discovered in a house in Troy dating back to the early Bronze Age. The house had been consumed by a fire so quickly that the warp weights were found in a perfect row where they had fallen. Scattered around them were 200 or so tiny, shimmering golden beads that were likely being woven steadily into the cloth before the fire broke out.
Other, smaller objects may speak of textile production too. Eyed needles—often made from bone and found at sites stretching from western Europe to Siberia and northern China—were not necessarily used to make clothes, still less woven ones. (They could also have been used to make tents or fishing nets, for example.) But the needles found do seem to correlate to colder regions and periods when the need for fitted, secure clothing would have been keenest.
The oldest, found in Russia, is around 35,000 years old. Small, pierced circular pieces of stone and bone—occasionally decorated—have been found, which may have originally functioned as buttons. A nice piece of corroboration for this theory has been found at an Upper Paleolithic site in France called Montastruc, where an engraved human figure was found, with a row of neat circles down its front from chest to mid-thigh.
One of the first indications of just how far back the threads of fabric production reach came in 1875. A group of Russian noblemen officers, stationed in Crimea near some ancient mounds known as the Seven Brothers, began digging in and around the area in the hopes of finding treasure. Unlike the majority of those who greedily prod the earth seeking easy wealth, the nobles struck rich. The prehistoric tombs contained gold, marble sculptures, and, most astonishing of all, beautifully complex ancient textiles, desiccated and preserved by the dry air. The settlement to which these tombs belonged was a Greek one, called Pantikapaion, founded in the 6th century BC, later damaged by an earthquake and finally snuffed out by a Hun invasion in the 4th century AD.
The community had clearly contained skilled weavers. One great textile, which the nobles found draped over a wooden sarcophagus, was made up of around a dozen friezes—mythological, animal, and geometric—with floral borders in a chromatic triumvirate of buff, red, and black. The tomb in which it was found had been filled and sealed up in the 4th century BC, but the cloth had been carefully repaired, and so was probably much older. Other tombs contained textiles depicting birds, stags, and mounted men in a panoply of styles and colors.
More evidence of early fabric production followed. Before the discovery at Dzudzuana, the oldest evidence of known fabric dated back 28,000 years. It was of a strangely ghostly, indirect kind. What was found at a site in the Czech Republic, called Dolni Vestonice, wasn’t fabric itself but the imprint some fibers had left in clay fragments, both raw and fired. These impressions, however, are sufficient to indicate that these weavers too had well-honed skills. The traces in the clay revealed multiple variations of two-ply and braided three-strand cords, along with a multitude of woven fabrics.
More was to follow. During the mid-19th century some Neolithic fragments of brocaded fabric, complete with a fringed border, were unearthed from some Swiss lake dwellings dating back to 3000 BC. The village also contained flax in all stages of preparation, from seed to unworked stalks. In the 1920s two archaeologists, Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Elinor Gardner, conducted the first survey of Faiyum, a site in Egypt, which yielded a scrap of coarse linen together with a small cooking pot and a fish vertebra.
On September 12th, 1940, a small dog called Robot and his human companions, four French children, discovered a hole under the roots of a storm-felled tree. Beneath it was the Lascaux cave complex, the walls of which were covered with a painted, heaving cavalcade of oxen, horses, aurochs, and stags, which date back to around 15,000 BC.
While these paintings have become famous, and act as a kind of shorthand for the sophistication of our early ancestors, this wasn’t the only craft Lascaux’s inhabitants were engaged in. One night in 1953, Abbé Glory, a French pre-historian, idly picked up what he took to be a piece of rubble on the floor of the Lascaux cave. The rubble turned out to be a solidified lump of clay and calcite and it unexpectedly broke open, like a Fabergé egg, in his palm. Inside was a perfectly preserved imprint of a long piece of Paleolithic cord. Around 12 inches of this same imprinted cord has since been discovered, revealing it to be made of two-plied strands of some kind of vegetable fiber, neatly S-twisted together.
Intriguingly, a 2013 discovery in southeast France has led to tentative suggestions that Homo sapiens may not have been the first species to have made string. A tiny sliver of twisted fibers—just 0.028 inches long—was found in a site occupied by Neanderthals 90,000 years ago, well before sapiens arrived in Europe.
Catal Hüyük, a Unesco heritage site in what is now central Turkey, was once a sophisticated Neolithic settlement occupied from around 7400 BC to 6200 BC. This period saw the move from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more settled one, and there are signs that the occupiers were proud of their new homes. The rectangular, mud-brick structures contained hearths and sleeping platforms, were entered through holes in the roof, rather than doors in walls, and were painted with geometric designs in crimson and burnt orange using pigments including ochers and cinnabar. Adding to this embarrassment of archaeological riches, during a dig in 1961, a dark, shallow pit in the corner of one of the dwellings was found to contain the carbonized remains of humans and fabrics, dating to the beginning of the sixth millennium BC.Quite apart from wondering when humans began to weave, we must also ask how.
The excavation was problematic. “Climatic conditions made the recovery of the textiles a trying business,” Hans Helbaek, the archaeologist who worked on the site, complained. “If one attempted to expose the whole burial in a proper fashion, the surface would dry up immediately in the scorching heat and the textile remains would turn into powder and be carried away by the persistent wind.” But the care he took was rewarded. The scattered remains of around seven or eight bodies, including those of several children, were jumbled together, some charred, others with withered muscle still attached.
Intriguingly, traces of textiles lay among the bones. Some had been reduced to dust, or scant hanks of thread, but larger pieces remained intact. It appeared as if the bodies, after being dismembered, had been carefully encased in fabric and parcelled up with string. Some larger limbs were wrapped separately, others bundled with smaller bones. One half of a lower jaw was even found to have been painstakingly immured in several layers.
The weaving techniques found at Catal Hüyük varied enormously. Some pieces were coarse, others fine; some were of plain, warp-weft pattern while in others the thicknesses and spacing differed. All the textiles, with the exception of the string, were made with animal fiber, probably wool. And they made a great impression on Helbaek. “All these fabrics,” he wrote, “display a technical skill which can not but surprise the observer considering their great age—at least 8,500 years.”
Quite apart from wondering when humans began to weave, we must also ask how. It may have started with basketry using tender leaves and stems, through to matting, netting, and cordage, each step getting the proto-weavers closer to creating flexible lengths of cloth. Remains from these early millennia are scant: new archaeological finds pose as many questions as they provide answers.
Early textiles, woven from fibers extracted from plants or plucked from sheep or goats, were essential survival tools for our earliest ancestors, more vital than weapons. Fabrics could provide shelter, warmth, and, later, visible status. They also proved an outlet for one of humanity’s most compelling qualities: creativity. The shimmering cloth being made in the burnt Trojan home and the objects that the Dzudzuana fibers were part of are lost to us.
We will never be able to see them, or understand what they meant to their makers. What we can be sure of, however, is that their creators put thought and care into them—why else use golden beads and pink, gray, and turquoise dyes? Even from the earliest point of their creation, fabrics have mapped the ambition and skill of their creators.
Excerpted from The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History. Used with the permission of the publisher, Liveright. Copyright © 2019 by Kassia St. Clair.