The technology of Prehistoric to Late Roman yarn production

Bachelor Thesis, 2009

107 Pages, Grade: 2.1




List of illustrations



Chapter 1 Prehistoric and Roman plant fibres from collection through to their preparation for spinning

Chapter 2 Prehistoric and Roman animal hair fibres from collection through to processing

Chapter 3 The technology of string and its progression into yarn

Chapter 4 The formation of yarn and the technology of spinning



Glossary of terms



This dissertation would not have been possible without the help of my long suffering family and friends. I would like to thank my husband Perry for all his patience, being a sounding board and proof reading a subject, which I am sure is of no interest to him. I would also like to thank my children Rory and Flora, for being so understanding and not moaning when I said, “not now, I’m busy”. Also, Eileen Bonsall and Jane and Aiden Everett, all of whom gave me their invaluable moral support.

I would also like to thank the clever people, the university staff, who have helped me during my studies. In particular, Daryl Baxter, the man who has inspired me with his enthusiasm and great knowledge and who ignited my obsession with the prehistoric period and its technology. It is to him that I owe a massive debt of thanks; I have leached his knowledge now for so many years and can never repay him in full or thank him enough. I would like to thank Sarah Speight, for her guidance on writing this dissertation and without whom it would have been impossible for me to complete my studies; I would also like to apologise for giving her so much extra paperwork over the years.

To each and every one of you, a very big heartfelt thank you.

List of illustrations

List of plates

Plate 1: Flax in dried natural state (A), processed ready for spinning (B) and before hackling has taken place (C)

Plate 2: Image of a flax fibre single cell, from third millennium B.C.E., Shahr-I Sokhta, Iran

Plate 3: Linen cloth from Nahal Hemar circa 6500 B.C

Plate 4: Earliest known Egyptian linen cloth from Faiyum, Egypt, dating to 5th Millennium B.C

Plate 5: A Linen cloth number 3, from Robenhausen, Switzerland

Plate 6: Heavily decorated brocade style textile from Ingenhausen, Switzerland

Plate 7: Hair-moss wig from Vindolanda

Plate 8: Asbestos in its mineral form

Plate 9: Asbestos fibres under magnification

Plate 10: Soay sheep early in the moulting season

Plate 11: Bronze shears from Flag Fen, Peterborough

Plate 12: Iron Age shears 50 BC – AD 50 found at Hertford Heath, Hertfordshire and King Harry Lane Cemetery, St Albans, Hertfordshire

Plate 13: Early Iron Age women’s clothes from Huldre Fen, Djursland, Denmark

Plate 14: The pinna noblis mollusc with the visible fibres

Plate 15: The pinna noblis mollusc gathered fibres

Plate 16: String from the Neolithic causeway at Etton, Peterborough

Plate 17Corded ware from Skåne, Southern Sweden, from the Late Neolithic Battle Axe Culture

Plate 18: A cord or string impressed baked clay nodule from the late fourth millennium B.C.E. from Anau, Turkmenistan

Plate 19: Pseudomorphic sample from Jarmo, north-eastern Iraq, dating to circa 7000 B.C

Plate 20: Venus figure from Lespugue, France

Plate 21: A string skirt worn by Egtved girl, Denmark, dating to 1370 B.C

Plate 22: Representation from the mid 7th century B.C. of the use of a distaff

Plate 23: Decorated clay whorls from Markia, Alonia, Cyprus

List of figures.

Figure 1: Swiss lake dwellings flax processing tools. A is a wooden flax break or scotching tool, B are bone flax hackles and C is a reconstructed hackling board

Figure 2: Drawings of the structure of wool, hair and kemp, highly magnified

Figure 3: Pipe-clay figurine from Arrington, Cambridgeshire, showing a true medium wool fleece

Figure 4: Cord from Lascaux, France, dated to around

15,000 B.C

Figure 5: Mortlake pottery sample

Figure 6: A collection of Roman distaffs

Figure 7: Clay spinning bowls from Egypt and Palestine, dating to the Late Bronze Age

Figure 8: 12th Dynasty Egyptian tomb painting from the tomb of Khety at Beni Hasan

Figure 9: Results of spin direction. S=anti-clockwise and Z=clockwise

Figure 10: Wooden spindle and antler whorl from Rohrenhaab, Switzerland, dating to circa 3000 B.C

Figure 11: Spindle whorl finds from Britain

Figure 12: Whorls from Maiden Castle

Figure 13: How to use a European low whorl drop spindle

Figure 14: How to load a distaff

List of maps

Map 1: Distribution map of iron wool combs

Map 2: T-ended bone weaving combs distribution map


Within this dissertation, I shall be considering the technology of prehistoric to Late Roman yarn production. To understand any textile, you first need to understand the components, from which it is constructed. At the base level are the fibres that are gathered and processed and then spun to make the yarn, which eventually will be woven into a completed textile. These fibres include tree and plant basts, animal hair and more obscure varieties, such as mineral and mollusc fibres.

In the first two chapters, I shall be considering how these fibres were gathered and processed, prior to being spun. I will begin with a consideration of bast fibres and then move on to mineral and animal fibres, including both evidence from archaeological finds and textual references from ancient writers such as Pliny the Elder.

In chapter 3, I will discuss the beginnings of the evolution of yarn from its earliest phases. This includes the hand twisting of fibres to form string and cord, which was the forerunner to yarn. Hopefully, this will provide an anthropological context to the subject. The evidence for string and cord comes predominantly from archaeological finds, including pottery.

Finally, I shall consider the art of spinning, the archaeological evidence for the spinning process and its interpretation. This will include weaving or spinning bowls, distaffs and spindle whorls and evidence from pottery, art, literature and completed textiles.

This dissertation will include evidence predominantly from Europe. However, I will also consider, in part, the wider ethnographical evidence, from places such as Mesopotamia and Egypt, in order to provide an insight into the global context.


When we think about archaeological finds from the prehistoric and Roman periods, here in Britain and mainland Europe, we tend to think predominantly of metal, coins and ceramic fragments and not of domestic and clothing textiles. Very few ancient textiles are well known or analysed, perhaps with the exception of finds like the Turin Shroud, which has been studied due to its believed religious connection, rather than as an important textile. We know very little about textiles, though they were and still are important to everyday life for the majority of the world’s population. The main reason for this is that textile remains are very rare in archaeological sites and, when compared with finds of ceramic or metal, the survival of textile samples in an archaeological environment is minimal.

The natural plant and animal fibres, from which the textiles are made, are biodegradable and because of this they can only survive in the right anaerobic conditions. Unfortunately, they are found mostly in burial sites, where often the conditions are not always the best suited to preserving the fibres. Many have been buried for thousands of years and have been exposed to humid­ity, extremes of temperature, fungi and microbe invasion.

For many years I have had an interest in textiles; from an early age I have designed and made my own clothes. Latterly, I have been interested in re-creating authentic period costume and along with my interest in archaeology, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the two interests became combined.

I am sure most people realize that water, food, shelter and warmth are still even now the most basic of human needs. Textiles play a vital role in this, as they keep us warm, especially when you are out in the open and exposed to the elements. They also provide a certain degree of protection for the skin against damage from the environment. Today, with the development of wide ranging fabrics for specific purposes, the majority of people take clothing for granted. During the prehistoric and Roman periods, textiles were highly prized; they were an important status symbol, a demarcation of your place in society, with special textiles used for ritual purposes and others for daily use.

Very few people today make their own clothing or even have the slightest idea of how to begin to spin the yarn. During the prehistoric and into the Roman period, textiles played a greater part in the average person's daily life, with many people being capable of gathering and processing fibres for yarn production. Many families would have kept sheep and used their wool or had a knowledge of which plants contained fibres that could be made into yarn. It is these fibres that that are the foundation for any textile and they can tell us much about the people who used them. They can indicate the anthropological progress of the people; amongst many other aspects of life during the prehistoric and Roman periods, they can provide an insight into farming and animal husbandry, trade, social structure, ritual and religion. Furthermore, they indicate the progression of technology, the movement of people and ideas.

Without an understanding of the fibres, the yarns and finished textiles themselves could not be fully understood. Fibres can be obtained from vegetation, animals, insects and even some minerals and molluscs. With the right skills and processing they can create not only functional but beautiful fine yarns, even from as early as the prehistoric period. Some need complex preparation and others much less so, in order to obtain the collection of fibres for spinning. I shall begin by considering the natural plant fibres.

Chapter 1 Prehistoric and Roman plant fibres from collection through to their preparation for spinning

In this first chapter, I shall consider the evidence for the natural plant fibres, including their gathering, cultivation and subsequent preparation and processing, prior to spinning. I shall begin with flax fibres and then move on to the slightly less common plant and mineral fibres. We must remember that, due to the highly biodegradable nature of naturally occurring fibres, archaeological remains of textiles dating from the prehistoric period are extremely rare.

Natural plant fibres can be obtained from both plants and trees and are normally collected from the leaves, stems and bark. Once processed, the fibres are known as bast and eventually become yarns like linen. In certain cases, plant seeds can also be processed to create yarns, such as cotton for example. In order to extract the fibres from the plants, you first need to remove the soft matter from around the fibres. Sometimes this involves complex processing; Pliny the Elder, the Roman writer of the 1st century A.D. gives an early account of flax processing:

‘With us the ripeness of flax is ascertained by two indications, the swelling of the seed or its assuming a yellowish colour. It is then plucked up and tied together in little bundles each about the size of a handful, hung up in the sun to dry for one day, with the roots turned upward, and then for five more days with the heads of the bundles turned inwards towards each other, so that the seed may fall into the middle…When the wheat harvest is over the actual stalks of the flax are plunged into water that has been left to get warm in the sun, and a weight is put on them to press them down, as flax floats very readily. The outer coat becoming looser is a sign that they are completely soaked, and they are dried again in the sun, turned head downwards as before, and afterwards when thoroughly dry they are pounded on a stone with a tow-hammer. The part nearest to the skin is called oakum – it is flax of inferior quality and mostly more fit for lampwicks; nevertheless this too is combed with iron spikes until all the outer skin is scraped off. The pith has several grades of whiteness and softness, and the discarded skin is useful for heating ovens and furnaces. There is an art of combing out and separating flax: it is a fair amount for fifteen... [Missing text] to be carded out from fifty pounds weight of bundle; and spinning flax is a respectable occupation even for men. Then it is polished in the thread a second time after being soaked in water and repeatedly beaten out against a stone, and it is woven into a fabric and then again beaten with clubs, as it is always better for rough treatment’ (Rackham, 1950, p.431-433).

The results of these stages can be seen in plate 1, below; with A being the raw dried stems and C showing the result prior to combing. Eventually, these processes result in the fibres shown at B, which are smooth, wavy and in long strands. At this stage, they are ready to be spun and ‘are a cohesion of shorter fibres of two to four centimetres in length, end on end’ (Barber, 1991, p.14). These fibres magnified can be seen in plate 2, on page 7.

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Plate 1: Flax in dried natural state (A), processed ready for spinning (B) and before hackling has taken place (C).Image from

( Viewed 15th January 2009).

Although flax is difficult and relatively complex to process, it seems to have been the fibre of choice in many cultures. This was possibly because it was cool to wear, quick to launder and also relatively hard wearing.

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Plate 2: Image of a flax fibre single cell, from third millennium B.C.E., Shahr-i Sokhta, Iran (Good, 2001, p.214).

Evidence for some of the earliest known linen textiles has been found in Israel, dating to the aceramic Neolithic period around 7000 B.C. One particular example was found at Nahal Hemar, in a cave in the Judaean desert, and dates to circa 6500 B.C. (see plate 3, p. 8). None of the samples are ‘truly woven but are twined, knotted and needle-made’ (Barber, 1991, p.12). It is not known whether this flax was gathered locally or cultivated.

The earliest known textile, which was truly woven from natural bast fibres, dates to around 6000 B.C. and was found at Çatal Hüyük in Turkey. Again, it was made from flax and, as a textile, flax is known as linen. The sample was woven from a ‘very fine 2 ply yarn, it measured 0.5 millimetres in width’ (Ryder, 1965, p.176). This demonstrates that flax was being collected, processed and woven from this early date; however, it does not show whether it was being gathered or cultivated or even imported. Evidence for the use of flax in textile manufacture has also been found at the ‘Neolithic Pfahlbauten or lake dwellings in Switzerland’ (Wild, 1970, p.27). There is no evidence of flax cultivation at these sites and so it is thought by Wild (1970, p. 27) that wild flax was being collected within the local area.

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Plate 3: Linen cloth from Nahal Hemar circa 6500 B.C. (Barber, 1991, p.131).

Flax cultivation may have been carried out for two reasons, firstly the flax plant produces linseeds and secondly it produces the fibres. Flax fibres are of a higher grade, if the plant is harvested before the seeds appear. It is possible therefore that, where the fibres were of a lower grade, they were in effect a by-product of linseed production.

Ksenija Borojević (2000, p.26) states that, in the prehistoric Terra and Silva sites, on the Pannonia Plain, ‘Fragments of a capsule (Flax linseed) from Pre-pottery Neolithic B Jericho may represent a cultivated flax….Available archaeological evidence clearly suggests that flax belongs to the first group of crops domesticated in the Near East’. She later states that flax ‘was identified in one Pre-ceramic site in Cyprus, in three of 20 Early Neolithic sites’. She suggests that flax was cultivated mainly for its seeds and oil and that possibly the flax fibres were more of a bonus, rather than the primary crop (Borojević, 2006, p.26-27). If this were the case, the fibres obtained would not be of the highest grade, as the best fibres are collected prior to the plant going to seed. However, they would still produce a linen textile of reasonable quality. There is no evidence, at this early date, that people were aware that the precise point of harvest could affect the quality of the flax. It is also unlikely that this will ever be confirmed, due to the lack of surviving textiles. Barber (1991, p.12) recognises that improved domesticated varieties of flax seed have been found in Iraq, dating to circa 5000 B.C., and in Eastern Iraq, dating to 5500 B.C. Barber (1991, p.10) also states that this ‘Flax may have been domesticated originally for its oil bearing seeds...instead of or as well as for its fibrous stem’. The presence of flax seed by itself does not prove that textiles were being produced in a particular location. Furthermore, it is also the case that evidence of cultivation alone does not prove the existence of textile production, since wild flax is just as suitable for fibre extraction. Flax needs to be found in situ, along with specialised flax processing, spinning and weaving tools.

This type of evidence was found In Egypt, dating to the 5th millennium B.C., around the time of the British Neolithic period. In particular, finds of spindle whorls, common domestic flax seeds and coarse linens have been found at Faiyum (Barber, 1991, p.10), (see plate 4, below).

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Plate 4: Earliest known Egyptian linen cloth from Faiyum, Egypt, dating to 5th Millennium B.C. ( Viewed 24th March 2009).

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Figure 1: Swiss lake dwellings flax processing tools. A is a wooden flax break or scotching tool, B are bone flax hackles and C is a reconstructed hackling board. (Barber, 1991, p.14).

Flax processing requires some specialised tools and these tools were found at the Pfahlbauten in Switzerland (see figure 1, above); these are lake dwellings dating to the Neolithic period; similar tools have also been found Egypt (Barber, 1991, p.13). The Neolithic peoples of Switzerland were creating delicate linens, including brocades (see plates 5 and 6, p.12). These two textile samples are from Robenhausen and Ingenhausen respectively and date to circa 3000 B.C. They are both fine examples of early linen textiles and clearly demonstrate the technological capability of these early textile producers.

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Plate 5: Linen cloth number 3, from Robenhausen, Switzerland (Barber, 1991, p.138).

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Plate 6: Heavily decorated brocade style textile from Ingenhausen, Switzerland (Barber, 1991, p.138).

Linseeds were found at Hundssteig in Eastern Austria; this site dates to 3600 to 2800 B.C. during the Late Neolithic period. These seeds were found within a row of loom weights, which belonged to the oldest known Austrian loom, and, to date, appear to be the strongest evidence found that flax was being woven at this site. Kohler-Schneider (2007, p.67) states that ‘although there is certainly a long way to go between seed bearing flax plants and the fibres woven on a loom, this coincidence might well point to the use of flax in textile production’.

It is important to emphasise that only the seeds have been found at this site and not the fibres. However, given the evidence for the specialised processing tools and the fact that the flax was available, it would appear to demonstrate that textile production was being carried out here. Naturally, until the flax fibres or a sample of identified linen textile can be found, together with the associated processing and weaving equipment, it is difficult to conclude definitively that flax was used in textile production at this site. Linen is also mentioned in Diocletian’s Edict on Prices; it notes three grades of coarse linen thread (Abbott, p27). Pliny tells us of fine flax, which was grown in Elis in Achaia and used for women’s finery (Rackham, p.422). Along with the earlier quote from Pliny, this demonstrates that, by the Roman period, people were well aware of the different grades of linen.

In Britain, flax cultivation was beginning to appear during the Roman period. Wild (2002, p.6) states that ‘palaeobotanical sampling has demonstrated that flax was growing on Roman agricultural sites in the Thames Valley: at Barton Court Farm seeds and capsule fragments were common’. However, no specialised tools for processing have been found at this site and so we cannot assume that this flax was cultivated for textile production.

Other plant fibres have been identified in the archaeological record, such as hemp. According to Pliny, hemp was treated in a very similar way to flax; it uses the same tools for example (Wild, 1970, p.29-30). The fibres are coarser in texture, but can be almost indistinguishable from flax, even after microscopic examination (Wild, 2003, p.22). It is possible that we are simply misidentifying hemp textiles, which, as a result, are being classified as flax.

Defining the use of hemp during the prehistoric period is difficult, as most of the known evidence is from seed remains, often connected with hearth activity or narcotic use. Only one possible fibre sample has been found, which may date to the Late Neolithic period, but due to the problems in identifying hemp, it may yet turn out to be flax. This small fibre sample is from Adaouste, Southern France and was found trapped in a bone implement, the use of which remains unknown, along with fibres of identified linen (Barber, 1991, p.17). Although the evidence is fragmentary, it could indicate the use of hemp as a textile. However, until the available evidence is clearer, it is important to be wary, since the fibre may simply have been used in string or rope production.

Evidence for prehistoric hemp textiles has been found in the Altai Mountains, Russia, in the form of shirts made from hemp, which were worn by the Pazyryk people, and date to the 5th century B.C. (Barber, 1991, p.18). Hemp grows wild in this region and the evidence from this site also shows that it was used as a narcotic. Earlier finds from Gordion, Turkey, dating to the 8th Millennium B.C., appear to indicate the progressive movement of hemp southwards. According to Barber (1991, p.18), ‘the textile use of hemp as well as the plant itself came to the Mediterranean countries from the northeast, and seemingly not before the Iron Age’.

There is evidence for the importation of hemp and cotton textiles, from the 5th century B.C., at Trakhones, Attica, Greece. A sample of woven hemp was found, together with a piece of cotton textile and also a sample of Chinese silk. Again, evidence of narcotic equipment was also found at this site. Textual evidence from Herodotus, combined with modern botanical evidence, proves that cotton was not grown in Greece at this time (Barber, 1991, p.19). Herodotus states: ‘In India there are trees which grow wild there the fruit of which is wool exceeding in beauty and goodness that of the sheep, the natives use it for making their clothes’ (Forbes, 1956, p.45). This demonstrates the existence of trade links with the east and the importation of textiles, but not the raw materials.

Hemp was growing wild from Europe to East China and would have been well recognised by the people of the Neolithic period. Although hemp seeds are often found in many prehistoric sites, predominantly the evidence seems to point towards its use for a narcotic purpose, rather than in textile production. The evidence for the use of hemp by the Roman period is clear. Pliny writes: ‘though on dry land they prefer ropes of hemp’ (Rackham, 1950, p.439). By the time of Aurelian, hemp rope was taxable and a hemp cord was used circa 100 B.C. around the neck of a prisoner (Forbes, 1956, p.59-60). Although the evidence points predominantly during this period to the use of hemp in the manufacture of ropes and cords, Wild (2003, p.22) also includes sailcloth and sacking amongst its uses. Wild also states that ‘seeds from a Roman well in York combined with a pollen curve in East Anglia indicates cultivation’ (Wild, 2003, p.22). Furthermore, by the Anglo Saxon period in Britain, pollen analysis may indicate the cultivation of hemp, due ‘to the increase of hemp pollen in some lake-bed samples’ (Barber, 1991, p.19). Again, the fact that cultivation is taking place does not necessarily mean that textiles are being produced.

Esparto grass also appears in textual and archaeological evidence; it includes two plants of the grass type, Stipa Tenacissima and Lygeum Spartum. Forbes states: ‘It was certainly known in ancient Mesopotamia’ (Forbes, 1856, p.60). During the Late Neolithic and Bronze Age in Spain, these types of grass were used in the manufacture of baskets, bags, sandals, tunics and even jewellery. This is evident from finds at Cueva de los Murciélagos; these items were created using various methods of construction, including plaiting, weaving and twining (Barber, 1991, p.33-34). Pliny states: ‘it is employed in all countries for the rigging of ships, for mechanical appliances used in building’ (Rackham, 1950, p.439). He later states that it ‘is used as a material for making felt slippers and certain articles of dress (Rackham, 1950, p.441). Esparto grass seems to have been prepared and used in the same way from the Late Neolithic to the Roman periods; it is a coarse fibre that is closely comparable to hemp.

As I have mentioned previously, there is evidence for the importation of cotton textiles during the 5th century B.C. and there is also some textual evidence for its use. It was often described as wool and is attested to by several ancient textual sources, such as Pilostratus, the Hellenistic writer, who wrote: ‘the upper class there are apparelled in byssus; and the byssus grows upon a tree of which the stem resembles the white poplar and the leaves those of the willow…And the byssus is imported into Egypt from India for many sacred uses’ (Forbes, 1956, p.45). In Mesopotamia, in the Annuls of King Sennacherib, dating to circa 700 B.C., it states that he has ‘a palace without rival’ and that ‘a great park like unto Mount Amanus wherein all kinds of herbs such as grow on the iše naš šipâti were set out, I planted by its side’. Later he states: ‘the wool bearing trees they sheared and wove into garments’ (Forbes, 1956, p.45). Matthews states that finds ‘inside the Eridu temples include items such as…textile processing equipment’ (Matthews, 2007, p.104). It is important to note that, in Mesopotamia, the primary textile in use appears to have been wool, but, as you can see from the textual evidence, the distinction between wool and cotton is not always easy to ascertain and, due to the terms used for the process of collection and fibre treatment, could easily be confused in translation.

It is also possible to process nettle stems into bast fibres; indeed, they are still in use today, in Northern, Central and Eastern Europe. They appear in the archaeological record during the late Bronze Age, in Scandinavia, sometime during the 1st millennium B.C. (Barber, 1991, p.19). West states that the earliest known nettle bast textile was ‘found in a Late Bronze Age cinerary urn at Voldtofte in Denmark’ (West, 1970, p.21).

Some of the samples, which have been identified more recently as relating to nettle basts, were classified originally as flax. Therefore, until a closer analysis of all the fibre samples is carried out, we will have a limited knowledge of the context of nettle basts within textile analysis. This may also be the case for other bast fibres, such as linden, lime and other tree bark basts. Some limited samples of linden and other tree bark basts have been analysed and identified, for example, willow bast nets from Finland and linden bast nets from Lithuania, which date to the Mesolithic period, but testing is sporadic, which in turn limits the evidence for the use of these types of bast.

The Egyptians tried many types of bast fibres, such as grass, reeds, papyrus and palm, before settling predominantly for flax. The identification of bast fibre samples is still at a relatively early stage and this could mean that previously many samples were wrongly identified. Naturally, this could result in a narrow context for many bast fibres and, more worryingly perhaps, a belief that flax was in wider use than it really was. New analysis techniques are being developed at the moment and it is hoped that they will be able to aid the clearer identification of bast fibres. For example, Good notes that a ‘Biochemical study of preserved fibers in pseudomorphs has yet to become routine, although this approach is feasible for identifying fiber content and can be much more informative than chemical testing’ (Good, 2001, p.216).

Until we have accurate fibre analysis, a clear contextual pattern for the use of bast fibres cannot be assumed. Of course, this could have a far reaching impact on any archaeological site, which has already been identified as producing textiles. The study of textiles is a fairly new archaeological discipline, but I am sure that in the years to come it will become a standard procedure when analyzing a site. As more samples are found, analysed and preserved, it will aid our understanding of the impact of textiles on the population of the time and begin to give us a clearer ethnographical context for the fibres that were used.

Occasionally, other miscellaneous fibres were used in the production of textiles, such as hair-moss, for example; it was used for making caps and wigs in Roman Britain. One such wig was found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, Northumberland, Britain, (see plate 7, below). Forbes (1956, p.63) suggests that hairs of the acanthia thistle were made into vestments and that threads were also made from the tufts of othonium, a type of reed. Furthermore, according to Pliny, broom was used in Asia in the manufacture of nets, in Ethiopia and India thread was made from apples and the Arabians use gourds, which may in fact have been cotton.

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Plate 7: Hair-moss wig from Vindolanda (Birley, 2002, p.18).

Interestingly, Pliny tells us of ‘live linen’. He states that ‘I have seen napkins made of it glowing in the hearth at banquets and burnt more brilliantly clean in the fire than they could be by washing in water’. He also notes that ‘it is used for making shrouds for royalty which keep the ashes of the corpse separate from the rest of the pyre’ (Rackham, 1950, p.443). Pliny was not always as accurate as he might have been; he believed it to be a plant that grew in the deserts of India, but wrote that ‘its Greek name is asbestinon’. Of course, we now know it as asbestos and that in fact it is a mineral formation (see plates 8, below and plate 9, p. 22). At the time of Pliny, it appears to have been a very highly prized and expensive commodity.

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Plate 8: Asbestos in its mineral form. (

Viewed 10th February 2009).

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Plate 9: Asbestos fibres under magnification.


Viewed 10th February 2009).

It is evident, from the known samples of prehistoric textiles, that natural bast fibres were used before animal hair fibres and indeed that sheep were domesticated long before wool was spun. Each type of fibre is associated with its own individual preparation techniques and even today many are still used in textile manufacture. We now need to consider the archaeological record for the animal fibres that were used during the prehistoric and Roman periods.

Chapter 2 Prehistoric and Roman animal hair fibres from collection through to processing

Wool is the most widely used animal hair fibre found in the archaeological record. The domestication of sheep began in north-east Iraq from around 8000 B.C. and by 3000 B.C., here in Britain, we begin to see evidence for the use of its fleece as a textile. The earliest known surviving woollen textile in Britain dates to 2300 B.C. and was discovered in a Bronze Age burial at Rylston in East Yorkshire. However, we do have finds of sheep bones, dating from around 3000 B.C. In mainland Europe, the earliest evidence for woollen textiles dates from the late Neolithic period; until this time, all known textiles appear to have been produced from bast fibres. That is not to say that wool may not have been used earlier, but as yet there is no evidence of completed all wool textiles.

The earliest evidence for the domestication or management of sheep can be difficult to assess. For example, with a few exceptions, the bones of sheep are almost indistinguishable from those of goats. Furthermore, as most bones that are found have been butchered and cooked and then disposed of in waste dumps and pits, the identifiable bones are not necessarily found. Consequently, the bones tend to be classified as sheep/goat remains. Obviously, this makes identification difficult in terms of textile use and narrows the context for both the domestication of sheep and the availability of sheep’s wool in the archaeological record.

The type of sheep used, managed and domesticated in these early times and their subsequent breeding for specific uses is also a complex issue. For example, it is believed by Wild (1970) that domestication began during the Late Mesolithic period in south-west Asia and Forbes (1956) believes that it began in the Neolithic period in Afghanistan and Iran. Barber (1991, p.23) states that ‘all signs currently point to some area in south-west Asia for that centre of domestication’. Barber (1991, p.22) also states that ‘domestication by or before 7000 B.C., and probably considerably before, even in the 9th millennium’ occurred. It is not known if early domestication was in any way connected with textile production. As I have stated already, the evidence for domestication or flock management predates any evidence currently available for the production of woollen textiles.

Sheep fleece varies widely with the breed, both in terms of texture and length; these properties can also be influenced by the local climate and the season, during which the wool is collected. Depending on these factors, fleece can contain three grades of fibre; the coarsest being kemp, then hair and finally the finest wool (see figure 2, p.25). The ‘primitive wild sheep were considerably more kempy than woolly’ (Barber, 1991, p.22). Therefore, it is possible at this time that the fleece was not spun, as kemp can be so coarse and brittle, that it is not possible to spin without the addition of other softer fibres. All three fibre types can be used for felt production, as it is the surface scales that are interlocked with the aid of moisture and friction. Early examples of felt have been found, dating to late 5th and early 4th century B.C., in the Alpine valleys of the Altai. These samples were created by the Pazyryk people and consisted of coats, headgear, saddle blankets and floor coverings (Barber, 1991, p.200).

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Figure 2: Drawings of the structure of wool, hair and kemp, highly magnified (Barber, 1991, p.21).

Woolly sheep tend to have the most suitable fleeces for spinning. Evidence for this type of sheep has been found, the earliest being from Tepe Sarab in Iran by 5000 B.C.; they are depicted in a single clay figurine of a woolly sheep (Barber, 1991, p.22). This does not prove definitively that this type of fleece was used in textile production; it merely shows that it was available. During the 4th millennium B.C., the evidence for its use increases; representations in art are found in greater quantities and written records of sheep plucking become evident; for example, at Uruk, cuneiform tablets list six flocks of wool sheep (Barber, 1991, p.23).

The range of naturally occurring fleece colours from wild sheep runs from black and dark brown, through reddish rusts, to buff and greys and finally white. These naturally coloured fleeces do not dye well, whereas the white wool not only takes dye well, it also contains a natural form of mordant. Forbes (1956) believes that, at the beginning of domestication, three species of wild sheep were managed. Early breed groups include the Mouflon, the Vignei and the Argali group. Each group contains several colour variants and patterns within the fleece growth.


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The technology of Prehistoric to Late Roman yarn production
University of Nottingham
B.A Honours
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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My Dean suggested I publish this as it achived the highest mark she had ever given for a B.A dissertation.
Late, Roman, Textile, Prehistoric
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Kay Cooper (Author), 2009, The technology of Prehistoric to Late Roman yarn production, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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