Manual Textile Production and Consumption in the Ancient Near East: Archaeology, Epigraphy, Iconography

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Allow Cookies. Qty: Add to Basket. Details In the past, textile production was a key part of all ancient societies. The Ancient Near East stands out in this respect with the overwhelming amount of documentation both in terms of raw materials, line of production, and the distribution of finished products. Flax fibres and sheep wool are considered to be the two most important textile fibres from Neolithic to modern times.

Information gathered from the analysis of textiles suggests that it is highly plausible that the different stages of processing fi bres were similar across ancient Eurasia even if it is, of course, important to consider that different climate zones will affect both the need for and access to fi bres. Archaeobotanical and zoo ostelogical material also provide information on the use of textile fi bres.

Additionally, different types of installations e. Therefore, this paper will give a basic framework for textile production that will provide important insights into the procurement and processing of plant and animal fibres and briefly on spinning and weaving. This will be accomplished with information from archaeological and written sources used in combination with ethnography and experimental archaeology. A textile is not simply a binary system of spun, twisted or spliced fi bres, but, fi rst and foremost, a result of complex interactions between resources, technology and society Andersson et al.

The production process of a textile from fi bre to fi nished product is complex and includes several stages. It is important to note that even if it is evident that various types of textiles were produced in different periods and regions, the textile. The availability of resources also condition the choices of individuals and society Andersson Strand. It is therefore interesting that while textile design varies between different areas and time periods textile technology and the textile tools change very little over time and space. Through a multidisciplinary approach it is therefore possible to extrapolate this knowledge in time and space.

Due to poor preservation conditions, few textiles have survived from the Ancient Near East, however, it is clear that these existing fragments suggest a well-developed knowledge of the use of fi bres and elaborate textile techniques producing textiles, in different qualities, using various techniques from a range of raw materials.


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It is essential to be aware that information in written sources, for example UR III texts, of course not are representative for all prehistoric periods and regions. However, it is striking how well the texts support what is known from textile analyses of fi bre preparation, spinning and weaving techniques, etc. It is also known from the earliest written sources and iconography that clothing and other textiles are important for an individual throughout his or her lifetime, from birth to death. In most ancient societies, there would have been a need for a wide variety of textiles: for clothing, ranging from utilitarian, everyday dress to elite costumes; for rituals; as gifts; for trade; for furnishing; and for sails, nets, etc.

It is, of course, plausible that most people would have been involved in at least some of the production processes in their daily lives. Before the manufacturing of a textile, several decisions have to be made in order achieve the best result. It is important that these choices were infl uenced by access to fi bres and tools, but also by craft traditions and moreover, the needs and even desires of individuals.

The intention in this article is not to discuss the social, economic and cultural impact of textiles production on society. In the following, the focus is on fi bre procurement and fi bre preparation and briefl y on spinning and weaving in the Ancient Near East from the late Neolithic and Bronze Age.

The different stages are discussed only from a technical textile approach. In order to provide new perspectives, this will be accomplished not only through archaeological materials and written sources but also in combination with ethnography and results from experimental archaeology. Furthermore, comparisons with other regions and time periods will be discussed and thereby provide new perspectives.

Fibres for producing textiles. Several different types of fi bres, both plant and animal, can and have been used to produce textiles, woven fabrics, braided bands and also cordages, nets etc. Sheep wool and fl ax are suggested as the primarily fi bres in use in the Ancient Near East. However, it is also important to consider all other textiles, such as nets, baskets, and furnishing, all of which were made of various raw materials.

The demand for raw material for textile must have been substantial. If weaving a fabric with 10 threads in warp end weft see below this yarn was enough to produce a textile between 80 x 80 cm and 31 x 31 cm, which is far from enough to produce a complete costume. However, the demand of raw material would of course vary if textiles were produced to cover the household production or a large scale production.

The latter is confi rmed, for example, by the written Ur III sources that tell of tens of thousands of sheep yielding tens of thousands of kilos of wool Waetzoldt, and ; Potts, ; Michel and Nosch, ; Firth and Nosch, Silk as far as is current understood, did not come into common use until later periods and will not be further discussed here see Barber, 30; Shishlina et al.

However, one cannot exclude trade with either the raw material or fabrics; new fi nds can quickly change our perspectives and provide us with new information. Plant fibres for textiles. Vegetable fi bres have not only been used to produce woven fabrics but also used for cordage, ropes and nets and several different plants have been utilized over time Good, While some textile fi bre plants such as fl ax, hemp and jute were domesticated at an early stage while others such as bast reed and nettle were not is still an open question.

Important to note, however, is that the Ancient Near East encompasses Fig. This has, of course, affected the access to fi bres and the textile produced. Additionally, it is essential to consider that different regions are better suited to sheep rearing while others are better for plant cultivation see McCorriston, Flax, Nettle and Hemp. Flax is deriving from the annual plant of the Linacea species, notably Linum usitatissimum, hemp Cannabis sativa. These plants are also all suitable for other purposes, cf. However, except for fl ax, these plants are not yet attested in the archaeological record and it is therefore not possible to know if, or to what extent, they were native to the Near East in Antiquity.

Flax fi g. Flax has been cultivated for oil and fi bre and perhaps as pharmacopoeia medicine too. However, the plant for oil production is actually the smaller and more richly branched with up to capsules with large seeds. The fl ax for fi bre is taller, but sparsely branched, with fewer and smaller capsules. By comparing the size of fl ax seeds where seeds have been preserved, in Germany and Switzerland, it has been suggested that by the late Neolithic period, there were different fl ax varieties and that a change, demonstrated in the size of the fl ax seeds, took place from around BC.

This result is also supported by DNA analysis Herbig and Maier, and It is plausible that this change had already taken place in other fl ax cultivating societies, for example Egypt and the ancient Near East, where fl ax generally speaking had been used as a textile fi bre much earlier. The best quality fl ax fi bre today is narrow in diameter 0. It has a silky lustre and varies in colour from a creamy white to a light tan.

Linen textiles are cool to wear, since fl ax fi bres conduct heat extremely well. They are able to absorb moisture very easily, but at the same time moisture evaporates from them quickly. Over time, linen can become almost as soft and lustrous as silk, but it creases easily because fl ax fi bres lack elasticity Kemp and Vogelsang-Eastwood, It is thought that hemp was used for the production of textiles by the inhabitants of the Eurasian Steppe from the Neolithic period onward, but it was not used in the Mediterranean area until the Iron Age Shishlina et al.

Hemp is taller than fl ax and its fi bres are generally coarser. It has been assumed, therefore, that hemp was not continually used for clothing, but rather for sails, ropes and nets.

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Archaeological fi nds of textiles made of nettle. Other vegetable fibers. Nettle fi bres are, in general, shorter and fi ner than fl ax and hemp fi bres, and can easily be used to produce textiles not merely for clothing, but also for rope as well as other products. Since it is diffi cult to distinguish between hemp, fl ax and nettle, in the past it has often been taken for granted that archaeological fi nds of plant fi bres were assumed to be fl ax, and thus, the use of hemp and nettle fi bres in textiles has remained invisible.

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However, new analytical methods have recently made identifi cation more secure and will hopefully yield new results on their use of hemp and nettle Bergfjord and Holst, Thus far, the earliest evidence for using cotton dates to the 6th millennium BC. In another burial, dated to the 4th millennium at Shahi Tump, southern Baluchistan, too, fi bres of cotton were recovered. It has also been suggested that cotton cultivation in the Arabian Peninsula developed in association with the highly specialised agro systems of irrigated date palm gardens already in place during the middle Bronze Age Bouchaud et al.

It is, of course, not possible to ascertain the extent to which cotton was used during these early periods and furthermore, it is not possible to identify if this cotton was of a domesticated variety or a wild species. However, these unique fi nds demonstrate the use of the fi bre at a much earlier period than previously thought.

Other plant fi bres that were also used are different types of reeds and bast fi bres. These were used primarily to produce baskets, mats, ropes, cordage and nets. Whereas some areas in Ancient Mesopotamia are known to have been covered by reeds, the knowledge of the use of reeds is still limited and needs to be studied further. Jute Corchorus , which is today one of the most important plant fi bres, had been in use from the Neolithic period onward. Jute Corchorus , fl ax Linum usitatissimum and local reeds.

Scirpus sp. However, this is not a unique occurrence: at Arslantepe, Malatya Turkey , a variety of textiles made of different fi bres were recovered Frangipane et al. Apart from the rarity of extant plant fi bres in the archaeological record, another challenge facing scholars is that, even where early written evidence for various types of plants exists, it might sometimes be diffi cult to link, for example, the Sumerian or Akkadian names of some plants with the botanical remains recovered.

Procurement and cultivation. Information on the cultivation and processing of fl ax in the Mediterranean comes from archaeological evidence such as macrofossil analyses, and also from Egyptian wall paintings and models from Egyptian tombs. However, considerable knowledge of linen textiles and the processing of fl ax fi bres has also been obtained from the Neolithic-Bronze Age fi nds from Central Europe see Rast-Eicher, ; Vogelsang-Eastwood, Flax has been and still is cultivated in several parts of the world.

Additionally, it is noteworthy that the processes of manual fl ax preparation have changed very little over the millennia and are still in use today. The best conditions for fl ax cultivation are fertile, well drained loams, while sandy soils should be avoided. In Mesopotamia, canal levees seem to have been the best place. Since the roots grow near the surface and are weak, the preparation of the soil has to be done carefully.

Flax reduces the nutrients in the soil and a crop rotation with long gaps between sowing is required. The yield will otherwise be reduced and the fl ax will become more susceptible to diseases such as fungi attacks. Flax needs regular access to water during cultivation see Montgomery, ; Barber, 11; Kemp and Vogelsang-Eastwood, It has been suggested that, fl ax cultivated in the Mediterranean region requires an average annual precipitation ranging from to mm or carefully controlled irrigation with perennial sources Renfrew, quoted in Levy and Gilead, The time of year for sowing and harvesting depends on the region and the type of climate.

In the Nile Valley, sowing takes place in mid-November, while in the northern, colder parts of the Mediterranean, sowing takes place in spring. It takes approximately three months for the fl ax to mature Vogelsang-Eastwood, 5. Flax can, in some regions, be cultivated twice a year and sown in both spring and autumn. Further tests indicate that the plant height increased, the stems became thicker and seed yield higher if the fl ax was sown in the autumn, while dry and warm conditions shortened the growing cycle Rossini and Casa, However, in this case, the fi bres were also coarser and more suitable for coarser textiles.

It is therefore not obvious that the autumn fl ax was most preferable even if the fi bre yield was greater. In order to obtain the best fl ax fi bres for textiles today, fl ax is sown very densely, on average using kg of seeds per 1 ha. This forces the fl ax to grow, uniform and straight with long straws of up to 1 to 1. It is likely that fl ax for textile production in antiquity was cultivated in a similar way.

Agricultural Production in the Ancient Near East in the last 7,000 Years

This is demonstrated on wall paintings in tombs were the harvest scenes show uniform, straight fl ax stalks that grow densely Vogelsang-Eastwood, 8. Additionally, an experiment in Denmark demonstrated that, when using too much fertilizer the stalks became coarser and less useable for spinning then the stems from fi eld that was not fertilized Ejstrud et al.

These results indicate that one can very easily, through fertilizing, affect the cultivation, something that must have been considered in the planning of fi bre procurement. Depending on the type of fi bre required, fl ax can be pulled at different stages of ripeness.


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If the stalks are pulled when they are still green, the fi bres are very thin and fi ne and only textiles woven with thin threads can be produced. If the stalks are slightly older, and the lower leaves are starting to yellow, the fi bres will be slightly coarser and suitable for clothing of a generally good quality. If pulled when the stalks are yellow and the seeds very ripe, the resulting fi bres will be coarse, and are more suitable for rope and utilitarian fabrics which require strength Vogelsang-Eastwood, 6; Kemp and Vogelsang-Eastwood, One has to consider that the thinner the fi bre, the thinner the thread, and thus the possibility to increase the numbers of threads per centimetre in the fi nal fabric.

Textile analyses of linen fabrics from Egypt from BC clearly demonstrate the production of different types and qualities of thread Vogelsang-Eastwood, 1. It is likely that this is not unique to this region; the need and desire for different qualities have been general in all linen producing societies. From stalk to fibre — processing. When the fl ax is ripe, it is pulled up by the roots and the seeds are harvested rippled. The fi bres can be processed without retting, but the fi bre quality will not be as good as with retted fl ax, and it will be harder to take out the woody parts which have to be removed if the fi bres are to be used for clothing or fi ner textiles.

In order to separate the fi bre bundles from the woody parts of the stalks, the fl ax is retted. In the retting process, the stalks can either be placed in water or spread on the ground. The moisture from water through the growth of bacteria or from dew, if spread on the ground through the growth of fungi , assists in the process of dissolving the pectin between the bundles of fi bre in the bark and the stem.

The time required for the retting process depends partly on the method chosen and partly on the result one wants to obtain. Dew retting is Fig. It is important that the stalks are laid out in a fi ne layer and that they are turned so all parts of the stalks are retted. Water retting can be done in a pit but one can also place the fl ax bundles well fastened in a lake or river. If the stalks are retted too long, the fi bre quality and strength will be diminished and break into small parts and the fi bres more or less useless.

On the other hand, if the fl ax is not retted suffi ciently, it will be hard to separate the fi bres from the woody parts of the stalks. It is not possible to give an estimation of time needed because it can vary from a couple of days to several weeks depending on the conditions and the climate. In general, it takes a longer time to dew rett than water rett but the number of days or weeks the retting takes depends on many factors: if retted in water that is too hot or too cold the warmer the water, the shorter the time ; the coarseness of the stalks; the number of stems in the bundles, etc.

After retting, the stalks have to be dried again. The next step is breaking, in which a wooden club is used to break up the stem and the bark, which have to be separated from the fi bres fi g. Thereafter, the fl ax has to be scutched with a broad wooden knife, which scrapes away the remainder of stem and bark fi g. Traditionally, the fi bres are fi nally hackled combed with the aid of a hackle so that all parts of the stalks are removed and the fi bres are evenly separated.

However, there is no clear evidence for hackling from. It has been suggested, on the basis of textile analysis on textiles from central Europe dated to the Neolithic and Bronze Age period that this might be related to the length of the fl ax fi bres, and whether the thread was spun or spliced. The analysis demonstrates that, as long as the thread used is spliced, the fi bre was not hackled, a result which compares with analyses of linen textiles from Egypt Leuzinger and Rast-Eicher, see below and fi g. However, it should be noted that, two or more spliced threads can be spun into a single yarn, something that is confi rmed through analyses of textiles from Egypt, and, for example, from the cave of Treasure and the Cave of the Warrior from the Chalcolithic Ghassulian culture in the southern Levant Levy and Gilead, The scutched stalks could also be brushed with a smaller brush to remove the remaining parts of the stalks fi g.

Finds of brush handles from, for instance, Arslantepe, Turkey dated to BC could have had this function Frangipane et al. After these processes, the fi bres are ready to be spliced or spun fi g.


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  7. During processing, for example when scutching, parts of the stalks and also the fi bres will end up as waste and tow. The tow can also be processed and spun, but the yarn will be coarse and not suitable for clothing. Some of the waste, containing mostly parts of the stalks, but also short broken fi bres, can be used for other purposes too, such as insulating material, e.

    The tools used in these production processes are primarily made of wood and it may be surmised that this is why they are rarely found in archaeological contexts. However, several wooden mallets that could have been used for beating the fl ax stems have been found in Middle and New Kingdom sites in Egypt, though unfortunately, as far as we know, no scutching boards have been found Vogelsang-Eastwood, From the Neolithic-Bronze Age lake dwellings in Italy and Switzerland, well preserved tools, including scutching knives have been recovered but, thus far, no hackles Barber, The manual processing of fl ax fi bres and other plant fi bres such as hemp is also dangerous work.

    The workers who break the stalks, and particularly those who scutch them, are the most exposed Noweir et al. The effects are likely to have been recognised in ancient fl ax producing societies, and it is therefore plausible that the work was well planned and that these processes took place outdoors. From stalks to fibre — the outcome.

    Several estimates have been made to calculate the amount of fl ax fi bres obtained for spinning after processing the stalks. An experiment performed in Denmark in clearly demonstrates how results can vary Ejstrud et al. The fl ax was cultivated and processed in slightly different ways Fig. All the fl ax stalks were dew retted. Furthermore, the fl ax stalks in batch 4 were carefully dried before breaking which might explain why the total weight after this process is much higher than batches 2 and 3.

    The calculations in table 2 are based on modern fl ax cultivation and processing and the yield from 1 ha. The calculations are modifi ed according to Swedish conditions but still provide an idea of the amount of useable fi bres for textiles and other purposes. Experimental archaeology with textile tools and different textile raw material plays an important role for the understanding of the technological parameters for textile production in ancient societies.

    In the CTR test, kg of linen thread would equal ca. None of these calculations or results can be directly applied to an archaeological context, a point that is also shown by the. However, the numbers and calculations demonstrate that, by introducing minor changes in the preparation process, one can obtain different results. Moreover, the weight loss is huge when comparing the weight of the stalks with the weight of the fi bres ready for spinning.

    Hemp and nettle are processed in similar ways; with the same tools being used for hemp. Nettle stalks are more vulnerable to breakage, and have to be broken fl at and the wooden parts pulled out by hand, a process that is very time consuming. Finally, the nettle fi bres are combed. Finally, after all the work the ancients put into creating textiles from plant fi bres, very little is preserved and in order to gain more data, it is necessary to search for some of the structures, tools and waste products related to fl ax and processing of the fi bres, and to be fully aware of all the processes and associated tools table 3.

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    Animal fibres for textiles. Different types of animal hair have been used in textile production. Wool fi bres are fl exible and elastic; they also have kinks, producing air pockets between the kinks; these pockets maintain their temperature, which is the reason why a Table 1 — The weight lost during fl ax processing based on experiments with fl ax at Ribe Viking Centre, Denmark Ejstrud et al. Moreover, wool is not highly fl ammable, which makes it an excellent protection against intense heat. It is diffi cult to separate goat bone from sheep, and to identify the different types of fi bres especially when degraded.

    However, the written sources demonstrate that sheep wool was the most important raw material for textiles during the Bronze Age. New fi ndings and newly developed DNA analysis will provide more secure results in the future Brandt et al. Sheep and wool. According to Michael Ryder sheep were domesticated. However, the fi rst domestic sheep only provided skins for clothing and meat but not wool for textile production Ryder, ; Ryder, a.

    The Moufl on cannot have been truly wild since they must been brought to the islands, possible by Neolithic settlers. However the Moufl on coat is similar to the other wild sheep Ryder, The domestication of sheep for wool and its importance have been discussed by several authors see Sherratt, ; Ryder, a and b and ; McCorriston, ; Breniquet, ; Rast-Eicher, ; Levy and Gilead, According to Sherratt, during the 5th millennium BC there was a further development of animal economies on the fringes of Mesopotamia.

    The challenge in this discussion is of course the lack of textile fi nds. So far to the authors knowledge the earliest fi nds of textiles made of wool dates to BC from the Majkop culture in the North Caucasus Shishlina et al. Though, it is highly plausible that sheep breeding and variations in wool quality also developed during the Bronze Age. Finally, it is important to remember that goats could also have been domesticated for wool. This fragment is dated to BC Frangipane et al.

    The outcome of wool. The amount of wool one sheep can yield depends on the breed of sheep, and also on whether it is a lamb, ewe, ram or wether. Differences in yield can also be due to the food available to the sheep and also to the type of climate. However, it has been suggested that the annual raw wool yield per mature sheep in Mesopotamia would have been approximately 0. According to ancient texts, sheep wool was the bulk of raw material needed in the Mesopotamian textile industry Potts, This is comparable with information from other pre-modern data Potts, Additionally, it is likely that Table 3 — A scheme of the different stages in fl ax processing and the different structures, tools and waste products that can be connected to each stages partly after Troldtoft Andresen and Karg, Sheep, wool and processing.

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    Throughout antiquity, wool was obtained by plucking or cutting. During later periods, shears may have been used, but it is likely that knives were the oldest tools utilised. A sheep can be sheared twice a year, but it can only be plucked once a year, when it is moulting. However, at the point where the fi bre diameter becomes thinner and weaker, the fl eece breaks quite easily.

    It does not hurt the sheep when the weakened fi bres are plucked by hand Baker, Today, it takes one person ca 50 minutes to pluck one sheep if the wool is easily removed. If working 10 hours, one person could then pluck 10 to 12 sheep a day. Furthermore, it is important to pluck the wool at exactly the right time: if started too early the fi bres are not weakened enough, if waiting too long, the old fi bres will be mixed with the new, both with the result that it will be hard for the sheep and the plucker to pluck the wool.

    Additionally, the quality of the wool would result in a poor quality textile. There is an on-going discussion regarding the diameter of wool fi bres and how this can be related to different sheep breeds and to the development of the woolly sheep see Waetzoldt, ; Potts, ; Ryder, ; Rast-Eicher, However, it is important to note that the quality of the wool fi bres does not only vary between various breeds as there is also a difference between individuals within the same breed, and between the wool from a lamb, an ewe, a ram or a wether.

    Furthermore, there is a great variation in the coarseness of wool fi bres depending on the part of the sheep from which the wool is obtained. Wool from the thighs, for example is coarser and longer than the wool from the side and shoulders. Moreover, the wool on each sheep contains three different parts: hair, under wool and kemp fi g. The under wool tends to be shorter than the hair, but can be spun separately from it.

    Yarn spun partly or entirely from under wool will be softer than a yarn spun with only hair. Goat wool is, in general, considered to be coarser than sheep wool but can also be very fi ne. The sorting and processing of wool fi bres is important for the outcome, the spun yarn see Andersson et al. At the CTR, several wool sorting and combing tests too have been made Olofsson et al. The tests demonstrated that one craftsperson prepared ca It is, of course, not possible to know how many hours a person would have worked in the Ancient Near East but the amount of prepared wool is similar to information provided on some texts Waetzoldt, ; Andersson Strand and Cybulska, However, if the wool is washed before spinning, a little fat has to be added, since the lanolin the natural wool grease is washed out.

    If the wool is dyed, the fi bres have to be washed or the dyestuff will not penetrate the fi bres. The wool can be spun immediately after it has been cut or plucked from the sheep, but usually it is fi rst teased by hand or combed with the aid of combs with long teeth. Unfortunately, there are few fi nds of combs that can be considered wool combs, even if this process is mentioned in, for example Ur III texts Waetzoldt, When combed, the long hair is also separated from the under wool fi g.