Remnants of clothing do not survive well in the archaeological record, instead usually rotting away. In specific circumstances, though, they can survive. These include waterlogging (often with a side order of chemical preservation in peat bogs) as the most common, dessication, carbonisation, freezing in glaciers, being preserved in salt mines and scraps of fabric mineralising when in contact with metalwork. Fabric can also be represented pictorially and leave impressions on pre-fired clay. Here are examples of each of these and what they tell us about what textiles were being made, and presumably worn, in prehistory.
Twined textiles differ from weaving by having weft threads more widely spaced, often, and passing around individual or bunches of warp threads, rather than passing under and over. There are other methods to make fabrics, of course, such as sprang, needle binding and felting. This page will be added to with further research.
Palaeolithic and Mesolithic
Clothing would certainly be made from animal hides in these early periods, but there is also evidence of weaving from the Upper Palaeolithic. In the absence of cloth survival, evidence comes in the form of many impressions of woven, plaited and twined cloth, netting and basketry made from plant materials from sites in the Czech Republic, Dolní Věstonice and Pavlov dating back to about 30,000 years ago (in what is known as the Gravettian). There are scraps of impressions and even surviving cordage elsewhere across Europe. This coincides with the appearance of bone eyed needles which have been suggested to have been too fragile for punching holes in hide and are likely, therefore, to have sewn together woven fabric (Soffer et al 2000, 511-14). Though cordage for weaving can be made without implements, there are also suggestions that circular ‘rondelles’ with central perforations could be spindle whorls, for example one carved out of sandstone at Isturitz in southern France, that may be late Upper Palaeolithic e.g. 15,000 years old from the Magdalenian, but there are other potential examples.
An auroch bone from the Danish site of Rymarksgård dating to about 8000 BC in the Mesolithic shows a number of figures dancing or walking. Their clothing seems striped or plaid, but has been seen as a quite stylised way to show some kind of fur or skin garments, especially given how stylised the faces are. Virginija Rimkutė of Vilnius University in Lithuania produced some twined fabrics based on those found in Šventoji 2B in Lithuania (which are much later in date) and tested whether they may have been what the artist who cut this image onto the Rymarksgård auroch bone was trying to represent. The results are inconclusive, I feel.
The introduction of sheep in the Neolithic in Europe provides a new source of fibre to make yarn, but the majority of fabric found in Europe in the Neolithic actually comes from plants. The Neolithic starts earlier the further east you go, as it was invented in the Near East around 10,000 BC and gradually spread west and north through Europe.
The earliest evidence for woven fabric comes from the heartland of early farming just outside Europe from Jarmo in northeastern Iraq where impressions of textile were left on clay. These seem to date to about 7000 BC and show an expertise in several types of weaving that suggests a well-established tradition.
The well-studied Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey has yielded many fabrics, most of which have been carbonised (charred in a fire), dating to about 6000 BC. Though fragile, they survived in good enough condition to show a range of weaving patterns. There were quite broad cloths as well as narrow bands, some of which were warp-faced where the warp threads were so densely packed they hid the weft threads altogether (Barber 1991, 127).
In Switzerland the Neolithic starts around 5500 BC. Villages start to be built at the edge of lakes such as Lake Neuchâtel and Lake Zurich. At the latter 31 Neolithic sites with textile fragments have been found, totalling more than 1000 woven or twined objects (including basketry). The textiles are either made from lime bast, most commonly, or from linen (Rast-Eicher in Gleba & Mannering 2012, 378-80). Linen cloth from Robenhausen was produced with ribs by modifying the weaving pattern by doubling the weft thread, giving a subtle striped effect. All of the fabrics were given reinforced selvedge edges and some were fringed (Barber 1991, 134-6). Some of the Swiss Neolithic linens were also brocaded, that is the weft thread was almost embroidered over the pattern to create squares and triangles of another colour such as that from Irgenhausen dating to about 3000 BC (Barber 1991, 138-9).
Another technique used in the Swiss Neolithic is to join two pieces of woven cloth with a band of netting, which would have been slightly more elastic, such as a scrap of linen from Murten dating to about 3000 BC. This scrap is also decorated with tiny beads made of plant seeds sewn on to the fabric (Barber 1991, 140).
The late Mesolithic/early Neolithic site of Tybrind Vig in Denmark produced some lime bast textiles dated to 4200 BC made using the needle binding technique. There are similar remains from burials at Bolkilde from 3400 BC. The remains are very fragmentary and it is difficult to reconstruct any clothing (Mannering, Gleba & Bloch Hausen in Gleba & Mannering 2012, 94-5)
The salt mine of Hallstatt in Austria is a good source of preserved leather and textile objects. Salt mining began around 1500 BC. 111 fragments of textile have been found and most of these are wool, with only two pieces made of linen, and these are the earliest in date. Does this reflect a shift to woolen textiles in the Bronze Age in Europe or is it an accident of preservation? Most of the textiles are quite coarsely made with thick yarn and not a very high thread per cm count. There is evidence for the use of woad, weld and madder plant dyes on some of the fabrics, which would produce varieties of blue, green, yellow, red and brown. Some of the fabrics were fulled after weaving to make them water and windproof – this was probably done by a combination of pounding, soaking and stretching the fabrics, as attested by historical records in later centuries (Grömer in Gleba and Mannering 2012, 31-7).
Recently, fragments of textile have been found in England at Must Farm near Peterborough dating to the later Bronze Age around 1000 BC. One carbonised and waterlogged fragment of woven textile was found to have been made from lime bast. Another fragment of twined fabric, also made from lime bast, was found in 2015. A reel of lime base string was another discovery. No woolen textile has been found at Must Farm, either because it was not worn or because animal based products did not survive well in the waterlogged soil. Dr Susanna Harris from the University of Glasgow has been studying these textiles and has a series of videos exploring the evidence on the Must Farm Archaeology YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCqosTrrGOPNTcqy7Kmsu6vQ.
There are many Bronze Age textiles from bogs in Denmark. 153 graves with textiles have been found. Most of these are earlier Bronze Age and they are generally woolen. Like the woolen textiles at Hallstatt, they are also fulled. They do not seem to be dyed for the most part, except for a belt from Borum Eshøj. A late Bronze Age nettle textile was found at Lusehøj inside a bronze cauldron and dates to the 9th or 8th century BC (Mannering, Gleba & Bloch Hausen in Gleba & Mannering 2012, 97). The evidence from Borum Eshøj and Egtved will be discussed in more detail in another blog post.
Denmark is also the richest area for Iron Age fabrics too, and also from bogs, but in this case usually not from formal burials but with people who have been sacrificed or executed and deposited. Huldremose Woman is one of these victims, and has been described in detail in this previous blog post.
The princely grave of Hochdorf in Baden Württemberg in Germany dates to the 6th century BC. The fabrics were first seen under excavation in 1978 and many of them promptly turned to dust, but fragments have survived. A cauldron, wagon and couch were all draped in textiles. One piece from the cauldron was tablet-woven with hemp fibre and wool with a chequered pattern with swastikas (an ancient sun symbol). Linen was present but only minute remains have survived, while other fabrics were made of badger hair. The textiles were dyed with woad to make blue and using an imported dyestuff made from an insect called Kermes vermilio, similar to cochineal but native to southern France. The textiles may have been made especially for the burial and not have been used in life, which is a shame as it doesn’t really tell us much about what people looked like (Banck-Burgess in Gleba & Mannering 2012, 139-144).
Adovasio, J.M 1973. The Textile and Basketry Impressions from Jarmo. Paléorient Vol 3, pp 223-230.
Barber, E.J.W 1991. Prehistoric Textiles. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Gleba, M & Mannering, U (eds) 2012. Textiles and Textile Production in Europe: From Prehistory to AD 400. Oxford, Oxbow Books.
Soffer, O, Adovasio, J. M, & Hyland, D, C 2000. The “Venus” Figurines Textiles, Basketry, Gender, and Status in the Upper Paleolithic. Current Anthropology Volume 41, 4. pp 511-537.