Textile manufacturing is one of the oldest crafting activities in human history, linking the use of natural resources and technological innovations to complex cultural and social processes. Despite the enormous economic importance of textile production, marred by its severe health impact, long-term perspectives on the history of this craft are elusive in the archaeological record, due to the perishable nature of the evidence it leaves behind, and the lack of specific and reliable skeletal markers of past occupations that would allow the osteoarchaeological identification of textile workers. AIRLOOM addresses these issues by investigating the human mouth and the respiratory tract as a ‘depositional environment’ where concentrations of textile fibres, dyes and other environmental particles can accumulate and preserve inside mineralised dental plaque (dental calculus) as a result of accidental ingestion and inhalation during manufacturing. AIRLOOM will employ cutting edge cross-disciplinary methods to skeletal collections and natural mummies from ancient Egypt, Sudan, and Lebanon (4000 BC-1000 AD). These regions are home to well-documented crafting traditions and technologies (metal, glass, textile, stone work, art), underpinning enormous inequality of living conditions for the labourers (today and in the past). AIRLOOM will integrate approaches from bioarchaeology, archaeological materials studies, ethnoarchaeology, experimental archaeology and environmental sciences to generate a novel multidisciplinary understanding of textile manufacturing in antiquity and its impact on health, with important direct implications for the practising of traditional textile work today. AIRLOOM is the first project of its kind in bioarchaeology, pushing current boundaries and establishing a novel archaeological focus on textile manufacturing, from ‘how and where’ textiles were made to ‘who’ made them, and at what human cost.
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