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Neolithic textiles and clothing industries in the Aegean

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - NETIA (Neolithic textiles and clothing industries in the Aegean)

Reporting period: 2015-09-01 to 2017-08-31

NETIA (Neolithic textiles and clothing industries in the Aegean)

Topic and scope

The main objective was been the study of the earliest textile and clothing production in Neolithic Greece. The main purpose for the selection of this research topic was our very poor knowledge of the earliest period of textile production in the prehistoric Aegean, that is, the Neolithic period (6500-3400 BCE). Despite the fact that there is rich evidence on other technologies of this period, such as pottery production and stone-knapping and carving, the complete lack of archaeological textiles from the Aegean region has so far not allowed for a clear picture of the earliest weaving and clothing technologies. Thus, the focus of the data collection and evidence is inevitably being transferred to the study of archaeological finds, directly or indirectly related to textile crafts, such as the specially designed spinning and weaving implements (i.e. clay spindle whorls and loom-weights, bone needles, bobbins, and shuttles). These tools lead us to the partial reconstruction of the earliest known textile technologies, while the study of a series of other utilitarian objects and works of art, such as pottery, seals, jewellery and figurative art, can lead us to a deeper understanding of the mental abilities, ideas, aesthetics and the zeitgeist of the Aegean Neolithic culture.

Importance for society

Research on such a cultural and historical content is a social benefit in itself, as it contributeσ to a deeper understanding of the European past and the economic and social foundation of modern society. Moreover, it is of high educational value since it offers benefits through the knowledge of the ancient technology and enables a reflexion on the identity of members of modern society and connexion to their prehistoric past. In particular, it can enlighten us about one of the technological achievements of the earliest societies in relation to a crucial survival practice, the manufacture of fabrics and garments. The results of the NETIA project yielded up-to-date information about when and how exactly the Neolithic people began to produce fibres for the manufacture of textiles and clothing by systematically using available materials from their surrounding environment.
The work performed in the 24 months of the grant includes systematic recordings of textile tools from Greek museums, training in experimental archaeology actions in DK and NL, editing and writing academic papers in DK and presenting the results in several international meetings and conferences.

Main results

Previous studies of this early technology have shown that since the 7th mill. BCE people in the East Mediterranean had already started with the construction of textile tools. A closer study of these, beyond the study of their purpose and functionality, has also revealed the cognitive field and the skill level of the Neolithic people, regarding the understanding of natural laws, which later led to the creation of even more complex tools and technologies. Understanding and using natural laws, such as the law of gravity and physical forces, such as rotation, evidenced by the operation of spindle whorls, show us the intellectual environment of the Neolithic people, who could already understand and handle the basic principles of the natural sciences: observation and experiment.

These revolutionary mental and practical achievements are inextricably linked to the establishment of permanent settlements and the engagement of people with agricultural work, which gave them the affordance and time to control their natural environment and modify it, through farming and husbandry, so as to meet their needs and desires. Textile fibres originated from a variety of plants coming from the immediate environment and later from the wool of domesticated animals. Particularly this transition from using simply prepared materials taken from nature to the preparation of materials for a later use is a very important stage in the history of technologies since it shows long-term planning, team working, and tedious labour in many small-scale, home industries.

Textile implements and loom types

For the manufacture of the earliest textile tools, raw materials of animal, vegetal or mineral origin, such as wood, animal bones, stone, and clay were used. The archaeological record of the clay textile tools is the most well-studied group but there is a multi-faceted group of bone implements also thought to be associated with textile production, however, without a specific function being attributed to them. Through comparative studies, it became possible to identify the pointed awl, as weaving implement. Contemporary traditional craftspeople in South America and Central Asia use this kind of tool on their horizontal ground looms or on the back-strap looms. These loom types, however, are not known from Europe, thus these bone tools have not yet been associated with textile production. A visit to traditional textile craftspeople in Peru, organized by the Centre for Textile Research, gave a definite answer to this matter. The Neolithic bone awls have an identical shape and show similar use-wear traces and therefore they presumably have the same purpose as the modern Andean implements. This was also manifested through object microscopy and a preliminary use-wear analysis.

A major technological step of the Neolithic was the invention or development of the loom, perhaps initially designed as a simple frame, which has greatly mechanized the manual work, the initial technological stages being very similar to basketry. The presence or absence of certain textile implements evidences which type of loom was used by the Neolithic people. Thus, the absence of loom weights during the largest part of the Neolithic shows us that the vertical, warp-weighted loom was not yet in use and that textiles were originally made on another or perhaps on other kinds of looms, eventually the horizontal ground loom, the two-beam loom, the back-strap loom or a small portable frame loom. This view has been further reinforced in NETIA by the new identification of a type of perforated clay objects, which are now interpreted as functional parts of a horizontal ground loom.
Textile design and clothing

On anthropomorphic Neolithic figurines we can discern elaborate colourful patterns, often interpreted as imitating textiles, transferred onto pottery design. Clothing visible on figurines show that natural dyes were used to make them more attractive, and perhaps to define collective identities, or to highlight social status and hierarchy.

The most direct evidence of garments is given by clay or stone anthropomorphic figurines with painted or incised clothing details. The detailed study of these elements within NETIA supplied a new interpretation: on certain Neolithic female figurines, the drawn clothing can clearly be reconstructed as trousers decorated with large multicoloured patterns. This radically changes the prehistoric costume traditions, particularly the older view that trousers or leggings were a later and more advanced piece of clothing that did not appear before the 1st mill. BCE.

The results of NETIA are a new interpretation of Neolithic clothing and ancient textiles communicated in 70 actions including training activities, workshops, presentation in international academic or public venues, one edited anthology and four scholarly papers.
Peruvian weaver using a bone awl on a back-strap loom. Photo: K. Sarri
Heddle rod jack from Thessaly? National Archaeological Museum at Athens. Photo: K. Sarri
Demonstration of weaving experiments at the Irish Institute of Hellenic Studies. Photo: Chr. Haywood
Bone awls from Sesklo and Dimini. National Archaeological Museum at Athens. Photo: K. Sarri
Study of the spindle whorls from Sesklo and Dimini. National Archaeological Museum at Athens. Photo:
Ceramic spindle whorls from Sesklo and Dimini. National Archaeological Museum at Athens. Photo: K. S
Presentation of the Neolithic trousers at a CTR meeting. Photo: M.L. Nosch