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Fibres in Ancient European Textiles

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - FIBRANET (Fibres in Ancient European Textiles)

Reporting period: 2017-10-01 to 2019-09-30

FIBRANET (Fibres in Ancient European Textiles) explored the subject of fibre identification of excavated textiles. Fibre identification is a key element in ancient textile studies but surprisingly enough, insufficiently explored. It is the primary and more pressing question to identify the fibres of textiles retrieved at excavations. Prolific work has been done in the past but very often with inconclusive results mainly due to the rarity and poor condition of the finds, and also the immense variety of fibre producing plants and animals used locally since antiquity. I knew from past experience, studies and collaboration with peer professionals, that the demand to address these issues was compelling. Implementing FIBRANET, I identified references of fibres in ancient texts; gathered published case studies of excavated fibres positively identified; collected various samples from the fibrous plants and animals; measured and documented the morphology of fibres as extracted, processed and more important, treated them in the lab to assimilate fibre deterioration. To carry out my fibre analyses, I used readily available and straightforward techniques like optical and Scanning Electron microscopy, so that my methodology could be readily reproducible. The results were and will be disseminated and communicated through journals, conferences, practical workshops, and via the Internet and social media. Most important, I created Fibranet, an online database, to make my results available to peer and other scholars (like conservators, archaeologists, biologists, forensic scientists, artists and craftspeople). Fibranet aspires to be the perpetually missing basic tool and common language of textile studies.
FIBRANET started with a research in translated ancient texts of writers such as Aristotle, Herodotus, Plato, Pliny and Theophrastus, for references of textiles and fibres. Documentation of these references recorded the type of fibre mentioned, the term used to describe it, the object described (e.g. costume, rope, decorative object), its provenance, and whether there was information on a textile/fibre making process or on a plant, or animal. Simultaneously, published articles of peer scholars on fibre identification of excavated finds were reviewed, documenting information on the date and place of origin of the finds, the archaeological context, the methods applied for fibre identification and of course the results. These two tasks informed the list of the fibres to be collected for the project. An interesting challenge was that not all fibres could be found processed and used to make a textile object, like certain wild silks from the Mediterranean and certain plants (e.g. palm). A methodology developed in the laboratory was used for fibre extraction from the cocoons or plants respectively. A very important part of the project was the experiments specifically designed to simulate deterioration in an excavation context, as this is typically manifested across Europe (namely mineralisation, carbonisation and biodeterioration). Experiments were successfully carried out to a large variety of both plant and animal fibres, and allowed for a comprehensive study of the effects of these types of deterioration to the morphology of the fibres. Experience and knowledge gained by carrying out the tasks of FIBRANET have been communicated through a Workshop organised the University of Copenhagen and the Danish Royal School of Conservation, the Centre’s for Textile Research/UCPH Summer School and teaching at UCPH and the University of Warsaw (the latter jointly supported by the Erasmus+ programme). Experimental design and results and literature review findings are the focus of different papers in peer reviewed journals (one already published, one under review, two in writing). Results from the literature review, the fibre analyses and the experiments are all included in the on-line database FIBRANET, accessible through CTR/UCPH site.
The most significant outcome of FIBRANET was the creation on the on-line, freely accessible database ( This makes the results of this project readily available to peer colleagues and the public, which will increase its value and usefulness. The database includes images of fibres that are very difficult to locate ( as certain wild silk mentioned above) and most importantly images of the effects on the morphology of fibres that have undergone artificial deterioration. Both features of great importance to the study of excavated textiles. All images have been uploaded at
Image 2: Optical microscope photograph of a cross-section of a the wild silk Saturnia pyri.
6: Sheep wool fibres untreated and after burial (right), that became ragged and wavy.
Image 3: The furnace used for the carbonisation experiments.
Image 1: Scanning electron microscope micrograph of a cross-section of a palm fibre, Phoenix theophr
5: Flax fibres untreated and carbonised (right). The carbonised exhibited longitudinal lacerations.
Image 4: Mechanical cleaning of the samples after artificial burial.
6: Sheep wool fibres untreated and after burial (right), that became ragged and wavy.
5: Flax fibres untreated and carbonised (right). The carbonised exhibited longitudinal lacerations.