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Continuity and changes in textile production in Early Bronze Age Greece

Final Report Summary - GREEK TEXTILE TOOLS (Continuity and changes in textile production in Early Bronze Age Greece)

The project “Greek Textile Tools. Continuity and changes in textile production in Early Bronze Age Greece” was carried out in 2013-2017 in the Centre for Textile Research, SAXO Institute at the University of Copenhagen. It aimed to elucidate the role of textiles in the cultural change during the 3rd millennium BC at the end of the Early Bronze Age (EBA) in Greece and to provide new insights into the development and importance of textile production. The project integrated theoretical and practical studies on textile tools in order to develop new ways of interpreting archaeological data. Its main aim was a systematic analysis of textile tools, their first appearance and distribution patterns in EBA south Greece. Moreover, experimental tests of textile tools were carried out in order to understand the manufacturing techniques and to identify the types of fibres used (animal and plant). The project also examined the impact of cultural and economic relationships between the Aegean and south-east Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean on textile production and technical development throughout the 3rd millennium BC. Additionally, it addressed social and economic issues by analysing contextual evidence from settlements with implications to working areas and the social and economic status of craftspeople and textile production.
During the project, the relevant published and unpublished archaeological data regarding textile manufacture was systematically collected and analysed. The fieldwork was carried out in the archaeological museums and excavations depots in Greece (Argos, Tiryns, Nemea, Corinth, Athens, Kolonna) and was supplemented with thorough bibliographical queries. As a result, extensive data set about EBA textile tools (primarily spindle whorls and loom weights), was gathered, documented (described, drew, photographed, weighed, measured), examined macroscopically in order to explore manufacture and use ware traces, and analysed.
To the main results of the project belongs a comparative study of textile tools from several important EBA south Greek sites and a discussion on cultural changes and continuity in Greece. Particularly interesting was the transitional period of EBA II and EBA III, seen through the appearance and distribution of textile tools and new technologies. It was examined when the first appearance, distribution and spread of new techniques in textile manufacture in Greece took place, and whether they were influenced or introduced by various cultures and peoples.
A particular emphasis was put on the use of plant (flax) and animal (mainly sheep wool) fibres, and potential consequences of the introduction of woolly wool in Greece in the EBA, which undoubtedly revolutionised textile production in prehistory. The most ancient fibres used for textile making were bast fibres with flax, hemp and nettle; also tree bark fibres to produce cordage and rope may have been used since the Paleolithic period. There is solid archaeobotanical evidence for the use of flax at many sites in Greece in the Neolithic and EBA. Flax was possibly used to extract oil, nevertheless, its widespread presence indirectly indicates the use of the plant in textile manufacture. As far as animal fibres are concerned, goat and sheep hair and wool may have been known already in the Neolithic, but the wool was hairy, short and coarse, and as such never played the major role in textile manufacture. It was previously suggested by other scholars, and recently confirmed by the extensive study of the TOPOI group in Berlin under Prof. C. Becker that long-staple wool (woolly wool), suitable for spinning with spindle whorls, first appeared in Greece during the 3rd millennium BC. This research project concluded, however, that it is not possible to prove this hypothesis through the use of particular textile implements, like spindle whorls. No clear shift in the use of spindle whorls (from heavy to light), which would suggest that woolly wool was rapidly and broadly employed, could be identified. This is one of the main results of the study that EBA Greek textile implements do not seem to reflect a fundamental change in textile making. Even if woolly wool was clearly more advantageous than plant fibres, it either needed considerably more time to gain importance, or is not visible in the archaeological record. The archaeological, archaeozoological, archaeobotanical and ethnographical evidence collected during the project, as well as results of experiments and tests suggests that in EBA Greece plant fibres remained popular throughout the entire 3rd millennium BC.

Experimental tests with copies of spindle whorls and loom weights from Greek sites, undertaken mainly in Copenhagen (Centre for Textile Research, University of Copenhagen) and in Warsaw (Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw), also addressed the question of fibres types: the examined spinning tools proved to work very well both with animal and plant fibres. Nevertheless, the large and heavy spindle whorls (up to 120 g), popular particularly in the EBA II period, were probably used for plying threads, yet spinning of coarse plant fibres, perhaps for making outdoor cloths and domestic textiles (like blankets and rugs) was also possible.
The tests also investigated weaving techniques, and helped reconstructing various weaves potentially used in EBA Greece. Well attested loom weights belonged to a cylindrical type, with one, two or (seldom) three lengthwise perforations; also examples without holes – the so-called spool-shaped (cf. Siennicka, Ulanowska 2016) are frequent. It was demonstrated (Siennicka, Ulanowska 2016) that the latter were suitable for various textile-related activities, like warping, storing thread, and weaving (as loom weights or in tablet weaving). At Tiryns, a site of great importance for the EBA in the Peloponnese, which witnessed multiple influences and exchange with distant areas, additional types of loom weights were identified (cf. Siennicka 2012; Siennicka submitted): large cones and crescent-shaped loom weights, almost unknown in Greece of this period. The experimental tests helped to reconstruct the weaves and fabrics possibly produced with them (cf. Ulanowska in press). The primary type of weave used in the prehistory was tabby (plain weave), however, this research combined with the experiments inspired by the recent paper of A. Wisti Lassen (2013), suggests that in EBA Greece, a diagonal weave – twill – might have been produced with crescent-shaped loom weights discovered at Tiryns. All weaving implements (cones, cylinders, crescent-shaped objects, and clay spools), were suitable to produce weft-faced and balanced plain weaves (tabbies), appropriate both for ordinary and outdoor clothes, as well as for making domestic textiles, like blankets or rugs. The majority of the loom weighs were heavy (400-500 g, and more), therefore, coarse textiles seem to be frequently produced on warp-weighted looms during this period.
Finally, social and economic issues of textile making were addressed, like gender issues and defining working areas and modes of production in EBA Greece. It was demonstrated that textile manufacture was a crucial and very widespread activity, and was undertaken in many of the EBA settlements, both outdoors and indoors, while specialised workshops were not common at that time (Siennicka in press; Ulanowska, Siennicka in press). Working areas for yarn preparation were recognised in EBA settlements. The household based manufacture was predominating, while the wide range of shapes and masses of spindle whorls suggests that the EBA thread producers were skilled to prepare varied yarns, from very fine to coarse, and they probably used different spindle whorls for specific fibres (plant or animal). Specialisation of yarn production in the individual households was suggested, therefore individual or household industry production mode can be assumed. Weaving was performed mainly in domestic areas. More organised manufacture, especially during EBA II, cannot be ruled out as the evidence from Lerna suggests. Nevertheless, the poor quality of loom weights and their great diversity in shapes and masses suggest that weaving was mainly a domestic and non-specialised occupation. Textile production played an important role in the socio-economic life of EBA societies. Manufacture of fabrics and clothes, and use of plant and animal fibres may have been at least partly controlled by the EBA chiefdoms, as was the case in contemporary Near Eastern societies. Textile implements, techniques and fibres could have been introduced and/or imported from distant areas, e.g. from Anatolia as finds of e.g. crescent-shaped loom weights at Tiryns suggest. The evidence of EBA textile craftspeople is still vague, particularly as far as the gender issues are concerned, but the project was able to improve our knowledge of this socially and economically important craft.

The project produced significant new insights into the economic and social importance of textiles. A new tool for the archaeologists to analyse archaeological evidence for textile production in Greece was established and it provides a framework both for the re-evaluation of the extensive material excavated since the 19th century, and for recent and future discoveries. It adds greatly to the common understanding of the early development of textile production, which was undoubtedly a crucial craft of mankind. The research is relevant for historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, textile historians, textile experts, the tourism sector and craftspeople, as well as for all people who are interested in human past and human achievements.