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Colour photos of a section of woolen textiles preserved as copper salts or ashes

A sample of weft-faced wool tabbies from Greece, 800 BCE-500 BCE. Note the 1 mm long red lines for scale. Photos by Margarita Gleba and Joanne Cutler published as Figure 10 in Margarita Gleba, “Tracing textile cultures of Italy and Greece in the early first millennium BC,” Antiquity 91 (2017) pp. 1205-1222 https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2017.144

This week I had a chance to talk with Margarita Gleba about her work on Iron Age (1000-400 BCE) textiles from Spain, Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria. Thousands of fragments are known, often preserved in the corrosion products on bronze grave goods such as vessels or broaches, but understanding them requires rare knowledge and expensive equipment for taking high-magnification photos, and the details are often scattered in publications which are hard to find and use different language to describe the same thing. A Cambridge History of Western Textiles had a brief section on this material which I would like to read, but publication was delayed for almost 20 years while the archaeology moved on, and until this week I did not know of any other overviews.

Most of the peoples from Britain to Afghanistan grew flax and tended sheep and used drop spindles, warp-weighted looms, and tablets to turn linen and wool into cloth, but they made different kinds of textiles in different regions. Textile technology was hard to change, because in recent cultures, girls started to learn to spin and weave as toddlers and spend much of their childhood mastering the skills (Susan M. Strawn, “Hand Spinning and Cotton in the Aztec Empire, as Revealed by the Codex Mendoza,” http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/420). It is very difficult to change a skill practised for so many years, or persuade adults to take lessons in a skill which children are supposed to master. Moreover, it was bound up with the local crops, climate, and taboos: the sheep in different areas produced wool which was good for different things, and there was a divide between cultures which wove textiles to shape and wrapped and pinned them into garments, and cultures which wove long rectangular pieces, cut them up, and sewed them into garments.

In Italy, textile finds are roughly evenly divided between balanced tabby weaves (with about the same number of warp threads and weft threads in a square centimetre), weft-faced tabbies (where the warp threads are thin and loosely packed and thicker, densely packed weft threads hide them), and various kinds of twills. The woollen twills usually have 10-30 threads per centimetre. This technology should be very familiar to anyone who has studied ‘barbarian’ or Viking Age European textiles, when wool twills with herringbone, diamond, and other pattens in the weave were popular. It also has very strong affinities with Iron Age finds from sites in the Alps such as Halstatt.

In the Aegean, Anatolia, the Fertile Crescent and the Zagros Mountains, textiles are divided into balanced tabby weaves and weft-faced woollen tabbies. These usually have 50-100 weft threads per centimeter. No twills have been found in hundreds of samples from Greece. Weft-faced tabbies are suitable for making multicoloured tapestries such as kilim. Early Greek woollens were completely different from Northern European textiles, and very similar to textiles from the Near East. There are some hints that these two traditions met in Illyria, and this eastern technology became dominant in the imperium romanum, perhaps because of the massive importation of slaves from the eastern Mediterranean in the last century of the Roman Republic.

Evidence for dyes is limited but murex purple, red madder, blue woad, and various yellow dyestuffs have all been identified in textiles from Italy. It is good to know that plant dyes were often combined in a sequence of baths, so a dying process which began with woad might end with a colour anywhere from black to pale green. In addition, some plant dyes are easier to detect in degraded or long-soaked textiles than others: shellfish purples seem easier to identify than lichen purples.

Last year Dr. Gleba published an open-access overview of this research: Margarita Gleba, “Tracing textile cultures of Italy and Greece in the early first millennium BC,” Antiquity 91 (2017) pp. 1205-1222 https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2017.144

She also has an acadaemia.edu page.

This coming week is a big one: NASA will try to land the InSight rover on Mars (Monday 26 November, 3 pm EST), Canada Post has a strike in the middle of a referendum with postal ballots, and an eccentric Canadian will be defending his doctoral dissertation (Monday 26 November, 3 pm Austrian time). See you on the other side!