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The Origins of Weaving Project


This project contributes to the understanding of the origins of weaving, and its significance in assessing creativity in the Upper Palaeolithic. The project focuses in particular on the identification of what plants were used in making the earliest textiles (about 28,000 to 20,000 years ago). The first evidence for the technique of weaving and the known oldest woven textiles are found in the context of the Eurasian Palaeolithic. This suggests that the 'know how' of plant utilisation, beyond their consumption as food, was linked with the cold climate and harsh environment that prevailed at this time.


Venus figure from Kostenki (Hermitage cat. no. 2928/12, photo by Lila Janik)
Venus figure from Kostenki (Hermitage cat. no. 2928/12, photo by Lila Janik)
The development of weaving forms part of the 'human revolution' in the Upper Palaeolithic. A detailed and systematic study of weaving, however, one which is informed by and can contribute to the ongoing debate about the role of technology in the development of human symbolic behaviour and society (Dobres 2000), still needs to be undertaken. The use of weaving in the production of clothing during the Upper Palaeolithic was first established by Soffer et al. (2000). By analysing the clothing depicted on so-called 'Venus' figurines found across Upper Palaeolithic Eurasia, as well as clay fragments with the imprints of textiles, Soffer and her colleagues demonstrated the use of plant material in the production of items such as skirts, belts, hats, bandeau, bands, and necklaces. These studies further established a link between the figurines, the clothes they are depicted wearing, and the understanding of gender in the Upper Palaeolithic. Soffer suggested the presence of tools used in textile production, while Demeshenko (2006) argued that the presence of weaving tools at particular locations in Upper Palaeolithic sites on the Russian Plain indicated specific activity areas related to weaving. Imprints on clay, carvings on figurines and these tools constitute the first physical evidence of weaving.


The early evidence for the utilisation of plants for basketry is known from Israel (23,000 BP). Although plants were used most probably for making cord and possibly nets, there is, however, so far no tangible record indicating textile production (Nadel et al. 1994). It is important to remember that the cold environment of the tundra in which textile production first appeared, rather than the warm climate of the Mediterranean or the Caucasus, does not necessarily mean that it was linked with clothing, since animals skins and fur unarguably provided the best protection against the cold. My own research relating to the use of plants by Mid-Holocene north European fisher-gatherer-hunters has identified the use of particular plants (sedges, nettles, birch and lime bast) in weaving, and the production of basketry, cords and nets allowed me to focus on the use of plant fibre within the native environment outside the communities' reliance on domesticated plants and animals for clothing (Janik 1997).

Batten fragment from Malt'a (Hermitage cat. No. 617/370, photo by Lila Janik)
Batten fragment from Malt'a (Hermitage cat. No. 617/370, photo by Lila Janik)

Research Questions, Methodology, Methods

By combining the three strands of evidence outlined above, this project will enhance understanding of the 'know how' of weaving technology. Specific research questions include: (1) Which plants could be used? (2) What methods were used in preparing woven fibres? (3) During which season could the preparation of fibres take place? (4) How did weaving relate to other practices and knowledge involved in the exploitation of the natural environment?

The methodology to be used in this project will build an understanding of plant utilisation in the process of textile production based on ethnographic, historical and archaeological data. To achieve this, a reference collection of plants known to have been used in textile production within the indigenous environment of temperate and cold climate of Eurasia has been established (Phytoliths), answering the first question (which plants could be used?). Plants that were introduced into temperate Eurasia by farming communities, such as cotton, flax or hemp, were not included in this stage in the reference collection. Different types of reference material for particular plant specimens have been acquired: 1) herbarium specimen, 2) phytolith specimen (of steam, leaf and fluorescent part of the plant), 3) microscope-magnified photographs of phytoliths (that are an integral part of the plant fibre). The creation of phytolith reference specimens has been vital in trying to establish the presence of plant fibres in the archaeological record. Phytoliths are inorganic plant structures created by depositing silica during the plant's lifetime, and recoverable from soil samples after all plant organic remains have decomposed. Such preservation allows the recovery of different plant remains and their parts as well as permitting the reconstruction of plant utilisation thousands of years ago without any organic preservation present on an archaeological site. For example, the phytoliths of sedges, rushes and nettles are very distinctive and preserve well in most archaeological contexts. It was vital to create reference material to find out to what extent we can define phytoliths of particular species used as fibre versus, for example, a plant's genus or family. This has never been done before and there is no phytolith atlas or any other publication that will allow us to conduct such recognition based on already existing research. By establishing the phytolith reference material, different scholars will be able to compare the phytoliths captured in archaeological samples on order to establish textile production and weaving without the presence of any organic remains.

The plants included in the reference material are of two types: first, the particular plant species known to have been used in textile production; and second, plants that belong to genuses we know were used in textile making, although individual species are not defined. The first category includes: common rush or soft rush (Juncus effuses L.), sea rush (Juncus maritimus Lam.), sharp rush or spiny rush (Juncus acutus L.), great fen-sedge or saw-sedge (Cladium mariscus Müritz-Gebiet), sweet flag or calamus (Acorus calamus L.), and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica L.). The second category includes the genus of club-rushes or bulrushes (Scirpus sp), common reeds (Phragmites sp), reedmaces (Typha sp), sedges (Carex sp) and small-reed grasses (Calamagrostis sp). In the second category, the four most common and distinctive species which were most abundant under prehistoric climatic conditions has been analysed.

Selecting particular plants that are known to be used in fibre production from ethnographic, historical and archaeological records will allow the seasonality and scheduling of plant gathering and various activities associated with textile production to be established in the future (Barber 1991, Ericksen et al. 2000, Hurcombe 2000, Dockstader 1993). This in turn will allow us to answer the second and third questions (what methods were used in preparing woven fibres? and during which seasons did the preparation of fibres take place?).


Those analyses have the potential to lead to a deeper understanding of the origins of weaving as well as developing a new understanding of the earliest technology of plant use, both in terms of technological 'know-how', and what symbolic significance weaving and woven materials had in the everyday life of Palaeolithic communities. Web access to the plant reference material will provide a focus on the origins of weaving and plants use over the millennia. The research also offers an interdisciplinary platform for multi-disciplinary approaches to plant utilisation going beyond the discipline of archaeology itself.


This research was made possible financial supported by the Newton Trust Small Research Grant Scheme in the Humanities, University of Cambridge as well as the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge to whom we are grateful. The special gratitude goes to all the colleagues from The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; Kuntskamera - Peter the Great Museum, St. Petersburg; The State Historical Museum, Moscow; Karmarov Botanical Institute, St. Petersberg; Botanical Gardens Cambridge; Milton County Park, Cambridgeshire.




Updated: 2012-08-15. First published: 2012-08-15.
Copyright © 2012--2012 Lila Janik and Jennifer Bates
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