The Archaeology of Textiles - by Anna Henderson

Textiles are typically not the first form of archaeological evidence associated with the classical world. There is a good reason for this: textiles need certain conditions to survive and so very few fragments have been discovered. However, the textile fragments that do survive offer new perspectives on the life of ancient societies. Textiles have consistently been a vital part of human life and were used for clothing, shelter, and warmth. Even today, we are surrounded by textiles: the clothes we wear, the curtains and blankets in our houses, the coverings on furniture. Thus, textiles not only reveal a lot about the lifestyle of a society, but they can also be used in surprising ways.


Early surviving textile fragments can be used to provide evidence for the evolution and breeding of sheep by humans. Most textiles from Italy in the first millennium BCE were woven out of wool: wool is relatively easy to work with, can be dyed in different colours, and woven into interesting patterns. Using microscopic analysis, archaeologists can measure the diameters of the wool fibres used to create the textile. This can then inform us about the evolution of sheep fleece, as fibre diameters change across time as humans begin to manage sheep herds. Wild sheep have a large fibre diameter range; they have an outer coat of very coarse, thick hair and an undercoat of much finer wool that is suitable for weaving. Over time, humans have actively bred sheep to try to increase the supply of the fine under-wool. By measuring the diameters of textile fibres, it becomes clear that the diameter range of sheep fleece becomes steadily more uniform over time. The outer coat disappears but the inner coat also becomes coarser, so that many modern sheep breeds have a uniform fleece with fibre diameters somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. The evolution of sheep fleece in first millennium BCE Italy is thus traceable through surviving textiles fragments.


Many of the surviving fragments in Italy come from the site of Verucchio in the northeast. Here, archaeologists have recovered near-complete garments preserved in graves. Burial goods are a common method for textile fragments to survive; as part of the possessions of the dead, metal objects are often wrapped in cloth. Before the cloth disintegrates, the contact with metal will mineralise the textile so that it survives. The Verucchio fragments are even rarer, as they have survived in their original form. Several mantles were discovered at the site in an exceptional state of preservation. Mantles are a style of cloak consisting of a semi-circular shaped piece of fabric. The surviving textiles reveal the kinds of colours used on these garments; one was dyed blue and another red (Stauffer, 2019). The context of these items, placed in a grave, indicates that these were not everyday garments, but instead were luxury clothing. They may have been owned by the deceased and placed in the grave for use in the afterlife or as a symbol of their status in life.


Etruscan-era tablet woven edge of tebenna recently discovered in Verucchio
Etruscan-era tablet woven edge of tebenna recently discovered in Verucchio

The mantles can also indicate the designs in fashion at the time. One of the mantles has a tablet-woven border along the edge (Raeder Knudsen, 2019). The mantle itself would have been woven on a loom, but to create a tablet-woven border, a different method is required. As the name suggests, the border is woven using tablets. The woollen threads are attached to the corners of square tablets, and the tablets are then arranged in different orders to create new and complex patterns. This style of weaving is a phenomenon associated with the Etruscan culture, as many surviving textile fragments from this region display these tablet-woven borders.

Whilst textile fragments are a rare form of archaeological evidence, they can provide new and different insights into the lives of ancient societies. Exceptional preservation conditions are needed to ensure their survival, but when they do survive, textile fragments can be used to answer a wide range of questions.


References

RAEDER KNUDSEN, L. 2019. The Tablet-woven Borders of Verucchio. In: GLEBA, M. & MANNERING, U. (eds.) Textiles & textile production in Europe : from prehistory to AD 400. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

STAUFFER, A. 2019. Case Study: The Textiles from Verucchio, Italy. In: GLEBA, M. & MANNERING, U. (eds.) Textiles & textile production in Europe : from prehistory to AD 400. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

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