Spinning the tale of prehistoric textiles

4 mins read
This scanning electron micrograph of a piece of thread shows a splice in one of the single thread elements. (IMAGE: M. Gleba, S. Harris, with permission of Israel Antiquities Authority)

It has long been assumed that the technique of spinning thread has a lengthy and robust history. New evidence, though, suggests that a different way of making thread – called splicing – was instead the norm throughout most of Europe and the Near East during prehistory.

In a paper recently published in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (https:// doi.org/10.1007/s12520-018-0677-8), Dr Margarita Gleba, from the University of Cambridge, and Dr Susanna Harris, from the University of Glasgow, have identified new methodologies for being able to distinguish between textiles made by splicing thread and those produced through spinning.

By analysing textiles spanning c.4000-500 BC and over 30 European and Near Eastern sites – including Over Barrow, an Early Bronze Age site, and Must Farm (see CA 312 and 319), both in Cambridgeshire – the researchers were able to determine how the thread from each example had been made. Their results demonstrated that all the samples were produced through splicing – in which strips of fibres are joined individually, either by adding them in continuously or by joining them end-to-end through twisting – and not by spinning. Instead of thread production being the same as it was in the 19th century, as had been previously assumed, it appears that prehistoric technologies were varied and encompassed several different forms of splicing. This means that earlier assessments of thread technology need to be reviewed.

An example of a spliced textile from the Early Bronze Age site of Over Barrow, Cambridgeshire. (IMAGE: M. Gleba, S. Harris, with permission of Cambridge Archaeological Unit)

What does this mean in terms of the ubiquity of spindle whorls discovered at prehistoric sites across Europe? As Margarita and Susanna explain in the paper, the ‘presence of spindle whorls… is not evidence of draft-spinning, as they could have been used to impart the twist to the spliced yarn or to ply two or more spliced yarns together.’

This discovery has major implications for how we understand the history and archaeology of textiles. As Susanna noted, ‘It is exciting because we think the past is familiar, but this shows life was quite different in the Bronze Age. Sites like Over Barrow in Cambridgeshire contained a burial with remains of stacked textiles, which were prepared using strips of plant fibre, spliced into yarns, then woven into textiles. It has always been assumed that textiles were made following well-known historical practices of fibre-processing and draft-spinning, but we can now show people were dealing with plants rather differently, possibly using nettles or flax plants, to make these beautiful woven textiles.’

So when did spinning thread become the dominant technique? Margarita suggests, ‘The technological innovation of draft-spinning plant bast fibres appears to coincide with urbanisation and population growth, as well as increased human mobility across the Mediterranean during the first half of the 1st millennium BC.’

This article appeared in CA 344


    • I find it disrespectful. The world has become a lot more casual about titles but it seems male doctorates are noted as such and I don’t see any reason why it should differ in this case.

      • Hi Janet and Saskia! Editor Carly here – thanks for your feedback, we’re always very glad to hear from our readers.

        It has long been CA house style that we use doctoral titles the first time we mention someone, but then use first names thereafter – it’s part of how we aim to present research in an accessible, friendly way. We certainly don’t prioritise titles for men, though – in fact, there aren’t any men mentioned in this news story, and both Dr Gleba and Dr Harris are referred to using their academic titles in the second paragraph. I hope this helps clarify things – and thanks again for getting in touch.

    • Interesting read. I have been a handspinner for over 40 years using spinning wheels. I have used spit-splicing to join ends of yarn that have broken during spinning, as well as joining yarn while hand knitting.

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