What If We Called It the ‘Flax Age’ Instead of the ‘Iron Age’?

Correcting the Historical Bias Against Domestic Materials

Archaeology has traditionally had a fundamental bias against fabric. Fabrics are after all highly perishable, withering away within months or years, and only rarely leaving traces behind for those coming millennia later to find. Archaeologists—predominantly male—gave ancient ages names like “Iron” and “Bronze,” rather than “Pottery” or “Flax.” This implies that metal objects were the principal features of these times, when they are simply often the most visible and long-lasting remnants. Technologies using perishable materials, such as wood and textiles, may well have been more pivotal in the daily lives of the people who lived through them, but evidence of their existence has, for the most part, been absorbed back into the earth.

There are exceptions, of course, and traces can and do survive, usually thanks to an unusual climate: freezing, damp anaerobic conditions or extremely dry ones. The climate in Egypt, for example, is ideal for preserving all manner of usually perishable things and we subsequently know far more about ancient Egyptian textiles than those from most other regions. As archaeology has matured and diversified, scholars have increasingly looked for—and found—evidence of fine, complex textiles stretching farther back than anyone would have guessed. Their beauty and the skill needed to make them suggest a very different image of our earliest forebears than the club-wielding, simpleminded thugs of popular imagination.

The objects that most commonly survive, and from which archaeologists and anthropologists infer larger-scale textile production, are the tools that were used to make them. Spindle whorls—small weights, often made of stone or clay punctured with a small hole so that they can be jammed onto the end of a spindle—are found in abundance at many sites. They make it easier to draft and twist the fibers and help apply the force of the twist evenly along the length of the thread being worked upon. And, although they are so simple, whorls can help reveal the kinds of fiber being worked and the desired properties of the finished product.

Heavier ones are better suited to sturdier raw materials, thicker threads made from long-staple fibers, such as flax, while, conversely, if you are making particularly fine thread from short-stapled fibers, like cotton, then you would use a smaller, lighter whorl. An experienced spinner can use a simple spindle and whorl to superlative effect. Indian hand-spinners were said to be able to stretch a single pound of cotton into gossamer-thin thread over 200 miles long: our modern machinery isn’t capable of such dexterity….[ ]

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