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5,300-Year-Old Textile Impressions Unearthed in Scotland

5,300-Year-Old Textile Impressions Unearthed in Scotland

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The colorful threads, strings, yarns, twines, and ropes that wove together the Neolithic world have greatly rotted back to whence they came, leaving archaeologists and anthropologists only grey stone and bone artifacts with which to draw their conclusions of the past. Nature’s withering effects also means the study of Neolithic textiles relies heavily on the examination of secondary evidence. This is the case now, as archaeologists have announced that while they haven’t discovered a piece of 5,000-year-old fabric, they have found a textile impression pressed onto the surface of an ancient clay pot.

Only the Second of its Type Ever Discovered

Covering 2.5 hectares and located between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness in the Heart of UNESCO World Heritage Site of Neolithic Orkney, the Ness of Brodgar was built over 5000 years ago. It has been described as a vast Neolithic cathedral serving the entire north of Scotland. Excavations at the site began in 2003. In 2019 archaeologists Jan Blatchford and Roy Towers from the Archaeology Institute of the University of the Highlands and Island set out to closely examine the impressions on the surfaces of fragments of Grooved Ware pottery unearthed at the Ness, according to article in Heritage Daily.

The textile impression was found at the Neolithic Ness of Brodgar site. (Dr. Scott Pike)

In many scientific projects the researchers have a database of prior discoveries in any given field, but not this time, as the only piece of evidence of woven textiles having been made in Neolithic Scotland is a single textile imprint discovered on another clay pot at Flint Howe in Dumfries and Galloway on the south west coast of Scotland in the 1960s. So the intrepid pair of archaeologists went in completely blind.

Hi-Tech Analysis of Ancient Textile Impressions

The textile imprinted pottery discovered at the Ness comprises two separate sherds on the inner surface of the same pot, suggesting they were pressed into the wet clay by the makers clothing while the pot was being created. To study the two fragments, the scientists used Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), which, according to Cultural Heritage Imaging, is a computational photographic method that captures a subject s surface shape and color and enables the interactive re-lighting of the subject from any direction.

The series of RTI images were combined using computer software and a highly detailed digital visualization of the surface was examined from all angles. Enlargements of the textile impressions were projected onto screens, allowing the analysis of detailing hitherto invisible to the naked eye. The pair of archaeologists identified a “Z-ply cord,” around 4 centimeters long and 3 millimeters in diameter,  which they say is so clear one can still see the individual fibers in what appears to have been a finely woven cloth, “probably plant-based, possibly flax,” according to a report by the BBC.

Image of the z-shaped cord and textile impression on the clay pot. (UHI Archaeology Institute)

Unfurling the Twisted History of the Neolithic

The only other evidence of textiles from the Neolithic period in Scotland, from Flint Howe in Dumfries and Galloway, consisted of a similar small impression of a plain-weave textile on the exterior of a Late Neolithic vessel, but the Ness of Brodgar Site Director Nick Card said no evidence existed of textile manufacturing tools in Neolithic Orkney - which has led archaeologists to assume fabrics were made by hand or with tools made with organic materials that have since decomposed.

While this particular find is taking the headlines, the project has also unearthed rare basketry and other cordage impressions on clay vessels similar to the examples found at Barnhouse and Rinyo in Orkney and also at Forest Road in Aberdeenshire. And while further examinations of the ancient textile impression is ongoing, the archaeologists think it is most likely that the pot had been held in place by some form of basket while the clay was drying, accidentally leaving the impression.

Drawing of an Orkney Island vessel. (CC0) The archaeologists think it is most likely that the pot had been held in place by some form of basket while the clay was drying, accidentally leaving the impression.

Even though Dr. Card says there is no evidence of textile manufacture in Neolithic Orkney he said, “cordage and textiles would have been essential in prehistory, facilitating essential survival activities such as hunting, fishing, foraging, storage, cooking and providing warm clothing, matting and bedding.”

Ancient Egyptians were the first to document tools for ropemaking. (Public Domain)

The Stone Age, or the Rope Age?

If you’re interested in finding out more about cordage crafts and rope skills existent in Neolithic Orkney, I highly-recommend the 2016 book, A Twist in Time, which presents the lost rope production crafts and cordage measuring skills present in the designing and building of the stone super-structures - The Ring of Brodgar Stone Circle and Maeshowe Burial Chamber.

And while the archaeologists in Orkney say “no evidence of textile manufacture” has ever been discovered, contrary to this, the author of A Twist In Time presents volumes of possible bone and stone textile spinning, weaving, and twisting tools, even those required to make “Z-ply cords” - which the archaeologists have now found evidence of.

And why I am particularly fond of that book, is because the author is - yours truly.

Top Image: Cord and textile impressions found on a Neolithic pot found in Orkney, Scotland. (UHI Archaeology Institute) Background: A tartan pattern. (CC0)

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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