The Question of Prehistoric Silks in Europe

By Jorgensen, Lise Bender | Antiquity, June 2013 | Go to article overview
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The Question of Prehistoric Silks in Europe

Jorgensen, Lise Bender, Antiquity


Silk was one of the iconic luxury items of the ancient world and was traded over extensive distances. Claims for silk textiles in Bronze Age and Iron Age contexts (late second to first millennia BC) in both temperate and Mediterranean Europe have suggested it was a recognised and valued commodity from the sixth century BC or even earlier. Here it is argued, however, that those claims are based on insecure analysis and identification, and a plea is made for greater transparency in the recording and reporting of specialised scientific analyses.

In a paper in Antiquity some years ago, Irene Good discussed the question of silk in pre-Han Asia and included a survey of suggested examples of early silks, five of these from Europe. This was accompanied by a map of Eurasia, mapping and listing possible silks outside China before the Han period (Good 1995). As attention has been called to the fact that the first of Good's silks had never been identified as such (Bender Jorgensen 1992: 105) and three more have been refuted by other scholars (Banck 1994:51; Banck-Burgess 1999: 234-40; Margariti et al. 2011), it is surprising to find them all firmly in place as early instances of silk in Good's contribution to the recent Andrew Sherratt memorial volume, now without question marks or references to the contrasting identifications published by other researchers (Good 2011: 221). Moreover, Good's identification of two of the pieces as silk was based upon the same method, amino acid compositional analysis (Good 2011: 219), that Banck-Burgess and her team had used to establish that no silk was present in one of these (Banck-Burgess 1999: 234-40). This raises serious concerns about what to believe.

Silk is a luxury item that has had major social and economic impact throughout its history. It follows that the identification of silk in prehistoric finds from Europe is of major interest to archaeologists, historians and textile specialists as it sheds light on worldwide exchange networks. The aim of this paper is therefore to take a closer look at the examples from prehistoric Europe claimed by Good to be silk in order to clarify how and why they have been suggested, identified or refuted as silks.

1. Altrier (Figure 1)

The first item on this list is from an Early La Tene grave from Altrier in Luxembourg (Thill 1972). A richly furnished cremation grave excavated in 1972 contained an oak coffin, in which an Etruscan stamnos had been placed. Pieces of brown woollen textile covered parts of the outer surface of the urn, and had probably been wrapped around it. Further textile remains were found inside the stamnos, on top of the cremated bones. Some of them had traces of a blue and yellow check pattern; two pieces had been sewn together and were thought to represent an item of clothing that had been placed on top of the urn at the funeral (Thill 1972: 497). Parts of the textile remains were examined at the Musse National d'Histoire et d'Art in Luxembourg, while further pieces were investigated by Professor Hans-Jurgen Hundt at the Romisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum in Mainz. The preliminary examination of the Altrier textiles proved them to be woven in 2/2 twill with plied warp yarns and single weft yarns, and the fibres were identified as wool (Heyart 1972:500-501). The identification as wool was repeated in a later publication (Thill 1987: 254). This is also how they were described by Hundt (1974:117) in the only publication in which he mentioned the Altrier textiles. Hundt's report on the Altrier find was never published, but is lodged in the archives of the Romisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum; it confirms that the Altrier textiles are typical, although exquisite, examples of late Hallstatt/Early La Tene textiles, but no mention of silk is made. A short note by Dr Maria Hopf gives the only inkling, saying that although the fibres examined could not be identified as wool or flax, they might be of animal origin.

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