Tracing Textile Cultures of Italy and Greece in the Early First Millennium BC

By Gleba, Margarita | Antiquity, October 2017 | Go to article overview

Tracing Textile Cultures of Italy and Greece in the Early First Millennium BC


Gleba, Margarita, Antiquity


Introduction

Despite their universally recognised value as the most important carriers of individual and group identity, textiles are rarely, if ever, included among the cultural indicators of the ancient societies of Mediterranean Europe--a lacuna ostensibly resulting from the unfavourable conditions for organic material preservation in the region. When textiles are considered, Italy and Greece are generally assumed to have had similar technological and aesthetic traditions of textile production during the first millennium BC. But what is the evidence for this?

Central and Eastern Mediterranean Europe between 1000 and 400 BC was an area of dynamic change, characterised by the movement of people and goods, the production of wealth, the rise of urbanism, mobility and craft specialisation. The role of elites in these processes through social networks of gift and commodity exchange, and control of land and natural resources, has been amply demonstrated (e.g. Riva 2010). The contribution of economic activities related to metal, ceramic and agricultural production to the urbanisation of Iron Age Italy and Greece has long commanded the attention of archaeologists and historians. The role of textiles, both in terms of wealth generation and subsistence, has, however, not been investigated.

The significance of the production and consumption of textiles in the development of city-states (as clothing, elite regalia, trade and exchange items), and the implications of this for other aspects of the economy, such as the use of farm land, labour resources and the development of an urban lifestyle, cannot be overestimated. The state archives of the Bronze Age urban states of Mesopotamia and the Aegean during the third and second millennia BC provide abundant evidence for the importance of textile production and consumption in the formation of the political systems synonymous with urbanisation (McCorriston 1997; Killen 2007). In the absence of similar written evidence for the first millennium BC, we must turn to archaeological evidence for answers. The first step is to understand what type of textiles the Iron Age societies of Italy and Greece wanted and produced--that is, to define their textile cultures.

Susanna Harris recently proposed the concept of cloth culture' based on the idea that all societies use cloth-type materials, but the way they do so is culture-specific (Harris 2012: 62). This study included not only textiles, but also animal skins, and considered both materials and their use when comparing cloth cultures of Bronze Age Scandinavia, Central Europe, the Aegean and Egypt. Although this paper focuses purely on textiles, use of the term 'textile culture' is inspired by Harris's approach, in that it is defined here not only in terms of raw materials and techniques, but also in terms of cultural preferences determined by the specific traditions, aesthetics and values of an individual society.

This ongoing analysis of several hundred textile fragments provides, for the first time, a much more detailed definition of textile cultures in Italy and Greece during the first half of the first millennium BC, a period of considerable socio-economic changes that led towards social stratification, urbanisation and unprecedented long-distance interactions. These new data help us to understand the choices in technology made within these regions, and to demonstrate cultural similarities with other broader areas.

Methods and materials

The data required to define a textile culture of a particular region includes structural textile parameters, such as thread diameter in warp and weft (expressed in millimetres); thread twist direction in warp and weft ('z' for clockwise; 's' for counter-clockwise; 'i' for no discernible twist; '*' for splicing; Figure 1); the type of textile weave or binding (plain weave/tabby or twill; Figure 1); thread count (expressed in number of threads per centimetre) in warp and weft, which indicates cloth quality; the presence of edges and other diagnostic features; and material (wool, flax and the like). …

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