Palaeolithic Weaving -- a Contribution from Chauvet
Bahn, Paul G., Antiquity
The new emphasis in recent years on some hitherto neglected aspects of Ice Age technology (Kehoe 1990; 1991; Soffer et al. 2000a; 2000b) is extremely welcome, and helps to flesh out a picture which has traditionally concentrated far too heavily on stone tool typologies. As Softer et al. have pointed out (2000c: 815), I have elsewhere highlighted a few examples of French Pyrenean scholars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were far-sighted enough to suspect the existence of textiles in the Upper Palaeolithic (Bahn 1985: 204; see also Tyldesley & Bahn 1983). For instance, Mascaraux (1910: 367) interpreted an object of reindeer antler found in the Magdalenian cave of St Michel d'Arudy (Pyrenees Atlantiques) as a hook for making nets, and hence suggested the existence of textile plants in the `Reindeer Age'. Similarly, in the Magdalenian of the Pyrenean `supersite' of Le Mas d'Azil (Ariege),the great Edouard Piette found so many `navettes' (shutties) that he believed in the existence of weaving (Piette 1889: 18), and even in the possibility of a cultivation of textile plants (Dresch 1888). Some decades later, M. & S-J. Pequart's excavations in this same cave (1960-3: 176-7) led to their discovering a `fuseau' (spindle) and a `fusaiole' (spindle weight) which likewise led them to accept the existence of Magdalenian weaving.
The purpose of this short note is to present an even more noteworthy contribution to this debate by another great figure in French prehistory, Gustave Chauvet (1840-1933). Chauvet, a lawyer, was one of the many `amateur' prehistorians who did such pioneering and fundamental work in western Europe, but he has remained little known or read outside those specializing in the prehistory of Charente, the region where he lived and worked. However, his major work on Palaeolithic culture contains no less than six pages devoted to `Vannerie et Tissage?' (Basketry and weaving?, 1910: 155-60). Earlier in the book, he had cast doubt on the `navette' hypothesis (1910: 84-6) as being somewhat vague and undefined, but then states wisely that `in the interpretation of the remains left by the Magdalenians, we are too preoccupied by the idea that these people were hunters and fishers, and we see harpoons, spears and weapons everywhere ... But they also had tools ... and it would be a good idea to check whether [some of them] were used for industrial work -- basketry, crude weaving, etc.' (1910: 89). He also suggests that the multiple zigzag decoration on a point of reindeer antler from the cave of Le Placard (FIGURE 1) might depict basketry (1910: 132).
In the special section of the book devoted to the possibility of basketry and weaving, Chauvet begins by acknowledging that, in the view of most prehistorians, there was no Magdalenian weaving, and there is no question of basketry before the Neolithic. But he feels, along with Aime-Louis Rutot (1847-1933, an eminent Belgian prehistorian), that this view should be abandoned. The study of `present-day savages' shows that basketry is a very rudimentary industry which is known among peoples who have not yet developed pottery. One cannot, of course, find remains of objects made of plant fibres in Magdalenian layers, but he believes that some drawings on bone can indicate their existence. Here he illustrates another engraved bone from the Magdalenian of Le Placard (FIGURE 2) which he considers to be an important depiction of a crude piece of weaving or of fine basketry, comparing it to similar motifs in incised Chaldean pottery. In short, `this drawing probably reproduces an object woven out of plant fibres' (1910: 157). Referring back to the earlier drawing (FIGURE 1), he believes that it represents, line for line, what oriental baskets look like.
He goes on to claim that basketry and crude weaving were probably known to the Magdalenians, and, just as birds plait nests and beavers dams, so Palaeolithic people were able to live far from natural shelters by creating artificial dwellings with wickerwork and rudimentary basketry. …