Archaeology has a way of taking what we thought we knew of history and changing it so that our understanding of human history and technology is broader and deeper than it was before.
A recent study by Dr. Margarita Gleba, of the University of Cambridge, and Dr. Susanna Harris, of the University of Glasgow, of European and Near Eastern archaeological textiles from over 30 different locations and spanning the time period from 4000-500 BCE, has brought to light an astounding fact. The threads in those textiles were not produced by spinning!They were spliced.
Producing thread by splicing means that pieces of fiber are twisted together, one at a time to make the thread, instead of being twisted together continuously with the aid of a spinning spindle.
It is highly significant that the textiles which Drs. Gleba and Harris analyzed were all made from linen. Linen fiber is significantly more difficult to spin into thread with a spindle. But if the linen plant is partially processed by retting--a controlled rotting process--the fibers that are produced can be spliced into thread.
A spliced thread is not as strong as one that is spun. So if one was splicing thread to be woven into cloth, it would be important to strengthen the thread. The simplest way to do so is by plying--twisting one or more spliced threads together. And when Drs. Gleba and Harris examined the threads in the linen textiles (ranging in age from the Neolithic to the early Iron Age) that is exactly what they found. Their paper notes that when thread that has been spliced in one direction is plyed with another thread in the same direction, the resulting thread may look as though it had been spun.
Aside from requiring us to reconsider the age of spinning as a thread making technique, the analysis of Drs. Gleba and Harris explains something that had always puzzled me, namely, why linen fabric seems to have been so common in early Europe and the Near East. The use of spliced thread to create linen textiles goes along way toward explaining that. Such linen did not need the invention of the spindle, or the elaborate fiber preparation process necessary to create spinnable flax fibers.
An article from Current Archaeology reporting on the discovery of Drs. Gleba and Harris can be read here. Dr. Gleba's and Dr. Harris's article can be read and downloaded on the Springer website (it was published as Open Access) here. Thanks to Katrin Kania for posting the link to the Current Archaeology article.