Sunday, March 5, 2017

Fine Fabric In the Bronze Age

Many people who aren't knowledgeable about historical costume assume that clothing in early times, including the Bronze Age, was coarse and heavy and bulky to wear.  

Early Greek and Roman sculpture show that that wasn't true in the Mediterranean--the fine drapery shown in those sculptures could not have been achieved with coarse fabric.  And archaeological finds from early Egyptian tombs show their skill at thin, translucent, fine linen. 

Somehow, it's hard to imagine fine fabrics showing up in northern Europe much before the Middle Ages.  The Hammerum dress, for example, was brightly dyed and well-woven, but rather thick and graceless in appearance, if the recent reconstruction of the dress by Museum Midtjylland is a realistic guide.  But a recent discovery in England, of all places, suggests that fine fabric was not worn solely in southern Europe during the Bronze Age.  The Independent published a news article summarizing the discovery here.

According to the article in The Independent, the site is about 30 miles northwest of Cambridge at a place called Must Farm near Whittlesea, Cambridgeshire, and the finds are approximately 3,000 years old. Over 100 different textile fragments have been found there so far, along with evidence that textile production took place at the site.  The finest specimens found are linen, and appear to have been of sizes that would naturally be used for draped garments, according to the article, which reports:
Some of the yarn is of superfine quality – with some threads being just 100 microns (1/10 of a millimetre) in diameter, while some of the fabrics themselves are so finely woven that they have 28 threads per centimetre, fine even by modern standards. It’s likely that some of the fragments of textile are from items of clothing.
Originally, some of the textiles must have been of very substantial size – because they had been folded, in some cases in up to 10 layers. If made to be worn, these folded fabrics may well have been large garments, potentially, capes, cloaks – or even large drapes, perhaps similar to those known from elsewhere in the ancient (and sometimes modern) worlds – the ancient Greek chiton, the Roman toga and the Indian sari. A drape folded into 10 layers for temporary storage would have served as a substantial garment – potentially up to 3 metres square (i.e. 9 square metre).
There is no evidence that the fabrics found had been dyed, but this is not surprising due to the difficulty of dyeing linen with the vegetable dyes available during the Bronze Age.

There is other evidence that this site was the location of a wealthy village.  Jewelry items, notably glass beads, were also found, and the beads appear to have come from the eastern Mediterranean, probably Syria or Turkey.  Metal tools and articles, such as tweezers and razors, axes and awls, were found, along with wooden buckets and ceramic bowls and containers.  The evidence also indicates that the site was burned less than a year after it was built, and then was depopulated--food and food items found in place indicate that the people didn't just move away but were killed, enslaved, or both.

If you care about early material culture, including clothing, in Europe, keep an eye out for information about Must Farm--there is a lot of material to analyze that may completely change our view of the cultural history of northern Europe.


  1. Fascinating! Very interesting to see the trade linkages too. I understand that in cases where you have no surviving textiles, but you do have loom weights/spindles, you can work out how fine the resulting textiles would have been. The quality of bronze age cloth seems to vary quite a bit depending on location and timeframe.

    1. You're right about the variation in textile quality, which we find in the Iron Age too, and indeed even today. And for all we know, the fine linen might have *come* from Egypt, since the beads indicate trade with the Eastern Mediterranean.

      The other fascinating mystery is what became of the village. They were wealthy people, judging by the goods that remain.

    2. Yes, I really want to know how they came to build there, and what happened to them. It's unusual for good habitation sites to be abandoned, even if they are attacked.

    3. Have you seen this documentary on Must Farm?

    4. No, I have not. I will have to check it out. Thanks!