Unearthed textiles from Stone Age settlement reveals history of clothes making

This cloth is from the Stone Age. It has been debated for 60 years whether it is wool or linen. What is it made of? You will be surprised at the answer. Credit: Antoinette Ract-Eicher University of Bern
Stone Age cities seem like an absurdity. However, 10 000 people lived in Catalhoyuk, Turkey, between 8000-9000 years back. It is the largest settlement known from the Neolithic or Chalcolithic periods, according to archaeologists.

Lise Bender Jorgensen says that Catalhoyuk is one the most well-known archaeological sites.

She is an archaeologist and professor emerita at NTNU's Department of Historical and Classical Studies. Her research has confirmed the origins of ancient city people's clothes.

Bender Jorgensen, a specialist in archaeological textiles, is no surprise that she was involved in this work.

Currently under discussion for nearly 60 years

Since 1962, experts have been discussing the type of clothing that Catalhoyukans wore. This was when they first found the cloth.

Specialists believe that wool is the most common material used to make clothes. Others believe they made their clothes from linen. Who is right? We now know the truth after almost 60 years.

Bender Jorgensen, her colleagues and others say "Neither."

They have now presented their findings to Antiquity, an archaeological journal.

Catalhoyuk, a star

Although you may not have heard about Catalhoyuk before, the city is a legend in archaeology circles.

Professor Ian Hodder shows Antoinette Ract-Eicher the excavation site. Credit: Lise Bender Jorgensen, NTNU

"Catalhoyuk was one of the oldest cities in the world when it was discovered in the 1950s," says Jorgensen. Jorgensen says that even though this is no longer the case, it still retains a high celebrity status.

James Mellaart, an archaeologist, was responsible for the first excavations. He was later expelled by Turkish authorities for his involvement in the black-market sale of archaeological artifacts.

Catalhoyuk, the city, is authentic. There were people living there more than 9000 years ago. 18 layers of settlements were also identified. The city was home to people for 7950 years.

Stone Age textiles discovered in the past

Professor Ian Hodder, a Stanford University archaeologist, was one of the most prominent in the field. He conducted new excavations from 1993 to 2017. These excavations yielded a lot of new data that have given us a new understanding of the site.

Hodder and his colleagues discovered several pieces of cloth which were later found to be between 8500- 8700 years old.

Bender Jorgensen explains, "When Hodder’s excavations began revealing textiles, they invited us to examine them together with our Swiss colleague Antoinette Ract-Eicher."

Rast-Eicher is an associate of the University of Bern and specializes in identifying fibers. She is familiar with the oldest European textiles that were found in Alpine lakes. In recent years, the two researchers collaborated on many projects together, including one under the auspices NTNU.

They traveled to Catalhoyuk together in August 2017 and looked at the textiles Hodder's archaeologists had discovered. They also worked together with Sabine Karg, a postdoctoral fellow at the Free University of Berlin and an archaeobotanist. These specialists were able to provide clear answers.

This is bast fibre as it looks. Credit: Vladimir Lobachev, Wikimedia Commons

An old material that has been neglected

"In the past researchers ignored the possibility that fabric fibers could be any other than wool and linen. But lately, another material has been more prominent," Bender Jorgensen states.

Catalhoyuk residents used a variety of this exact material.

Bender Jorgensen says that base fibers were used for thousands upon thousands of years to create thread, rope, and, in turn, yarn and cloth.

One fiber sample taken from a basket proved to be made from grass. However, several textiles clearly show that they are made from bast fiber from oak trees. They are also some of the best preserved woven fabrics in all of the world.

Bast fiber can be found between the bark of trees like oak, willow, and linden. Catalhoyuk's people used oak bark to make their clothes. They also used the bark from trees they found around them. Oak timber was also used as a building material by the Catalhoyuks, and bast fibers were undoubtedly collected from fallen trees.

Flax was not grown

Another striking conclusion of the experts is that no large amounts of flaxseed were found in the area. Catalhoyuk does not appear to have grown flax.

Bender Jorgensen points out that bast fiber is often overlooked as an early material. She says that linen dominates the conversation about which fabric fibers were used.

It turns out that the people of this region did not import linen from other countries as researchers had previously believed. Instead, they used the abundant resources available to them.

Find out more about the 8,000-year-old female figurine discovered in central Turkey

More information: Antoinette Rasse-Eicher et.al, Textiles made from local fibres in the Neolithic Catalhoyuk. Antiquity (2021). Information from the Journal: Antiquity Antoinette Rast Eicher et.al, The use of textiles made with local fibres at Neolithic Catalhoyuk (2021). DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2021.89