An Introduction to Prehistoric Textiles

Clay with textile impressions from Dolni Vestonice, 29,000 to 22,000 years ago. / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Karina Grömer / 03.01.2016
Staff Scientist, Textile Archaeology
Natural History Museum, Vienna

The history of textile crafts and clothing can only be understood correctly in the framework of prehistoric research. A brief overview of the technical and cultural as well as social and economic development throughout the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages will therefore introduce the topic.

Central Europe before the Romans

Prehistoric archaeology[1] is dedicated to the study of an era with no written records, from the beginning of human development to the dissemination of writing. Prehistory thus ends in Egypt in the 4th Millennium BC, whilst in Central Europe north of the Alps written history does not start before the expansion of the Roman Empire into the area.

The role of an archaeologist dealing with prehistory is to explore the life-world of our ancestors from the meagre resources of archaeological finds and to reconstruct everyday life, farming practices, craft techniques and social and religious ideas, as far as they are reflected, for example, in burial practices. Invaluable sources of knowledge are prehistoric settlements with structures such as houses, hearths, storage pits or ditches, which may be discovered during archaeological excavations. Archaeology is a popular theme on screen as well as fiction writing. However, that which is central to the prehistorian’s interest is not hunting down spectacular gold treasures – as suggested by the well-known film character of Indiana Jones – but the entire legacy of human culture: vessels, stone tools, animal bones, metal artefacts, tools, jewellery, even the most inconspicuous piece of pottery. Of uttermost importance is the detailed consideration of all contextual information. When a sword is discovered, for example, only the context it is found in may reveal its meaning: found in a grave, it was probably a gift in honour of the deceased warrior or a possession of the deceased. As a stray find in a ruined settlement it could indicate a combat action, in which it was lost. A buried sword in a sacred place (such as a river source) is more likely to be interpreted as a dedication to a deity. For this reason, finds unearthed without contextual information, for instance
during illegal metal detecting, are largely worthless for research, even if they are the most beautiful piece of jewellery or a magnificent sword.

In whichever way archaeological remains are interpreted, one must always be aware that the vast majority of the materials with which prehistoric people were surrounded and with which they worked is lost to us today. In temperate Europe, organic materials start to decay as soon as they are deposited in the ground. This includes everything made of wood, leather, grass or wool, and therefore all kinds of food or clothing. Studying textile crafts and clothing history is therefore particularly challenging. In Europe, there are only few sites with exceptional conditions under which such materials were preserved.

Since Christian Thomsen’s 1836 research in Denmark, prehistory has been divided into three epochs, the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age, each named after the innovative use of working materials at the time. During the time before written history (particularly before the Celts around 400 BC), names of tribes, peoples and rulers were not recorded, but ‘archaeological cultures’ with similarities in material culture can be recognized, separated from one another and arranged chronologically. These cultures are defined based on typical tools, pottery or by uniform practices of burial and house construction. These ‘archaeological cultures’ and periods are named after defining features of the cultures, such as vessel forms (e.g. Bell Beaker Culture), vessel decoration (e.g. Linear Pottery Culture), or grave types (e.g. Tumulus Culture, Urnfield Culture). Finally, there are also special sites, including Hallstatt in Austria, which may give a culture or an era its name. It has to remain open whether these archaeological cultures coincide with former tribes, peoples or language groups.

The main focus here is on sedentary cultures from the Neolithic period through Iron Age, since weaving and woven clothing are common at that time, and it is these achievements which will be dealt with in greater detail below. For orientation and as guidance, this book starts with a brief overview of prehistory in Central Europe.[2] In Northern Europe, the individual prehistoric periods start a little later than in Central Europe.

Fig. 1: Time Table

Stone Age

The Palaeolithic period is the one that has influenced the history of mankind the longest. Since humans learned to walk upright at about 4 million years ago, people lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers till the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 BC. With the emergence of anatomically modern humans in Central Europe in the Upper Palaeolithic at around 40,000 BC, the first artistic expressions appear, of which the Venus of Willendorf or the expressive cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira are the most famous examples.

The Neolithic period starts after the end of the last Ice Age in the Middle East and is tied to environmental changes at the beginning of the Holocene, which brought substantial changes to the plant and animal life. The Pleistocene fauna of large mammals such as the mammoth, woolly rhinoceros and cave bear disappeared, and instead of the ice-age steppe landscape, a mixed oak forest spread across much of Central Europe.

The Neolithic period is characterized by farming culture with agriculture and animal husbandry. These traits reach Central Europe from the southeast. People became sedentary in the 9th millennium BC in the Fertile Crescent, the area between the Euphrates and Tigris, Israel to the Sinai Peninsula. Early forms of grain and domestic animals lived in this area, and abetted the process. Einkorn and emmer wheat were cultivated, sheep, goat, cattle and pigs became domesticated. Agriculture led to the formation of permanent settlements: first houses, village and settlement communities arose, which were, among other reasons, necessary to protect raw materials and the harvest. Agriculture also, however, led to dependence on the soil and climate, resulting in a change of worldviews and religion. As early as the Neolithic, people altered their environment, for instance in order to gain land through deforestation. For the first time it was possible to live in one place from harvest to harvest, together with domestic animals as living meat stock. This new way of living led to an increase in population. The farmers sought new land, and so – after one of many theories – cereal cultivation and animal husbandry spread. From Asia Minor, where one of the oldest cities developed in Çatal Hüyük, the new way of life spread and reached Greece in the 7th millennium BC, to spread further over the Carpathian Basin in the 6th millennium BC and then into temperate Europe. By 5,500 BC, a large farming culture inhabited Central Europe, which is called the ‘Linear Pottery Culture’ after its characteristic pottery decorations. In addition to the production of ceramic vessels, other new craft techniques emerged. Stone tools were ground, sawed and drilled from tough rocks such as serpentine and used for land clearance, processing of wood and construction works. Another new feature was the manufacture of woven textiles. Basketry of various types, as well as net making, twining techniques and the like were already known from the end of the Palaeolithic and the Mesolithic, but weaving on a loom truly was a novelty.

The Neolithic in Central Europe covers the period from c. 5,600to 2,300 BC. The Early Neolithic is characterized by a coherent European culture, the Linear Pottery Culture, which is one of the best-researched cultures of prehistoric Europe. The first farmers preferred fertile loess soil near water for their settlements – particularly
the Danube and its tributaries provided such conditions. Villages with a few houses were founded, fields were established close by (Fig. 2). For the first time, cemeteries were established, some with hundreds of burials, which provide information about the religious beliefs of these people. Components of dress fittings and jewellery made of bone and shell indicate the look of the clothing; small figurines are also a good source for reconstructing garments. Sickles with flint blades were used as harvesting tools, various axes made of greenstone were used for woodworking. For the first time in European history, ceramic vessels could be used for cooking and storing food.

Nevertheless, living together was far from peaceful paradise, as cruelly exemplified by the “massacre” site of Asparn-Schletz in Austria. In a fortification built around 5,000 BC, archaeologists found hundreds of skeletons. The entire population had been slaughtered; apart from young women who are missing in the anthropological statistics. They were probably abducted. The reasons for the conflict remain unknown. Traces of malnourishment on the human bones might indicate that crop failures and famine were responsible for this first documented act of war on
European soil.

From c. 4,900 BC, in the Middle Neolithic, an expansion of the settlement area meant that former forest landscapes of the Alpine foothills or in mountainous zones were cleared and used for agriculture. At the same time the culture groups in Central Europe kept dividing. In the middle Danube region the Lengyel Culture was widespread, also named Painted Pottery Culture after the preferred ceramic ornament. In Germany, the Rössen Culture produced completely different ceramic types and decorations, as well as different domestic structures and
forms of burial.

The settlement patterns were more diverse. Large, fortified villages acted as centres for several small villages in the vicinity. In the Danube region a characteristic of this period are circular ditch systems (Kreisgrabenanlagen) with diameters of up to 160 m. These were composed of up to three parallel circular ditches with banks between the ditches, and often have a palisade along the innermost ditch. The monuments are likely to have had a specific legal, political and ritual significance – perhaps as meeting place, safe place or sanctuary. In terms of ritual and cult, small female figurines have been found, and will be referred to later when discussing the sources used for reconstructing prehistoric clothing.

Fig. 2. Artist’s impression of life in an early farming community in Central Europe.

Warm and humid climate had generally been predominant since the beginning of the Neolithic, but from c. 3,800 BC, the late Neolithic (Copper Age) onwards, the climate began to change to a slightly cooler, wetter transitional period.

While cultures in the millennia before the Copper Age were purely rurally oriented, new social and economic changes now occurred. Different social groups are archaeologically identifiable in the cemeteries. Different tools and weapons suggest that warriors and craftsmen emerged as new social groups. This period saw the beginnings of copper metallurgy, for the time being mainly used for jewellery, later tools were also made of this metal, and gold was also employed. In this era named Copper Age, the new sought-after raw material meant an economic and cultural boom in regions with copper and gold deposits, especially the Carpathian region. Alpine areas too were settled now.

The four-wheeled cart made its first appearance in Central Europe, evidenced by finds of wooden wheels from Switzerland and Slovenia and zoological evidence for domestic horses. Human mobility increased through the use of wagons and horses. For millennia it had only been possible to travel on foot or by water. Wheel and cart were also important for the development of agriculture, enlarging the areas that could be worked. The principle of the rotating axis was already familiar from the use of spindles in the Neolithic.

In contrast to the major European Early Neolithic Linear Pottery Culture, the Late Neolithic saw a breakdown into many different regional cultural groups that maintained contacts to neighbouring areas. For textile research the cultures of the lakes around the Alps are of particular interest, since organic materials and therefore textiles have been preserved in the wetlands. The Pfyn and Horgen Cultures inhabited today’s Switzerland during the Late Neolithic, and the Cham Group and Jevišovice Culture were situated in Austria. It would be beyond the scope of this framework to characterize the individual cultural phenomena in more detail. Here, they offer us names for the temporal succession of different regional cultures. Of particular interest is the Iceman, a mummy found in 1991 near an old mountain pass in the Ötztal Alps with clothing and equipment, which has survived c. 5,300 years in the ice of the glacier.

According to linguistic research, the Indo-European family of languages emerged during the Copper Age; it is, however, not possible to verify such an entity archaeologically.

The Neolithic period ends as it began – with pan-European cultures, the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker Culture, named after the outstandingly well-made bell-shaped cups with stamp impressions (Fig. 3). The end of the third Millennium BC is also characterized by large migratory movements in Western and Central Europe. At the same time, the Great Pyramids of the 4th Dynasty (2639 – 2504 BC) arise in Egypt under the pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure.

Fig. 3. Bell beaker from Laa an der Thaya, Austria.

Bronze Age

The middle section of the classic three-age-system, the Bronze= Age, begins at c. 2,300/2,200 BC in Central Europe and ends at the time of the first Olympic Games in Greece around 800 BC. It is the time of the Middle and (start of the) New Kingdom in Egypt, the time of the Hittite Empire and the Mycenaean Culture in the Aegean world.

The Bronze Age is characterized by a new material, bronze, an alloy of nine parts of copper and one part tin. The use of this metal had already been established by c. 5,000 BC in the Middle East. The discovery and the spread of knowledge related to metal processing resulted in a technological revolution in Central Europe that eventually transformed the economy and society as a whole. Bronze, and later iron, enabled the production of better tools and weapons, because both materials are very stable and malleable. This in turn led to an increased division of labour and other political and social differentiation. New occupations emerged: miners and metallurgists, lumberjacks, carpenters, charcoal makers, carriers, smelters, casters, blacksmiths, tinsmiths and armourers, domestic and long-distance traders etc.

Fig. 4. Bronze hoard of Sipbachzell in Austria.

Trade was very important and a defining feature of the period. The tin processed in Central Europe came mostly from the British Isles and Spain, copper deposits exist also at the heart of the continent, in the Alps. Contacts established by metal trade, but also trade of luxury goods such as amber from the North Sea or necessities of life such as salt from the Alpine salt deposits can be traced across the whole continent. The peoples of Central Europe learned of the wealth of the Mediterranean countries through trade. During the following centuries, raids, military expansions and migrations to the climatically favourable south were carried out again and again (e.g. ‘Dorian invasion’ at c. 1,200/1,100 BC).

Through metal, surplus could be earned and wealth could be accumulated. This required better protection of settlements; and this protection was granted by the ruling upper class and their warriors. Richly furnished tombs and simple graves demonstrate differences in social structure and the division of labour. The Bronze Age elite had control of the trade routes and the major ore deposits and were responsible for the construction of fortifications.

Two distinct horizons of building fortresses can be differentiated; one in the early and the other in the late Bronze Age. During these times, fortified places provided protection and served the self-representation of the upper class. In the Middle Bronze Age the hilltop settlements were less important because monumental tombs served the purpose of representation. The prosperity of broad sections of the population is reflected in the cemeteries of this period.

In the Early Bronze Age (c. 2,300 – 1,600 BC), mighty fortifications were built with banks and ditches, always situated on an already naturally favourable mountain spur. Rectangular post structures with wattle and daub walls were used as houses. Large cemeteries were started, with people buried in the couched position. Through the graves we have a good picture of the appearance of the population at that time. At the cemetery of Gemeinlebarn, Austria, the anthropological analysis revealed that those persons who were buried with rich grave goods were
unusually tall, with an average of 1.70 m (men). The poorer population measured on average only 1.66 m (men). Women were, on average, 10 cm shorter in both groups. This difference in stature between rich and poor can be explained by better diet of the rich social sector, together with better living conditions, such as the lack of hard work during childhood. These graves are very important for our topic, since the metal jewellery and clothing items offer insights into the way garments were worn. Furthermore, textile residues may be preserved through metal corrosion in such graves.

The Early Bronze Age was a time of upheaval, in which many regional traditions were formed, as we can see from the archaeological finds, especially the ceramics. The bronze jewellery (pins, arm and leg rings), weapons and tools such as axes, however, were traded supra-regionally and reached even remote areas through network contacts. One of the larger cultural entities of the Early Bronze Age is the Únětice Culture, named after an archaeological site near Prague. The metallic wealth of this region is reflected in many bronze hoards and numerous jewellery in grave-goods.

As regards to the textile finds, the circum-alpine lake settlements remain crucial. The most significant body of textiles is known from northern Italy.

In the Middle Bronze Age ( c. 1,600 – 1,250 BC) not as many regional groups can be determined. The reason for the unity of larger cultural entities is unclear. People were buried in large burial mounds or tumuli, which lend the name Tumulus Culture to this period. Considerable work was performed to build the burial mounds of the elite, which were often up to 15 m in diameter, and which may contain more than one burial. As in the Early Bronze Age, it is frequently observed that people with rich grave goods are taller, an indication that upper class families had a significantly better standard of living than the physically hard-working lower class. The warrior class had their own status symbols, particularly richly ornamented battle-axes. Weapon technology advanced during the Middle Bronze Age. The daggers used earlier in the Bronze Age were replaced by the first swords – items used exclusively for the personal combat, man against man. They continued to accompany men until well into the Middle Ages and beyond. Elite women adorned themselves with rich and heavy bronze jewellery, often with exaggerated proportions: very long dress pins, massive tiaras, wide metal belts, large sets of ornaments worn on the chest – a wave of pomp dominated the Middle Bronze Age.

From the Middle Bronze Age onwards, salt was mined at Hallstatt in Austria – a lucky strike for textile research, as the ‘industrial waste’ collected in the mines contained large amounts of organic materials that were perfectly preserved by the salt. These provide excellent insights into the textiles used at the time.

In the Late Bronze Age (c. 1,250 – 800 BC), burial customs changed. The dead were cremated and buried in urns. In addition to the urns, small bowls as well as some jewellery and weapons were deposited in the graves. The religious backgrounds for the change to cremating the body have not yet been conclusively unravelled. In the so-called Urnfield period, large fortifications were again built on hilltops, such as in Stillfried an der March in Austria. These settlements are up to 50 acres in size and are surrounded by ditches, ramparts and mighty palisades. Inside the ramparts there were dwelling houses, granaries and workshops; the fortifications were centres of power with residential space and production centres. In the lowlands, there were also village-like settlements with peasant character. Until the end of the Bronze Age, agriculture intensified, culminating in a threepart division of forest, meadow and field, which was essentially maintained until the Middle Ages. Open meadows, as are common today, also emerged during the Bronze Age. There is growing evidence that during the Bronze Age, specialists became responsible for carrying out certain types of work (apart from metallurgy probably for pottery and trade, but also ritual and warfare).

During this time, the first migratory movements were historically documented. Especially in south-eastern Europe, there were extensive population shifts. The first wave of migration, the so-called ‘storm of the Sea Peoples’ brought unrest in the eastern Mediterranean. In the course of the events the Hittite Empire was destroyed in Asia Minor around 1,200 BC. The Dorian invasion in Greece essentially ended the Mycenaean Culture around 1,100 BC. In central Italy, the Proto Villanova Culture was established, the roots of the culture of the Etruscans in the 9th century BC.

Migratory movements are hard to prove by archaeological means alone. Weapons, ceramics and jewellery of ‘foreign’ origin might point both to trade connections and the physical presence of different groups of people or tribes. It is clear from the archaeological evidence that the late Bronze Age was a time of many wars. The effort put into the construction of fortifications suggests that, and the development and refinement of weaponry is another argument. In addition to improving swords, protective armour and helmets were developed. Typical of this period are also hoards, the secure deposition and hiding of bronze objects. This might express the need to keep one’s belongings safe.

Iron Age

At the end of the 8th century BC, the political and cultural situation in Central Europe had stabilized after the turmoil of the Urnfield period. While the Etruscan Culture became dominant on the Apennine Peninsula, Greece extended its sphere of influence through the formation of colonies on the north-western Mediterranean coast. The Thracians, Macedonians, Illyrians and Scythians established themselves in the Balkans.

Again, it was an innovative raw material, this time iron, which gave rise to the name of an era. The knowledge of the art of forging came from the eastern Mediterranean and spread during the 9th and 8th century to Central Europe. Iron was first used as jewellery, later for weapons and tools. Iron deposits are widespread; they are also found in Central Europe. Tin no longer had to be traded in from far-flung areas as it had been for the production of bronze. Iron production finally became cheaper than bronze production and lost iron objects were easier to replace
than those made of bronze.

Iron was then primarily used for the production of weapons and tools (Fig. 5). This raw material was further important for the development of craft and farming devices, which remained in use virtually unchanged from the Iron Age until pre-industrial times: ploughshares, pliers, chains, wheels, horse bits etc.

Fig. 5. Late Iron Age iron hoard from Gründberg, Austria with wagon fittings, tools and equipment. Excavations by the City Museum Nordico Linz and the University of Vienna.

In the Early Iron Age (c. 800 – 400 BC), the influence of ancient urban cultures expanded into the zone north of the Alps. There is good evidence for trade with Greek colonies in southern France dating to the 6th century BC. Wine, spices, bronze vessels and luxury goods were the objects of desire, which were cherished by the Iron Age elites.

Iron Age elites at the top of the social pyramid tried to imitate the Mediterranean way of life by importing Greek household and luxury goods. Power and control over natural resources lay in the hands of a few large families. Feudal residences and lavish burials in large grave mounds were used for representation.

The site of Heuneburg on the upper Danube in Germany is a particularly striking example. Within the fortification there was a central location with a large open area (market) and a palatial building for the ‘lord’. The Heuneburg also had its own artisan quarter with workshops for different crafts. The walls were 3 – 4 m high; in one phase, walls and bastions were built of mud brick after Mediterranean fashion – a technique that turned out to be extremely unfavourable for the Central European climate and was soon replaced.

Life on such an Early Iron Age fortified settlement was, particularly in the West, comparable to Mycenaean court life as known from historical sources. It was also captured vividly in the scenic images of situla art from the East Alpine region between the 6th and 4th century BC: music was played, sport competitions took place, people danced, wine was served in drinking bowls, music with harp and pan flute was enjoyed. Wagon rides and processions complete the picture. Defended hilltop settlements were the central places, forming protected and representational seats for the nobility.

The Early Iron Age is also called the Hallstatt period after the finds from Hallstatt in Austria. The efficient exploitation of salt deposits and the associated extensive trade brought wealth to the local population, which was reflected in the exquisite grave goods of the large cemetery. In Hallstatt, salt mining began long before the Early Iron Age. The mining of salt dates back to the beginning of the Middle Bronze Age. Both in the Bronze Age and Iron Age parts of the Hallstatt salt mines textile remains have been discovered. The Hallstatt Culture was spread from France over the Alps to Western Hungary; further east, the nomadic Scythians settled.

The Hallstatt Culture was divided into a Western and Eastern area, which are different in terms of the extent to which Mediterranean elements became absorbed. The Western area was infiltrated by Greek imports via the trading post Massalia (Marseilles) and was located between France and Germany, extending into Upper Austria. Large burial mounds with stone chambers were erected within view of the princely settlements. In some cases, the dead were laid out on a four-wheeled wagon. Famous examples of such princely burials are the tombs of Hochdorf or Hohmichele in Germany, also containing textiles. Golden torcs such as the one from Uttendorf in Upper Austria (Fig. 6) served as a symbol of high social rank, and perhaps also as an attribute of gods.

Fig. 6. Gold torc from an Early Iron Age grave from Uttendorf, Upper Austria.

The Eastern Hallstatt area, located within eastern Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, was too remote to be reached by Greek traders. The area may best be understood as a periphery, in which the wealthier western area was imitated. For example, bronze vessels types were shaped in clay in the east. On the other hand, idiosyncratic styles flourished, particularly for local ceramics, as exemplified in the Kalenderberg Culture on the north-eastern edge of the Alps. In the east, neither gold grave goods nor wagons are typically found. Cremation graves are dominant. The elites are buried in burial mounds like in the west; ordinary people were frequently buried in inauspicious, shallow graves.

The Late Iron Age (c. 400 – 15 BC) is named after the archaeological site of La Tène on Lake Neuchâtel in Switzerland. The La Tène period in Austria ends in 15 BC, when Tiberius (Emperor Augustus’ stepson) extended the Roman Empire up to the Danube and set up a winter camp for his legions in Carnuntum. Thus, the area south of the Danube became part of the Roman Empire, whilst north of the Danube, Germanic tribes such as the Marcomanni and Quadi began to settle and replace the Celtic population. The La Tène Culture marks the transition to written history, as we are at least in part kept informed about events through the recorded, historical tradition. Inscriptions on devotional objects written in North Etruscan and attributed to the Raeti and Veneti are amongst the oldest written sources in the Alpine region (dating from the 3rd century BC onwards).

In the 5th century BC the Greek historian Herodotus first mentioned the name of a people from the area north of the Alps: Keltoi – the Celts, which he located ‘at the source of the Danube’. Later, the Romans referred to the Celts in Western Europe as Gauls (gallii). Livy (c. 250 BC) indicates that there had been a Celtic King in the 6th century BC. The historical records thus confirm the notion of an aristocracy at the time.

The Celts, who had expanded their territory from c. 500 BC to the Alps, never erected a unified kingdom in Central Europe; they remained divided into tribes and tribal alliances. The Celts undertook far-reaching raids and expeditions; in 387 BC, they reached Rome, in 279 BC Delphi and finally, as hired mercenaries, Asia Minor, where they were even mentioned in the Bible: they are the Galatians in Paul’s Epistles.

The La Tène period is characterized by large central hilltop settlements. The fortification ramparts, constructed of a nailed grid of wooden compartments filled with stones and soil, provided good protection against fire arrows. Julius Caesar mentions this particular form of construction as ‘murus gallicus’ in his writings. Following the Roman conquest, most Celtic hilltop settlements were abandoned and new Roman cities were founded in the valleys.

Celtic cities (oppida) emerged in Central and Western Europe from about 120/100 BC. In his ‘Commentarii de bello Gallico’ (58 – 49 BC) Caesar differentiates between the Gallic oppidum (urbs) from the open village (vicus) and the single farmstead (aedificium). Oppida were fortified, town-like settlement centres, which served as the focal point of a tribe, as a refuge for the population at time of attack, and as a military assembly area. Since they were also fortified aristocratic residences, they included an administrative centre, workshops and tribal sanctuaries. In addition, coins were minted in these centres. Coins as a means of payment became introduced through Celtic mercenaries in Greek and Egyptian service from the middle of the 3rd century BC; Celtic rulers initially copied Greek coins and imitated their design.

At the courts of the aristocracy a new art style, the La Tène style, emerged (Fig. 7). Plant and animal motifs from Mediterranean art provided some influences, such as palmettes and lotus flowers; the Scythian and Persian animal style came from the East. These elements became absorbed and reworked into fanciful formations with symbolic content, which sometimes even included representations of people.

Fig. 7. Bracelet from Getzersdorf in Austria, Late Iron Age.

The Dürrnberg site in Austria (another salt mine), a production and trading centre, is as important to the understanding of textiles in the Late Iron Age as Hallstatt is for the Early Iron Age. The Dürrnberg salt mines contain hundreds of textile fragments dating between the 6th and 2nd century BC as well as the extended cemeteries offer insights in burial customs.

Burial customs changed in the La Tène Culture. The magnificent mounds were replaced by flat cemeteries, where square and round ditches surrounded individual grave areas. An emphasis on warrior grave goods suggests that a class of warriors gradually replaced the Hallstatt period elites. Jewellery and dress elements provide numerous clues to the appearance of clothing in the Hallstatt and La Tène period. Additionally, mineralized textiles are known from bronze and iron objects in the graves, allowing a glimpse of the ‘textile culture’ in this period. From the 2nd century BC, cremation became dominant and the remains were deposited in small, inauspicious graves. Towards the end of the La Tène period, there is no archaeologically visible funerary rite, thus our knowledge of clothing decreased.

In terms of technology, there were a number of changes in the centuries before the Christian era; the potter’s wheel, for instance, was introduced. An important commercial product in the early Iron Age was high-quality iron produced in the Alpine region (ferrum Noricum), which was important for Rome as an expanding military power. Of similar importance was salt, which was now primarily extracted at the site Dürrnberg near Hallein and traded from there.

Textile Preservation

Imagine a Celtic house in 300 BC: a loom, on which a woman is working, leans against the wooden wall of the house. Next to the loom there are a basket of wool and some spindles. A wood fire crackles under an iron cauldron, in which food is beginning to cook. Ingredients for the meal are being cut with iron knives and placed in ceramic pots. Vegetables, fruits and grains are stored in baskets within easy reach of the cooking place. A person is sitting on the nearby bedstead, which is comfortably padded with straw and animal skins…

Fig. 8. Celtic reenactment at the Open Air Museum Mitterkirchen, Austria, August 2014.

What is left of this scene after thousands of years when the wind, rain and soil bacteria have done their work? Archaeologists often find only fragmentary remnants. The wooden walls and pillars of the house have long since gone, only the post holes, in which the supporting structures were embedded in the ground, remain. The fireplace with stone lining is still visible, and charcoal and the red traces of fire on the surrounding clay floor have survived. The metal and bone cooking utensils, the cauldron, the pottery and metal knives are still present, to be uncovered
during the excavation, but the food and wooden utensils are gone. Only meagre relics remain from the loom and the spindle basket: the loom weights, the stake holes of the frame of the loom at best, as well as some ceramic whorls of the spindles, but the wool, like the fruits and vegetables, has decayed.

As demonstrated by this example, the preservation conditions for organic materials under the climatic conditions of Central Europe are, especially for textiles, anything but suitable. Thus the majority of the materials which were handled by prehistoric people and with which they were surrounded are usually not preserved at archaeological sites. Only in serendipitous cases, such as the Neolithic and Bronze Age wetland settlements around the Alps, the
findings from the salt mines in Hallstatt and Dürrnberg-Hallein or even the Iceman, a Neolithic mummy better known as ‘Ötzi’ show us the variety of raw materials in use.

Moreover, different preservation conditions[3] also lead to a selective survival of organic finds, especially textile finds, which are discussed here. On some archaeological sites no plant materials are present; on other sites animal materials such as wool or leather are absent. This may be due to different environmental conditions. Favourable conditions for the preservation of fibrous materials, which are based on protein (such as wool) or
cellulose (such as plant fibres) include a pH value that does not damage the fibres and does not allow harmful bacteria and fungi to survive. Animal fibres are best preserved in neutral pH of 7 and dissolve in alkaline environments. Vegetable fibres will degrade in an acidic environment; animal and vegetable materials are therefore only preserved together on the same site in exceptional cases. The rate of degradation is dependent on several factors. Heat, water, oxygen and nutrient deficiency determine the living conditions of soil organisms. The presence of tannins, as are present in bogs or tree coffins for example, can greatly delay decomposition.[4] Different preservation conditions (oak coffins, wetland settlements, organics corroded onto metals, salt mines
and glaciers) also represent various circumstances of deposition. Not only is the number of preserved textiles from Central European prehistory small, but it also represents a highly selective range of different contexts. Several of these special contexts of preservation are discussed below.

Preservation by Metal Corrosion Products

During the Bronze and Iron Ages, numerous metal objects placed in graves as equipment for the afterlife provide an opportunity for textiles to be preserved. If textiles were deposited together with bronze and iron objects (for example as components of clothing in graves), metal corrosion at the contact points of the copper or ferrous metals and the adjacent textiles may lead to the emergence of a durable combination of materials (Fig. 9).

Under wet conditions the soluble metal salts penetrate the textile material and replace organic matter. During the duration of deposition in the soil a chemical combination of materials takes place, wherein the textile component becomes degraded. This process, referred to as mineralization, can lead to a complete replacement of the organic material.[5] When textiles are in contact with iron artefacts when they rust, the sulphides leaching out of the metal gradually invade the adjacent patches of textile, replacing the fibres or causing a negative imprint to be formed around them.

Fig. 9. Textiles attached on a bronze arm ring from the Roman cemetery of Mautern-Burggartengasse, Austria.

The transition from the conservation of organic materials by metal salts to complete mineralization of the fabrics until only imprints remain is a fluid process. From the finds of Hochdorf, Johanna Banck-Burgess[6] was able to reconstruct the decomposition processes that lead to a change in the appearance of textiles. Thus, the fibre substance can degrade, the yarn thickness thins out and the surfaces may turn ‘soapy’, so that the textile structure is barely noticeable. In some cases when the fabrics have been completely replaced by the metal oxides, the weave structure and even the fibres are still recoverable as an imprint. The metal oxides can cause an increase of volume of the threads; through the growth of the fibre structure the textile may also appear densely compressed and unnaturally compact.

Textiles preserved in graves by metal corrosion are usually more than unsightly, because typically the original colouring is lost in this process. Furthermore, the remains are very fragmented, often limited to only of a few square millimetres and can therefore all too easily be overlooked during the excavation and restoration of the finds. Despite these limitations, textile residues obtained by metal corrosion are an important source for research, because of their clearly defined position in regard to the body of a buried person.[7]

Preservation by Salt

In the prehistoric sites of the Austrian salt mines[8] of Hallstatt and Dürrnberg near Hallein, preservation conditions unique in the whole of prehistoric Europe prevail. Salts may contribute to the preservation of fibres because they are toxic to microorganisms such as bacteria. In a salty environment, single-celled bacteria dry out and die.[9] This prevents the decomposition process of organic materials due to bacterial activity.

Fig. 10. ‘Heidengebirge’ (layers containing objects from ancient mining activities) with textiles from the salt mine in Hallstatt, Austria, Early Iron Age.

The high pressure of the mountain closes the man-made cavities in the amorphous, soft geological material after the shortest possible time, so that the prehistoric remains, the so-called ‘heathen’s rock’ (Heidengebirge) becomes hermetically sealed (Fig. 10). Through this air-tight embedding in the salt rock, no oxidative degradation processes can take place and microbiological degradation is strongly reduced. The high humidity in the mountain prevents the drying out of fibres.[10] The natural degradation processes are slowed by the constant and low temperatures in the salt mines. The textiles are therefore preserved so well in their organic matter that they are still elastic and supple when recovered. Salt preserves any organic material, both of plant and animal origin, without limitation. In contrast to lakeside settlements, bogs or oak coffins, sites with salt preservation thus do not show biases in regard to raw material origin.

Preservation within Waterlogged Contexts

Neolithic and Bronze Age textile materials are also known from wetland settlements within the circum-alpine area: from Switzerland, Germany, northern Italy and Austria. Prehistoric peoplebuilt their houses as lakeside settlements, partly on the shore and partly as pile dwellings in the water. When organic materials were deposited in the water and remained there, chances became good that they would be able to survive the millennia.

Due to the relatively low oxygen levels in the water, the oxidation process of textiles were slowed down and bacteria were prevented from performing their decomposition work. Textiles sank to the ground and became embedded into geological deposits such as chalky sediments at the bottom of the lakes. Because of this alkaline environment, however, animal fibres were destroyed over time.[11] For this reason preservation in waterlogged contexts mainly includes plant materials such as woven textiles of flax or sieves, nets, mats and baskets from materials like grass, tree bast and wood.

Fig. 11. Neolithic settlement Arbon Bleiche 3, Switzerland. Context and position of wood and textiles in the wetland conditions.

Preservation by Ice

Since the spectacular discovery of the Iceman, a Neolithic mummy that melted from the glacier with all his belongings in 1991 (Fig. 12),[12] the mountainous regions of Central Europe increasingly moved into the focus of archaeological interest. Since then, other important discoveries were made in the Alps, for instance at Schnidejoch in Switzerland.[13] From this site we know of a quiver, a bow and arrows, remains of Neolithic shoes and a fragment of a legging.

The preservative effect of ice is based on the low temperatures. The combination of cold and dryness, freeze-drying, is also used in modern research for continued preservation of organic material.

Fig. 12. The Iceman, a Neolithic mummy from the Ötztal glacier, Italy, c. 3300 BC.


In bogs, the lack of oxygen as a result of constant moisture, the exclusion of air and permeation by humic acids prevent degradation and damage by microorganisms. In terms of the preservation conditions, however, it is important to distinguish raised bogs and fens.[14] In raised bogs, the polysaccharide of Sphagnum is essential for preservation. This carbohydrate resides in the peat moss and is released upon decomposition of plant cell walls. It is later converted into brown humic acid, which binds nitrogen and calcium. Due to the acidic pH level only animal
fibres remain. Humic acids and tannin present under these conditions preserve protein-containing organic materials (wool, fur, leather, skin, hair, nails, horn), whereas plant matter and bones decay. In the calcareous fens, on the other hand, wool textiles decompose and only fabrics made of plant materials may be preserved. Most archaeological finds of textiles come from raised bogs and, therefore, only encompass woollen textiles.

The bogs of northern Europe are particularly significant for research into textiles and clothing.[15] From famous sites like Thorsberg or Huldremose we know complete vestments, which came to light as peat was recovered. Central Europe also has bogs, but since peat for fuel production played no major role due to the abundance of wood and forests, bogs were not exploited there. Most likely, many prehistoric (textile) treasures still lie dormant in Central European bogs.

Oak Coffins

The famous intact oak coffins (Fig. 13) from burial mounds are primarily located in the territory of the North German Schleswig into middle Jutland in Denmark.[16] The deceased person was laid out in a hollowed-out tree trunk in complete clothing and the coffin covered with a stone packing, soil, clay, sand, grass or mossy turf. Humic acids penetrated into the interior of the mounds with the rain and formed a gelatinous mass at a depth of 1 – 1.5 m from the upper mantle of the mound. In combination with the lime and iron particles present in the fill, this then developed into a rock-hard humus-iron layer and sealed the interior of the hill airtight. Through this process, the tree coffin rested under absence of air in a liquid enriched by humic acids. In addition, the tannins from the trunks of recently felled oaks had a preservative effect. Particularly wool textiles, leather, fur or horn preserve well in this milieu. The bones of the deceased, however, are usually in a very bad condition due to decalcification.

Fig. 13. Oak coffin from Trindhøj in Denmark, dendrochronologically dated to 1355 BC.

The phenomenon of well-preserved tree coffins is primarily known from the ‘Nordic Bronze Age’, more precisely the time between the 15th and 13th centuries BC. From this period, complete garments have been recovered.

Only one case of similar preservation conditions for the conservation of textiles in south-eastern Central Europe is known so far. The early Bronze Age burial mound from Pustopolje in Bosnia-Herzegovina[17] has revealed a perfectly preserved wooden grave construction, a grave chamber made of elm boards. The deceased lay in crouched position, wrapped in a large woollen cloth on boards that were coated with a thin animal hide.


It may seem strange, but charred textiles also have some chance to survive the passing of time. With incomplete combustion, chemical processes interact with physical alterations. After carbonization,[18] the charred and usually shrunken textiles preserve in carbonized form. Although there are partial transformations, the microstructure of the textile usually remains substantially intact. Plant fibres are often more stable in a carbonised state, animal fibres, on the other hand, often perish in fire. If the textiles are exposed to excessive heat in the absence of oxygen, the
process is called coalification. The amount of volatile constituents of the textile fibres thereby decrease more and more in favour of the carbon content. Again, the microstructure of plant and animal fibres is largely maintained. Examples include the Neolithic finds of Spitzes Hoch near Latdorf and Kreienkopp near Dietfurt.[19]

Imprints on Ceramics

Information about textiles can also be obtained from impression on pottery or pieces of clay.[20] Although the organic material is not preserved, technical details such as thread count and weave can be documented, and in exceptional conditions, information about fibre material can also be recovered. Shrinkage in drying or firing of the clay therefore has to be taken into account. These impressions arise largely by chance, for instance when a clay pot that has not yet dried after moulding, turning or coil-building was set on a mat or weave.[21] On the other hand, imprints of textile elements were also deliberately used as an ornament in different prehistoric cultures. The best known of these cultures is the so-called Corded Ware Culture (Fig. 14) from the end of the Neolithic period'[22] The decoration of pottery with impressions of about 2 – 3 mm thick cords corresponded to the aesthetics of the time.

Fig. 14. Corded Ware pottery from Franzhausen, Austria, Late Neolithic.

Defining Textiles

What actually is a textile? Conventionally, the term textile is applied to woven fabrics in particular. The British standard handbook for the textile industry: Textiles Terms and Definitions, The Textile Institute Manchester (7th edition 1975) says: ‘Originally a woven fabric; the term is now applied to any manufacture from fibres, filaments or yarns, natural or man-made, obtained by interlacing’.[23]

In prehistoric and ethnographic research the term also encompasses a variety of things. Textile techniques are more closely defined as ‘primarily all methods, which include the production of fabrics from smaller units, e.g. of thread, yarn, string, bast, leaves or parts thereof, rods, wood chips etc. Further, they include, on the one hand, the manufacture or production of raw materials, e.g. the production of string, yarn or thread, and, on the other hand, the processing of finished fabrics (cutting, sewing) as well as their decoration, e.g. embroidery and appliqué.’[24]

The term textile[25] encompasses not only woven fabrics, but all products which consist of interconnected basic components. These include mats made in plying and basketry techniques, objects of fabrics made in coiling techniques, nets, wickerwork and twined objects. The extensive range of fabric making techniques are amply shown by ethnological classification systems such as the work of Annemarie Seiler Baldinger[26] and Irene Emery[27] or, for prehistory, exemplified in the publications of the textile assemblages from the Swiss lake-dwellings of the Neolithic period.[28]

As apparent from the table of contents, this book focuses mainly on woven textiles and all the steps involved in their production. In addition, the most important end products, especially the clothes, are investigated more closely. In time and space the study area concentrates on prehistoric Central Europe.


  1. For general introductions to archaeology see Cunliffe 1998. – Eggers 1959. – Eggert 2001. – Renfrew and Bahn 2005.
  2. For a general overview see Cunliffe 1998. – Jones 2008. – Kristiansen 1991; 2000. – Milisauskas 2002. – Urban 2000. – Vandkilde 2007. – von Freeden and von Schnurbein 2002.
  3. Textile preservation under dry conditions is excluded here, because it does not occur in Central and Northern Europe. For examples from the deserts of the Nile Valley, see Wild 1988, 7.
  4. Cf. Farke 1986. – Gillis and Nosch 2007. – Wild 1988, 7–12.
  5. Cf. Chen et al. 1998. – Mitschke 2001, 29. – Wild 1988, 8 – 11.
  6. Banck-Burgess 1999, 93, pl. 1 and 2.
  7. E.g. Bender Jørgensen 1992. – Rast-Eicher 2008.
  8. Hallstatt: Grömer et al. 2013. – Dürrnberg: Stöllner 2005.
  9. Gengler 2005. – Van der Sanden 1996, 12.
  10. See Gengler 2005, 28: chapter, 37: chapter 3.3.1.
  11. Cf. Farke 1986, 56. – Rast-Eicher 2012, 381.
  12. Fleckinger 2011. – Spindler et al. 1995. – Spindler 1995.
  13. Suter, Hafner and Glauser 2006.
  14. Cf. Farke 1986, 55–57. – Van der Sanden 1996, 18, 20 and 120. – Wild 1988, 7–8.
  15. Mannering et al. 2012. – Möller-Wiering and Subbert 2012. – Schlabow 1976. – Van der Sanden 1996.
  16. Broholm and Hald 1940. – Hald 1980. – Mannering et al. 2012. – Schlabow 1976, 12.
  17. Cf. Benac 1986, 109. – Car 2012.
  18. See Farke 1986, 57. – Rast-Eicher 2003. – Wild 1988, 11.
  19. Bender Jørgensen 1992, 115, fig.1. – Schlabow 1959.
  20. Wild 1988, 11, fig. 5.
  21. Examples see Richter 2010, fig. 34.2 – 34.3.
  22. Cf. Grömer and Kern 2010.
  23. Kind comment by John Peter Wild, Manchester, Great Britain, Feb. 2015.
  24. Bühler-Oppenheim 1948, 84.
  25. See discussion about the term by Desrosiers 2010, 27–28.
  26. Seiler-Baldinger 1994. First published in 1973 as ‘Systematik der Textilen Techniken’, worked out at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland.
  27. Emery 1966 uses ‘fabric’ as the generic term for all fibrous constructions, ‘textile’ to refer specifically to woven fabrics.
  28. Médard 2010, 2012. – Rast-Eicher and Altorfer 2015. – Vogt 1937.


From The Art of Prehistoric Textile Making: The Development of Craft Traditions and Clothing in Central Europe, by Karina Grömer