Ancient textiles found near Cambridge reveal Bronze Age Britons used an Egyptian thread-making technique to weave plant fibres long before they picked up spinning.
The 3,800-year-old fabrics were made by splicing – a process by which fibres from nettle, lime trees, or other plants were individually joined together to form yarn.
It was previously believed this technique only existed in Ancient Egypt, but a new study suggests it was prevalent across Britain, Europe and the Near East.
The find also hints that splicing was the original method for making thread, ahead of spinning, in which fibres are drawn out and twisted together to form yarn.
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Ancient textiles found near Cambridge (pictured) reveal Bronze Age Britons used an Egyptian thread-making technique to weave plant fibres long before they picked up spinning
Textiles analysed as part of the new study, led by the University of Cambridge, came from over 30 different sites in the UK, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
Dr Margarita Gleba, lead author of the study, said: ‘Splicing technology is fundamentally different from draft spinning.
‘The identification of splicing in these Early Bronze Age and later textiles marks a major turning point in scholarship.
‘The switch from splicing – the original plant bast fibre technology – to draft spinning took place much later than previously assumed.’
Splicing has previously been identified in pre-Dynastic Egyptian and Neolithic Swiss textiles, but scientists were surprised to identify it in British fabrics.
It was originally thought that plant-fibre textiles had been spun in prehistoric Europe using primitive tools.
It was previously thought this technique only existed in ancient Egypt, but the new study suggests it was prevalent across Britain, Europe and the Near East. Pictued is a micrograph of an ancient textile from Lahun, Egypt, with arrows indicating splices
Now researchers suggest plant fibres were spliced for thousands of years until the 17th century, when weavers started to spin the strips as they had done with wool.
‘Our research suggests that until about 600 BC all plant fibre textiles produced across Europe were made using spliced thread,’ Dr Gleba told MailOnline.
‘This was the original thread-making technology developed already in the Palaeolithic, long before the domestication of sheep and the use wool.’
She said ancient Britons would have used the technique to make all of their textiles, including clothing, string for nets, and other items.
Textiles analysed as part of the new study, led by the University of Cambridge, came from over 30 different sites in the UK, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Pictured is a a splice in one of the single thread elements of fabric found in the cave of the warrior, Israel
The new study shows this particular type of thread-making technology may have been ubiquitous across the Old World during prehistory.
‘The technological innovation of draft spinning plant fibres appears to coincide with urbanisation and population growth, as well as increased human mobility across the Mediterranean during the first half of the 1st millennium BC,’ Dr Gleba said.
Among the finds analysed for this study are charred textile fragments from Over Barrow in Cambridgeshire, dated to the Early Bronze Age between 1887 and 1696 BC.
Dr Susanna Harris of the University of Glasgow, co-author of the paper, said: ‘We can now demonstrate that this technology was also present in Britain.
Among the finds analysed for this study are charred textile fragments from an archaeological site known as Over Barrow in Cambridgeshire, dated to the Early Bronze Age
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT BRONZE AGE BRITAIN?
The Bronze Age in Britain began around 2,000 BC and lasted for nearly 1,500 years.
It was a time when sophisticated bronze tools, pots and weapons were brought over from continental Europe.
Skulls uncovered from this period are vastly different from Stone Age skulls, which suggests this period of migration brought new ideas and new blood from overseas.
Bronze is made from 10 per cent tin and 90 per cent copper, both of which were in abundance at the time.
Crete appears to be a centre of expansion for the bronze trade in Europe and weapons first came over from the Mycenaeans in southern Russia.
It is widely believed bronze first came to Britain with the Beaker people who lived about 4,500 years ago in the temperate zones of Europe.
They received their name from their distinctive bell-shaped beakers, decorated in horizontal zones by finely toothed stamps.
The decorated pots are almost ubiquitous across Europe, and could have been used as drinking vessels or ceremonious urns.
Believed to be originally from Spain, the Beaker folk soon spread into central and western Europe in their search for metals.
Textile production was also under way at the time and people wore wrap-around skirts, tunics and cloaks. Men were generally clean-shaven and had long hair.
The dead were cremated or buried in small cemeteries near settlements.
This period was followed by the Iron Age which started around 650 BC and finished around 43 AD.
‘It’s exciting because we think the past is familiar, but this shows life was quite different in the Bronze Age.’
‘Sites like Over Barrow in Cambridgeshire contained a burial with remains of stacked textiles, which were prepared using strips of plant fibre, spliced into yarns, then woven into textiles’.
‘It had always been assumed that textiles were made following well-known historical practices of fibre processing and draft spinning but we can now show people were dealing with plants rather differently, possibly using nettles or flax plants, to make these beautiful woven textiles.’