Tracking Textile History – the Mycenaeans

When we left the fascinating archaeology of Crete a few posts ago, it was about 1450 BC. From the evidence we have it seems the rulers in the palace of Knossos were big consumers of textiles, using them for exchange and religious offerings. Unfortunately we can’t read that language yet, so there is a lot about Minoan textiles that is still unknown.

At some point, Mycenaeans from the Greek mainland took over on Crete.

On the map below you can find Mycenae in Achaea, the turquoise section west of Athens.  You may remember that in The Iliad, Agamemnon and Menelaus came from Mycenae.

 

Homeric Greece.svg
Homeric Greece” by Pinpin – Inspiré de la carte “ACHAEANS and TROJANS” du site de Carlos Parada. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

No one knows exactly how, when, or why the Mycenaeans were able to come into power, or why, about 250 years later, their culture collapsed.

What we do know is that at the end of their civilization, Knossos went through another destruction, sometime around 1200 BC*, preserving more clay tablets for us.  And since the Mycenaeans had adapted the Minoan writing system (what we call Linear A) for use with their own Greek language (Linear B), we can read them.

There are whole segments of society that are not mentioned in these tablets – there is very little about weapons, or ships, or pottery.  But fortunately for me, there are thousands of records having to do with textiles!

If you try to picture what Bronze Age cloth production was like, you might imagine young people guarding the family flock of sheep and goats, chasing butterflies as they gently “wool-gathered” the locks of fleece that the animals lost on thorny bushes, and bringing the wool home to mother for her to spin and weave into cloth for snow white tunics at her leisure.  At least that’s how I pictured it.

But as we saw with the Minoans, rulers require a lot of cloth for their consumption.  And it looks like, when the Mycenaeans took over Minoan culture, they liked the system they saw in place, and tweaked it for greater efficiency, managing every step to “acquire raw material (wool) for transformation into value-added finished products for redistribution and exchange.”  (The Cambridge Companion to the Aegean Bronze Age, p. 305)

They kept records of every step in the process, from gathering the flocks to adding garment fringes.

There are 800+ sheep census forms from 30 places around Crete, and they all go something like this:

Shepherd Ti-mi-za at Ku-ta-to – 200 sheep
143 males, 36 females, 21 others

-Record Df 1121

Shearing or plucking record for the same flock

Ti-mi-za at Ku-ta-to

200 sheep [sign for males used, can refer to mix of males and females]
wool paid – 33 units
wool owed – 17 units
total – 50 units of wool

-Record Dk (2) 1076

(John T. Killen in Ancient Textiles:Production, Craft, and Society,  Location 1751)

From the collection of tablets we have, we can see that the Mycenaeans were controlling about 100,000 sheep, probably using 1/4 to 1/3 of the available grazing land.  Even today Crete supports about 530,000 sheep, so the Mycenaean number, although large, is realistic.  The scribes were just keeping internal records.  They had no reason to think their work would be preserved or even seen by anybody outside the kingdom, so they had no reason to try to exaggerate the king’s power or control.

I like the idea of the “wool unit” equaling the output of four sheep.  I can imagine how this came about:

Tribute Collector:  Shepherd Ti-mi-za, if my memory serves me correctly, the amount of wool you are contributing is less than it was last year.

Shepherd:  My sheep have been sick, it was a hot summer… half of them just didn’t put on wool like they did last year.  They might have a mineral deficiency.

Collector:  Fine, from now on, instead of collecting one fleece from each sheep, we will require a certain weight of wool, and it’s up to you how to combine fleeces to make your quota.  But you will make your quota.  Am I clear?

Other shepherds murmuring:  Oh great, thanks Ti-mi-za, for your little idea.  I told you you’d never get away with short-changing the tribute collectors, but you said, “No, what do they know about actual fleece weights?  A handful here, a handful there, who’s to know?  They’ll be too tired from traveling all over the kingdom, lugging their little clay tablets!  If we all do it, they’ll never notice!”

We even know what the wool unit was – it was equivalent to about 3 kilograms, which means 750 grams of wool per sheep.  And that means that the palace controlled 30 – 50 tons of wool each year (as Killen says, depending on whether the “owed” amounts were ever actually collected).

Once the wool was collected, it must have been spun somewhere, but I did not find a lot of information on that step. (Although one theorist thinks that an undeciphered Linear B tablet means that wool baskets were delivered to a certain work group.)

The records next show us the wool being distributed to weavers, “with the expectation that set production targets would be met with finished textiles delivered back to the palace.” (Burke, Location 1533)  And it wasn’t just like, “Here’s your wool, it’ll be interesting to see what you make.”  The type of cloth and number of finished units was specified.

There are at least 11 Linear B symbols that we know have to do with cloth.  The three below are pretty well understood and tell us a lot about cloth specifications.

Linear B cloth signs, based on Brendan Burke

Linear B cloth signs, based on From Minos to Midas by Brendan Burke

Here are descriptions of those three cloths, summarized from From Minos to Midas by Brendan Burke:

TELA-PA used five wool units to three cloth units, and the term is often linked with red or purple.  One tablet refers to 453 pieces.   Burke credits textile historian Elizabeth Barber’s idea “that this was a thick cloth with three closed edges that could be used as a cloak, a blanket, or a woman’s peplos.”

The sign TELA-PU refers to a thick, folded cloth, where one wool unit equaled one cloth unit.  It is described as red, purple, or patterned, so the thought is that this was meant to be outerwear, and was possibly a loin cloth or kilt.  Two tablets refer to a total of 980 of these units.

TELA-TE used seven wool units for one cloth unit, which would make the finished object weigh 21 kilograms, or 46 pounds!  Burke says it was nearly four times as heavy as the pa-we-a cloth, probably a heavy-duty cloak or rug, maybe bedding or tapestry.  Possibly these last two types of cloth were felted.

So even though we don’t know each and every specialty item, we see that there was a system of specifications. (I’m not convinced we have figured them out properly. The weaver in me wants to know why the historians keep assuming that the more wool went into a cloth, the thicker it got, instead of longer and/or wider.  The heaviest garment I own is a vintage wool coat, and it only weighs four pounds.  What loin cloth would weigh six pounds? Couldn’t one cloth unit be made into several garments?)

The tablets also show a surprising amount of specialization in textile jobs.  Workers were not generalists.  Every time a product was picked up from one group and delivered to another, there was a record, for the quantity of material left and what was expected to be made from it.  There are terms for wool pluckers, wool combers, linen workers, spinning women, men and women weavers, headband makers, and fullers.  There were people whose entire job was adding white “fingernail” decorations to finished cloth.

There are also records of the rations workers were given after meeting their targets.  These workers probably didn’t live in Knossos itself, but were dependent on the palace system.  Some of the weaver groups are described by the place they were from (“women workers of Siteia,” for example) – they may have been slaves or prisoners of war, or descendents of the same.  Possibly 1000 workers were in this system.

And what was done with all this cloth?  That has been a huge bone of contention among archaeologists and historians. It used to be thought that it was collected into storehouses, and then redistributed to the whole population.  Now the thinking seems to be that it was used more for the rulers’ purposes – to clothe their slaves and soldiers, provide tents and sails, make exchange gifts with other rulers, dress themselves in finery, and make offerings to the gods.  Burke writes, “I believe most of the exchanges were on a community-to-community level rather than on an individual merchant-to-merchant level…The palace directs consumption of the finished product for military, ideological and political purposes, and to acquire other prestige goods which serve to maintain power.”  (Burke, Location 350 of 5490)

Reading about this textile system has really opened my eyes to the complexity of life in ancient times. I am just amazed that the concepts of targets and quotas (and detailed record-keeping!) were around at such an early time, and that textiles were made in such numbers.

When the Mycenaean civilization fell, the system disappeared.  (I can’t help wondering what happened to the weaving slaves who were used to being told what to do and where to pick up their rations.)  Even writing disappeared, for hundreds of years.

“Indeed, once the palaces were destroyed, this specialist activity clearly ceased, and virtually all the terms which are listed above pass out of use in the Greek language.  It is not until a millennium later, in the great conurbations of the Hellenistic and Roman periods like Alexandria, that we again find anything like the degree of specialisation in textile production that we find on the tablets, in that case sustained by a market economy.”  (John T. Killen in Ancient Textiles: Production, Craft, and Society, Location 1752)

From Minos to Midas : ancient cloth production in the Aegean and in AnatoliaAncient textiles : production, craft and society : proceedings of the First International Conference on Ancient Textiles, held at Lund, Sweden, and Copenhagen, Denmark, on March 19-23, 2003The Cambridge companion to the Aegean Bronze Age

So these are the three books I have read and reread many times, to try to get a handle on all this information.  I think it’s a fascinating era, but I think I am going to take a break from history for the rest of this year, and go back to creating some textiles of my own.

 

*1200 BC, based on this chronology.

1 Day 1 World Project Wrap-up

1 Day 1 World Project Wrap-up

Here are my entries, plus a few for time slots that I missed during the first go-round.

sewing room and rain

Noon – 1 pm – Do a little quilting.

floor patching

1 – 2 pm – Help my husband restore the floor.

gray floor

1 – 2 pm – Admire new floor. (Okay, this was a week later, but the same hour of the day.)

2 perched woodpeckers

2 – 3 pm – Watch the birds.

runner ducks

3 – 4 pm – Play with the ducks.

ice house

4 – 5 pm – Visit the ice house for a cold one.

man and boy fishing

5 – 6 pm – Go fishing.

dragonfly

6 – 7 pm – Take pictures in the yard.

baseball game

7 – 8 pm – Watch a baseball game.

band

8 – 9 pm – Listen to live music under the stars.

sinkhole

9 -10 pm – Watch the bats emerge.

people on plaza

10 -11 pm – Gather on the Plaza.

limestone facade

Still 10 -11 pm – Take a look at the Alamo.

caterpillar and pokeweed

11 – 12 midnight – Walk outside and see who’s about.

axis buck

1 – 2 am – See who’s out and about at the ranch.

"Chocolate and opera for EVERYBODY!"

3 – 4 am – Catch the pixies helping themselves to chocolate.

sunrise 2

7 – 8 am – Watch the sunrise.

8 - 9 am - Take pictures in the yard.

8 – 9 am – Take pictures in the yard.

9 - 10 am - Look for cute farmers.

9 – 10 am – Look for cute farmers.

10 -11 am - Go for a walk along a country road.

10 -11 am – Go for a walk along a country road.

10 - 11 am - Go out for breakfast.

Still 10 – 11 am – Go out for breakfast.  Take that cute farmer with you.

"You need a big finale to your project?  I volunteer!"

11 am – noon – Go see your favorite baby!

I took these pictures in 6 different Texas towns, representing about 1880 miles of travel!  That is pretty standard for us – during the time frame of the project I actually traveled more than twice that in Texas.  If you didn’t have to worry about little things like travel time and could squeeze all these activities into one day, it would be a wonderful day!

Here are the other 1 Day 1 World Wrap-ups.  I really enjoyed this project!

Did I Bring You Something? Yes.

Did I Bring You Something? Yes.

I just got back from a little vacation –  I saw things that reminded me of y’all, so here are your virtual souvenirs:

For Pia, who likes buttons and unusual ideas:

 

Soundsuit 2014 by Nick Cave

Soundsuit 2014 by Nick Cave

P1240562

For Trophos, who likes the classics and pop culture:

Animatronic "Greek goddess of ice"

Animatronic “Greek goddess of ice”

Animatronic "Greek god"

Animatronic “Greek god”

Animatronic throne

Animatronic throne – if you look close you can see the king cowering.

For Elizabeth, who is working on a Green Man tapestry:

Green Man sculpture

Green Man sculpture

Green Man detail

Green Man detail

For Lisa, who made me think about capturing a story wherever I am:

Florists restocking a display.

Florists restocking a display.

For Kerry, who loves vintage linens:

Happy Shirt vintage neon

Happy Shirt vintage neon

And for everyone else who loves working with textiles:

"The Open Window" by Elizabeth Vaughan Okie Paxton

“The Open Window” by Elizabeth Vaughan Okie Paxton

Or at least art:

Chichuly glass sculpture.

Chichuly glass sculpture, Clusters Persians.

And for anyone looking for autumn decoration ideas:

Autumn arrangement.

Autumn arrangement, for those with thousands of pounds of pumpkins laying around.

Arrangement detail.

Arrangement detail.

Care to guess where I was?

1 Day 1 World Project: 11:00 am – noon

1 Day 1 World Project: 11:00 am – noon

When I was visiting with my grandson last week, he reminded me that this is the last week of the 1 Day 1 World Project, and while he knew that I would be sad about that, he thought that his appearance would be the perfect way to wrap up the experience.  Fortunately it was the appropriate time of day!

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We will be doing a wrap-up next week.  I had so much fun with this project!

 

 

I Love Linear B!

When Knossos was excavated, thousands of small clay tablets were found.  Some of their symbols were pretty easy to figure out:

ideograms

 

and some weren’t.

syllables

(I am drawing them myself, because I have a stunning lack of knowledge about things like how to download fonts, and I would rather spend on time on ancient textiles instead of a computer process that will probably be obsolete tomorrow anyway.)

By 1902, Arthur Evans had separated them into three distinct types, a hieroglyphic script that was rarely turned up in the digs, and then two forms that looked like simplified forms of the hieroglyphs.  They were made with incised lines instead of pressed wedges like cuneiform, so he called them Linear A and Linear B.  Some of the symbols were shared in those two systems, but not all.  And no one knew what language they represented.

Evans had uncovered more than 2000 tablets of Linear B, but up until his death in 1941, he allowed less than 200 of them to be published.  He was a busy man, being keeper of the Ashmolean museum at Oxford, and “reconstructing” Knossos, but from what I’ve read, I think he was hoping to decode them himself, and didn’t want anyone to get a jump on him.

Margalit Fox’s book The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code tells the story of how the symbols finally were decoded, and as one Booklist reviewer has written, “You might think a story about trying to decipher a 3000 year-old-language wouldn’t be particularly exciting, but in this case you’d be wrong.”  Fox makes the story zip along, and interweaves background information on languages and history.  The first third of the book is about Arthur Evans, and then she focuses on two people who were instrumental in solving the code.

The first, Alice Kober, was a professor of classics who spent her spare time working on the riddle.  Unlike other people who were trying to fit a known language into the writing system, she analyzed the symbols themselves. This was before computers, so she had to come up with her own data base system.  She made thousands of tiny punch cards and notes, so small she could store them in cigarette boxes, to record symbol occurrences and combinations.  Her archive is at the University of Texas at Austin with some images available online. Here is a good summary of Kober’s contribution, to tide you over until you have time to read the whole book.

Sadly, she died in 1950, at the age of only 43, before solving the puzzle, but her work was instrumental in aiding the man who did decode Linear B in 1952.

He was an English architect named Michael Ventris, who had spent years believing the language was Etruscan.  Finally he figured out that it was a very early form of Greek, from seven hundred years before Greek was known to exist!

(Does that mean that the Minoans were actually Greek?  NO!  Their hieroglyphic symbols and Linear A have still not been decoded.  We still don’t know their language.

What it does mean – and I am very unclear on the details of events, but it seems so are the experts – is that sometime about 1400 BC, people from Mycenae on the Greek mainland, took over administration on Crete.  The textile production system changed dramatically, but we are going to have to wait until next time to get into those details.)

So!  Now that Evans’ 2000 tablets  (and all the other Linear B tablets that had been uncovered in the meantime) could be decoded, what did they say?

As Alice Kober had guessed they might be, they were essentially inventory records, “Farmer Brown delivered a cow to Official Green.”  There are no sagas and epic poems in the tablets we have.

Apparently this was very disappointing to a lot of people, but this is exactly why I love Linear B.

How many ancient battle sagas do we really need?  When I look back into history, I like to balance the picture a little and look at many aspects of life.  I like to know what everybody back at home was doing while the armor-clad warriors were roaming around clashing their swords on their shields.

Linear B provides a detailed picture of ordinary life.  It turned out to be a syllabic script, with some ideograms sprinkled in.  In other words, there are about 100 signs that stand for a consonant-vowel combination, and about 250 signs, that mean a whole word.  I’ll give you the charts for the syllabary and the ideograms.  (These are by the Unicode Consortium.  I don’t find these an especially easy form to work with, but it is fun to look at the symbols and see if you can figure them out.)

Here’s how I would write “Textile Ranger” -

textile ranger

Contented sigh.  Even if I hadn’t learned a thing about how to read them, I just like the looks of them.  They are such artistically satisfying little symbols!

Okay, on to some actual linguistic information.  Since I am putting English words into Linear B script, I have to make some decisions.  There is no “x”, so I am using a “ke” syllable, followed by the “se” syllable.  And there is no “l” sound, so I am substituting the “re” syllable.  (And I have good precedent for that – our word “linen” is written in Linear B as “ri-no.”)

When I get to the word “ranger”, I can either add another syllable for the “re” sound at the end, or I can leave off that final sound like I did here.  I also could have used the “je” syllable, but it just so happens that the “ja” syllable I picked instead, is the feminine ending for words – and it looks like a vertical loom!  If you read these syllables aloud, you would realize they aren’t perfect English words, but eventually you might figure out which English words they stand for.

And that is apparently what the Mycenaeans did with the existing Minoan language when they took over Crete. They saw a writing system, realized its benefits, and changed it to meet the needs of their own language.

So next time I will be able to get to the actual information we have about textile production in Mycenaean times.  It is pretty amazing – thousands of sheep!  Quotas!  Cloth that supposedly weighed 60 pounds for one unit!  Specialized words for spinners, weavers, decorators, and fullers! cloth signsUntil then I will leave you with the known symbols for six different kinds of cloth.

When I look at the one fourth from the right, I see a cloth that is woven all the way across on top, then woven with two shuttles to make a split down the middle, like a modern poncho type of garment.  So that makes me think that the one second from the right, could be a doublewoven tube, with a slit in the middle, and top and bottom woven all the way around.  The others have me stumped though!

Some of them have been figured out, but some haven’t.  If you are a weaver, what are your ideas?

Oh!  And in a development that Alice Kober would have loved, the Linear B tablets are now online, with a spectacular technology called Reflectance Transformation Imaging.  You can download the free RTI viewer, (and this link is more up-to-date than the one on the Ashmolean page of images) and then access the high resolution images on the web.  You can zoom in and look at the image in all different angles of strong light.

And here is a great page of links to resources about the Minoan culture.

Tracking Textile History: The Minoans, Part Two

Tracking Textile History: The Minoans, Part Two

Before we get into more of Minoan textiles, we need to take a short look at how this culture was brought back from three thousand years of oblivion.

The riddle of the labyrinth : the quest to crack an ancient code

There is a fast-paced, readable account in the book The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code by Margalit Fox.   I am going to draw from it to summarize, but I highly recommend reading the book – there is so much more information there, and Fox is expert at weaving the many different threads of this story into a clear picture.

In the early 1870s, archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann* astounded the world with the re-discovery of the lost city of Troy, and in 1876, he was excavating another fabled city, Mycenae, on the mainland of Greece.  An English scholar, Arthur Evans, was fascinated with the finds, but wondered why no signs of a writing system were found.  He believed these cities were too complex to get by without record-keeping in some form.

In 1883, Evans and his wife visited Greece for 5 months and even met with Schliemann.  Evans’ interest in the Greek Bronze Age grew, and when he visited Athens again, 10 years later, he began buying up small stones carved with symbols.

Seal stone.  That looks like a vertical loom on the left.

Minoan seal stone of jasper, 1800-1650 BC. That looks like a vertical loom on the left, if you ask me. © The Trustees of the British Museum

image source

Antique dealers told him the stones had come from Crete.  Convinced that they were proof of a “system of picture-writing in the Greek lands”, Evans starting visiting Crete with an eye to finding a likely place to excavate.  Eventually he found a property in Kephala where some interesting things had been uncovered in 1878.  Fox writes, “Needing digging rights, Evans did what any self-assured Victorian of means would do: He simply bought the property.”  (e-book Locate 465 of 4818)  Evans bought it in 1894, but local fighting kept him from digging until 1900.

As soon as he did start excavating though, he found incredible things.   He quickly uncovered a huge palace that had had staircases, drainage pipes, and frescoed walls, but layers of rubble and burned timbers showed that it had been destroyed and rebuilt several times.  Best of all, his workers found whole store rooms full of small clay tablets,  marked with incised lines.  Fires that had swept through the palace had baked the tablets and preserved them.  Evans had proof of a system of writing that was seven hundred years earlier than any known Greek writing.

But that writing would not get figured out for another 52 years.  (And I will be returning to that in another post, because I am fascinated!)

So thank you, Ms. Fox, on to some other resources -

Besides being an archaeologist, Evans was keeper of the Ashmolean museum at Oxford University, so they have an archive of his papers.  Many of them are accessible online here.

Evans did things that are questionable by today’s standards – his excavation methods might have missed a lot of evidence, and when he reconstructed the palace at Knossos, he may have allowed artists to build their own vision rather than an accurate replica.   But his findings at Knossos revealed a previously unknown civilization to us, one that influenced our own.

Since Evans’ time, research has been done continually, and a better picture of Minoan life is coming into focus.  For a gorgeous glimpse of its fascinating treasures, look at this online book – it has 300 pages of high-resolution images of jewelry, figurines, pottery, ceremonial weapons, and more.  It is an amazing source of inspiration.  Seriously.  If you never click another link on my blog (but you should, because I do a lot of research and find really good links), click this one.  It’s amazing.

The records for textile production are still spotty during this era of Minoan Palaces, from about 2000 – 1450 BC.  I’m going to draw information from the chapter “Textile Industry and Minoan Palaces”,  by Pietro Militello in the first book of the Ancient Textiles series.

Ancient textiles : production, craft and society : proceedings of the First International Conference on Ancient Textiles, held at Lund, Sweden, and Copenhagen, Denmark, on March 19-23, 2003

After analyzing finds of loom weights and clay tablets in various excavations and eras, Militello concludes that in the First Palace Period, 2000- 1700 BC, there were weaving workshops in the Palace centers themselves – in just one example, at Knossos, 400 loom weights were found together, and that signifies about 20 looms, with 40 to 60 weavers.

WarpWeightedLoomCTMLodzPoland.jpg

This is a vertical loom, the kind used on Crete. The loom weights at the bottom give stability and tension to groups of warp threads, making them easier to work with.

WarpWeightedLoomCTMLodzPoland” by ArtProfOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

source

In the Second Palace Period, 1700- 1450 BC, a new type of country house called “Villa” appears, and though these houses may be surrounded by a small village, they are often far from the centers of power.  Loom weights are found in great numbers in some of them, but not all of them, so it appears that there were weaving workshops, and some people didn’t weave at home at all.   And interestingly, in the Necropolis, or City of the Dead, there are enough loom weights for two looms, making us wonder what exactly was being woven there and for whom!  At this point, within the Palaces themselves, evidence for weaving is scarce, but records of textiles are more numerous than they were before.

Militello’s conclusion is that the Minoan Palaces were focused on textile consumption, rather than production.  Textiles were important in the power centers for religious offerings, diplomatic gifts, and exchange.  Initially workshops might have been set up in the palace complexes themselves, creating enough specialized textiles just for the elite, and later textile production was outsourced to workshops in the periphery.  The textiles might have been paid in as a required tribute, or tax.

He has one story that really sticks with me.

In south-central Crete is a settlement that was excavated about the same time as Knossos.  It is called Ayia Triada, and one of the buildings, the Royal Villa, was built around 1550 BC, and destroyed in 1450 BC.  There is a long narrow room like a hallway (Room 9) with a large square room connected to it (Room 27).  At the time of destruction, a group of loom weights was in Room 27, and 45 little tokens called noduli were found on the window sill connecting to Room 9.  A tablet marked with the signs for the equivalent of 45 units of wool was found in the same area.

Militello says, ” At the time of the Villa’s destruction, the administration of Ayia Triada was distributing or receiving 135 kg [45 units] of wool and giving receipts in exchange while a scribe was entering data on his tablet.  The looms stored inside Room 27 could be somehow related to this activity: perhaps they were to be used in the processing of the wool on the tablet.”  (e-book Location 1362 of 9882)

Can’t you just see it?  A wool-worker comes in to meet his required quota for the year, drops off the wool, starts to pick up the tokens that will prove he paid up – or a weaver comes in with tokens to pay for the wool she needs for her work – and then, sudden disaster!  Earthquake, fire, invasion – no one knows for sure what happened on that day.

But about that same time, the Mycenaeans took over on Crete, and then the textile world got really interesting.

*And do you know where Schliemann got the money to fund his excavations?  He had gotten rich from starting a bank in Sacramento during the California Gold Rush, and cornering the indigo market in Europe!  I’m telling you, it all goes back to textiles in one way or another.

And also a disclaimer – I am not a historian or expert, just an interested hobbyist.  I might be making hugely inaccurate statements here.  If you are a historian, you are welcome to point out any mistakes.  If you are here for homework help, you might want to look for more authoritative sources!

Tracking Textile History: The Minoans

Okay, you know the Minoans, right?

Those bull-leaping snake-handling fresco-painting labyrinth-building people?

Bull leaping, fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete, Heraklion Archaeological Museum.jpg

Apparently this was never a real sport. But those people sure knew how to design a border!

Bull leaping, fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete, Heraklion Archaeological Museum” by George Groutas – originally posted to Flickr as Bull-leaping, fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete, Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Große Schlangengöttin 01.jpg

Snake goddess.

Große Schlangengöttin 01” by Olaf TauschOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Minoans are possibly best known for the story in which Theseus has to face the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, and it all looks hopeless until King Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, gives him a ball of thread that he can unwind as he goes in, and follow back out.

These past few months I’ve been following some threads deep into the labyrinth of history.

Last year, Trophos at The Dancing Professor alerted me to this whole wonderful Ancient Textiles series. I have read two of these scholarly tomes, and since I don’t have much familiarity with ancient history, I have had to re-read them a few times. And that has led me to a whole string of other books to fill holes in my background knowledge.  At this point, I think I understand enough to share some of the fascinating information I’ve learned, so I’m planning a series of textile history posts.  (I can’t find the actual post in which she showed these books, so I’ll link to her post that mentions Penelope’s weaving in the Odyssey. )

From Minos to Midas : ancient cloth production in the Aegean and in Anatolia

This is Brendan Burke’s book, From Minos to Midas: Ancient Cloth Production in the Aegean and in Anatolia. Burke’s premise is that following craft activity through a society should help us discover facets of the society’s structure, politics, and economy.

Since the Minoans are credited with creating the first civilization in Europe, they are a good place to start.

They lived on Crete, which is about halfway between Greece and Egypt in the Mediterranean Sea.

Mediterranean Relief.jpg
Mediterranean Relief“. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The Cretan settlement Knossos , the oldest European city, was first settled about 7000 BC, still in the Stone Age.  About 1000 people lived in an area near the sea, with fresh water and fertile land, crops like wheat and legumes, and domesticated sheep, goats, pigs, dogs, and small cattle.

Sadly, textiles don’t usually last through the millennia, so to know what cloth and production were like, we have to depend on tools, texts, and pictures. The earliest textile equipment found in Knossos (clay spindle whorls and loom weights) are dated to about 3750 BC.*  These early remains are found scattered throughout the site, suggesting that all the steps to make cloth were done in individual households.  But by the Late Neolithic, textile tools are showing up in only certain areas, revealing that a shift towards specialization.

From 3100-2200 BC, the Cretans were living in scattered farm houses.  Then about 1930 BC, suddenly the earlier settlements were leveled, and a new building form, the palace, appeared.  Pottery styles became more specialized, more metals were imported, and figurines of women and sheep started appearing in mountain shrines (suggesting the importance of a wool-based economy).  By 1700 BC, 100,000 people lived near Knossos, and at some point the palace had 1300 rooms and took up 6 acres. What was it that spurred this “emerging complexity”?

I was always taught that it was food surpluses – that farmers who had successful crops found ways to exchange them for different foods.  In Crete, “lower and flatter land was suited to cereals while mountainous terrain with thinner soil cover was used for cultivating olives and vines.” (e-book Location 561 of 5490)  In 1972, a researcher named Colin Renfrew published The Emergence of Civilisation, with the influential theory that successful agriculture led to “redistributive chiefs” who coordinated exchanges of surplus crops, putting themselves in the position of “controlling elites” and making the farmers dependent on them.  (Do you see why I had to re-read this stuff?)

Other researchers theorized that the controlling elites popped up first, and coerced the farmers into growing specialized crops. Or that groups made mutually beneficial plans to gather their surpluses in regional centers in case of future shortages.

But Burke states, “It is unlikely that Early Bronze Age farmers would willingly have taken the risk of specializing in one crop with the expectation that trade with their neighbors would supply other essentials.” (Location 577)  In other words, are you going to be the first guy to bring your extra olives down to someone on the plain, and hope they’ve produced some extra wheat to trade you?

Burke points out that people with less-productive land might divert their skills to craft work, and accumulate goods that they could trade.  I like how he says with scholarly reserve, “It can be argued that the emphasis on agriculture in terms of the origins of complexity is misplaced and that the production and exchange of prestige goods, such as finely crafted and dyed textiles and valuable metal items, first allowed such centers and their elites to develop.”  (Location 598)

This makes sense to me, especially in earthquake-prone Crete.  Textiles don’t need containers, they don’t break, and they don’t go bad.  In a good year, you could weave an extra cloak, and then trade it whenever you got the chance.

I think that’s an interesting idea – that skilled craft work rather than food surpluses might have been the spark to start trade within communities.

That leads to wondering how the import/export trade started.  What did Crete have to offer the outside world to get the resources it wanted?

Minoan seal stone from 1700 - 1450 BC.

© The Trustees of the British Museum – Minoan seal stone from 1700 – 1450 BC.

image source

Burke says, “Crete is relatively poor in natural resources: there are no major deposits of metals on the island, which is remarkable considering that the people of Crete became famous for their crafting skills… The earliest settlers, who tinkered with a wide variety of materials such as copper, lead, silver, gold, and ivory, were working exclusively with imported materials…” (Location 540 of 5490) They were importing luxury items like hippopotamus tusks and Egyptian vessels – what were they giving in return?

The answer could be luxury textiles. Burke says that murex snails were used for purple dye at about five sites in Crete, in the 20th – 18th century BC, earlier than anywhere else in the Mediterranean by (as far as the evidence we have) 200 to 500 years. “Woolen textiles, the most valuable of which would have been purple-dyed, were probably among the first goods exchanged by Minoans to the Near East and Egypt.” (Location 936)

So, possibly textiles spurred civilization on!  Next time, we will look at textiles and early forms of writing.

*…if I understand it right – the actual phrase in the book is “the first quarter of the fourth millennium BC.”  You figure out the backwards dating.  Is the first quarter farther back from our time?  Or closer to the year 1?

 

 

 

One Banner, Five Techniques, a Few Problems

One Banner, Five Techniques, a Few Problems

Our neighbors have created their own holiday – Corn Day, a celebration of all things corn and corny.  The prize for the corniest joke is a large ugly ceramic tureen that looks like a basket of corn.  Oddly enough, the winner of the contest never claims the prize!

My contribution to the celebratory ambiance is a Corn Banner.  I love to make things like this – fun projects that use up scraps, and allow for some technique practice.  The tough thing is to not go overboard and spend hours on something that is essentially just a joke.

I wanted to combine a giant ear of corn with the corniest corn quote I know.

I wanted to combine a giant ear of corn with the corniest corn quote I know.

The image is from Microsoft Office clip art.  I pieced the back with quilt-as-you-go, used fusible webbing to applique the corn leaves, and then “scribble stitched” around their edges.

Fusible webbing attached the leaves to the background.

Fusible webbing attached the leaves to the background.

I made the corn cob separately and quilted some wavy lines to suggest kernels.  I used some Inktense pencils to color in a few kernels, put the cob on top of the leaves, and fused a few more leaves over top.

More leaves overlap the cob.  I used fusible webbing all the way to the edge of each piece, and then had trouble stitching through the layers.  Next time I will leave the edges fusible-free.

I didn’t have any problems stitching through the fusible webbing, until I got to spots where I had several leaves stacked up.  The needle punched through all the layers fine, but the top and bobbin threads wouldn’t catch each other.  I ended up straight-stitching, but I think I should have put more pressure on the presser foot.

The other problem I had was creating the quote – first I tried to use iron-on transfer sheets.  I really wanted it on yellow fabric, to tie in with the giant ear of corn, but I got patchy results.

Disappointing results from transfer sheets.

Disappointing results from transfer sheets.

I made two changes – setting the printer for “best quality” instead of standard, and using my old iron instead of my cordless one to make sure I had enough heat, but those two things didn’t help. This was the “SuperSoft Inkjet Transfer Paper” from Dharma, but I’ve had it two or three years, and the directions say it only has a shelf life of six months in controlled conditions.  I’m guessing that doesn’t mean months of 90 degrees and 95 per cent humidity.

I had to go and buy Dritz Inkjet Printable Fabric.  That gave a sharp print, but the white background is too glaring for this piece.

I think it still needs some 3-D embellishments.  Yellow buttons would be cute but I don’t have any.  I think I am going to add some yo-yos.  Any other corny thoughts, anyone?

 

 

Saturday Sunrise

After a week of rain, we are having a gorgeous fall day.

sunrise 2

Just the thing for the 1 Day 1 World Project’s 7:00 – 8:00 am hour.   I’ve missed a few weeks because there is not a lot to photograph around here in the dark hours.  You can only take so many pictures of a cup of coffee and and a Kindle, which are my usual early morning companions.

But this morning the weather cooperated.  Then a little PhotoShop increase of contrast and saturation helped capture the feeling of a welcome sunrise.

Yarn Trunk: Down 1 Cone – Towel Drawer: Up 5 Towels

I mistakenly thought that this batch of towels would quickly clean up my yarn stash. It’s a two-shuttle weave, and the pattern thread has some long floats, so I thought that would require pounds and pounds of yarn.  In the interest of finishing off a few cones, I stuck with only five choices of weft thread (instead of using little bits off lots of different cones).  But I only managed to use up one tiny cone of navy blue cotton.

And even with that, I totally underestimated how much was on the cone.  I thought it didn’t have enough to weave a one-inch stripe – it had enough to weave a 25-inch towel, and then some!

I know I could weigh the yarn, multiply by the number of yards per pound, etc., and figure out exactly what I could make with that amount – but for what I’m doing, it really doesn’t matter that much.  I like to start with a pretty plain warp, and just see what weaving variations pop up as I’m going along.

Off the loom, before being cut apart and washed.

Off the loom, before being cut apart and washed.

One warp, five weaving variations.

One warp, five weaving variations.

I always loved those swatch collections in Handwoven magazine.

I always loved those swatch collections in Handwoven magazine.

Close-up of the texture.

Close-up of the texture.

 

My daughter drew this of me, when she was five.  She showed the warp away from me, and the woven cloth close to me!

My daughter drew this of me, when she was five. She showed the warp at the back of the loom, and the woven cloth close to me!