Monday, 13 July 2015

Deciphering a palaeolithic textile

For  HSM challenge 7 I'm reconstructing a headband found at El Wad in what is now Israel.  The headband was buried with its owner, who came from the Natufian culture and lived in the El Wad area during the palaeolithic.  In this blog post I'll talk about the process I'm using to reconstruct the headband, and why I think it's likely the original headband was made this way.

The headband was decorated with rows of beads made from dentalium shells.  Dentalium shell beads are a characteristic feature of the Natufian culture, and are very common in Natufian burials and settlement sites.  In some cases it's impossible to tell how the Natufians used their shells.  It's not always clear whether the shells were made into jewelry or attached to people's clothes, but we have a good idea about what this particular headband looked like because a lot of the shell beads are still in place, stuck to the owner's skull:

Image found here.

It makes sense to assume the shells were attached to some type of fabric band, but this has rotted away so a bit of detective work is necessary to determine what type of fabric it might have been, and how the shells might have been attached.

The El Wad burials have been dated between 14,000 and 13,000 years BP (remember, radiocarbon dating gives dates as BP or "before present", which means before 1 January 1950).  At this time, the Natufians hadn't yet discovered weaving as we know it today.  Woven textiles don't start to appear until later in the neolithic around 6000 BCE.  Instead, they made twined linen textiles like this:

Image from C. Giner, 2012, Textiles from the Pre-pottery Neolithic Site of Tell Halula (Euphrates Valley, Syria), available here.

I've made a swatch of twined cloth based on Natufian examples before, which I blogged about here.  It's easy enough to make, just very time consuming.  Woven cloth is much quicker to manufacture, which is why twined cloth gradually fell out of favour after weaving was invented.

Attaching the shells to this fabric could have been done in a couple of different ways. They could either have been sewn onto the fabric, or they could have been threaded directly onto the warp threads of the fabric.  As I discussed in my last post, it looks to me as though the shells were threaded directly onto the warp threads of the fabric, with twined weft threads in between each row of shells.  The original has a distinct gap between each row of shells, and the shells sit in very straight, even lines which suggests to me they were woven into the cloth.  The beads' holes all line up exactly.

This photo shows how I've threaded dentalium shells onto my warp threads, and then twined weft threads between each row of shells.   I haven't used a loom for this process, because I found I don't really need to.  The shells tend to keep the warp threads where they need to be, and once the weft threads are in place the fabric is pretty sturdy.  One advantage of twined cloth is that it doesn't fray or unravel.

I can't say for sure if this is how the original was constructed, but this method does produce a headband that looks like the original, and is consistent with what we know about Natufian textile manufacture.  The thread is linen, which seems to be what the Natufians used to make their textiles.  The surviving scraps of fabric are linen, so I think it's reasonable to assume the El Wad headband was made using linen thread.  This thread isn't processed and spun by hand the authentic palaeolithic way, of course, but you can't have everything.

Here's another photo of the partly completed headband:

As you can see, my reconstruction has neat rows of shells with a small gap between each row, just like the original.  The weft thread ends get tucked into the shells and trimmed, and once the headband reaches the right length I'll knot the warp ends together to form a circle.


  1. Really impressive reconstruction work! I can't wait to see the finished product.

    1. Thanks Cathy! I'm looking forward to seeing the finished product too.

  2. Hi, I've nominated you for a Liebster award,

  3. Hi bandykullan, thanks for the nomination!