9,000-year-old cloth gives glimpse of how ancient people progressed

July 13, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- The oldest known piece of cloth, woven 9,000 years ago near the headwaters of the Tigris River, is helping archaeologists weave together the still incomplete story of humanity's civilizing march from the cave to the city.

Discovery of the 3-inch-by-1 1/2 -inch fossilized swatch of cloth was announced yesterday by the University of Chicago and Istanbul University. A team of archaeologists from the two universities found the cloth, woven from flax fibers, at the site of an ancient village they have been excavating jointly since 1964. The artifact now belongs to the Turkish national museum.

The cloth, wound by a prehistoric villager around a tool handle made of an animal antler, was found in 1988. Linda and Dr. Robert Braidwood of the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute had been waiting since then for confirmation that what they found was indeed a piece of cloth.

The Braidwoods, who have been working in Middle Eastern archaeological sites since the 1930s, are the acknowledged world leaders in the scholarly search for how humans progressed from caves to civilization.

Robert Braidwood, 85, said it took several years for the world's leading authority on ancient textiles, Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood of the Netherlands' National Museum of Ethnology, to get to Turkey to study the haft. Her recent confirmation that the fossilized material is a piece of cloth prompted the announcement of the discovery.

"People learned to weave baskets first," Ms. Vogelsang-Eastwood said in a confirming report, "and then used those weaving techniques for cloth."

She said existence of the cloth shows people then had some sort of loom. It appears, she said, to have been produced by a primitive method of weaving on a simple frame over which vertical threads were stretched so that horizontal threads could be entwined with them.

The site at which the cloth was found is called Cayonu, an archaeological dig the Braidwoods began with Prof. Halet Cambel of Istanbul University in 1964. The ancient village had lain undiscovered for thousands of years under farm fields near the headwaters of the Tigris in eastern Turkey.

The fact that cave people began to collect in year-round villages such as the one at Cayonu was crucial to the subsequent appearance of civilization, Mr. Braidwood said. Villages enabled people to break society into divisions of labor, meaning not everybody had to farm and hunt for survival. That allowed the beginnings of technologies such as weaving, and, ultimately, the development of law, monarchies and the written word.

"We are guessing the shift from a hunting-gathering fashion of life to one dependent on domestication of plants and animals began 12,000 to 15,000 years ago."

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