5.3.3 Textiles and animal skins

Direct evidence for Neolithic textiles and animal skins seems to be lacking entirely; once again, these would have been ubiquitous and important elements of Neolithic material culture, especially as items of clothing. Instead, there is a reliance on indirect evidence, in the following forms:

  1. Carbonised seeds found at the ‘hall’ at Balbridie, Aberdeenshire (Fairweather and Ralston 1993), demonstrating that flax was cultivated from the earliest Neolithic in Scotland, thereby raising the possibility that linen could have been used (as a thread, if not also as woven fabric).
  2. One impression of woven cloth, found on a sherd of Impressed Ware from Flint Howe, Glenluce, Dumfries and Galloway (Henshall 1969) and likely to date to between 3500 BC and 2900 BC. According to Audrey Henshall, ‘The textile was a plain weave cloth, with one system of threads much closer together than the other system; the latter would have been hardly visible and they have not registered in the impression. There were about 32 threads per inch in the close-set system, and about 10 threads per inch in the wide-set system. The direction of spin of the former was S (z on the impression). The Luce Sands textile seems to have been almost a repp.’ [a fabric with prominent rounded crosswise ribs].
  3. Dress accessories: i) bone pins, used to fasten garments (see above, Skara Brae). The examples are all from Late Neolithic Orkney. It is not possible to tell, however, whether such pins were designed for use with animal skin garments or with fabric garments; ii) Middle Neolithic belt sliders of jet and jet-like materials, which imply the use of belts (of various widths, but generally below 50 mm) to constrain garments.
  4. Borers (mostly or wholly of bone), which could have been used to pierce animal skins; bone needles (from Skara Brae), for sewing; knives (of stone) to cut skins; scrapers (of flint, other stone or bone) to remove fat from skins; and haematite blocks, which could have been used to smooth and polish skins.
A composite image showing a photograph of a sherd of pottery with an impression of woven textile and a photograph of a mould of the sherd showing the texture of the woven fibres in detail

left) Impressed Ware sherd from Flint Howe, Glenluce, with impression of woven textile. Photo © NMS. (right) Photo of ‘mould’ made after laser-scanning the Flint Howe sherd, showing the texture of the woven fibres. Photo ©Archaeology Department, Exeter University, courtesy of Dr Linda Hurcombe

The Glenluce sherd is especially important as it demonstrates that weaving was undertaken in Neolithic Scotland. There is no other evidence for weaving from this period – no spindle whorls, no loomweights, etc – and the Glenluce impression is too small to allow one to determine exactly how the item had been woven (although further research, including experimentation, may well shed light on the matter: c.f. Hurcombe 2008.

As regards the use of animal skins, it should be noted that there is no evidence for the use of leather – i.e. skins that have been processed in a specific manner, involving tanning – until the Roman period in Britain.

The outstanding research questions are as follows:

  1. Was the Glenluce fabric made of wool? This is an important question, as it would shed light on sheep breeding and management at this early period: it is believed that the species of sheep extant in Neolithic Britain would not have produced good quality wool, suitable for use in textiles, having instead a ‘deer-like coat’ (Ryder 1995). Examination of the Glenluce sherd by Linda Hurcombe (University of Exeter) has revealed that the fibre was a dense material, but experimental replication would be needed to determine whether it was a plant fibre (Hurcombe 2008). Such work is planned as part of Dr Hurcombe’s ongoing research into prehistoric textiles, coradge basketry.
  2. How can the body of direct evidence for the use of textiles and animal skins in Neolithic Scotland be increased? Targeting of wetland areas (and in particular, Loch Olabhat on N. Uist) would seem to offer the best possibility.

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