Ancient Wool Production

I read an article on the use of tusks and bones with holes in them to create ropes over 15,000 years ago. I started thinking about the use of fibres and when our ancestors moved from plant based fibres such as flax to animal fibres, wool.

Ancient rope making tools made of bone and tusk
Ancient bone making tools

Anyone who has read the marvellous, Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond, the American academic and writer will be aware that the beginnings of agriculture that produced domesticated plants and animals, happened in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ on the eastern border of the Mediterranean Sea.  It includes the northern parts of Egypt, Lebanon and what was Mesopotamia, an area between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. Cereals were being cultivated in this area at least 9,000 years ago – so 7,000 years BC. 

Scholars use a variety of methods to look at the possible development of the area.  These include traditional archeology, archaeozoology, and philology.  The last two of these are the examination of animal remains from ancient sites and the study of the development of language using historic texts and images.  The earliest pictographic texts exist from the late 4th century BC (3,500 BC – ish).  These show different types of sheep and goats along with pigs and cattle were being kept.

The earliest forms of textiles to be used were plant based, specifically flax, that was then and is still, used to make linen.  There are archeological remains from Giorgia in the Causcasus, that show that linen from wild flax plants was being used for fibres 36,000 years ago. 

Sculture of a mouflon sheep from around 2500 BC
Reclining Mouflon Sheep

This is a sculpture held in the Metropolitan Museam of Art in New York. It shows a mouflon sheep from 2600-1900 BC.

Back to wool.  There is very little direct archaeological evidence of wool itself, as being a natural organic fibre it easily degrades and so unlikely to be found in any quantity.  What can be found though are pottery shards and animal bones and of course sculpture. The pottery frequently has images and early forms of written text – either as pictographs (like the hieroglyphs of Egypt) or early forms of writing. Animal bones show two forms of sheep, one type large with spiral horns and a hairy coat and one small type with coiled horns and a woolly coat.  There are also the remains of wool production tools such as distaffs and a whorl, both used in the hand spinning process. the textiles themselves would have been created using a primitive loom – I am pretty sure there was no knitting in those days. 

Wool was used as an early form of payment for workers. It was distributed as part of the ‘ration’ to workmen along with other goods such as wood, oil and barley. The text uses the word workmen, but I imagine that this work was a whole family affair with all able participants taking part in spinning and weaving. This was an early form of ‘salary’ but well before any form of monetary system was in place. 

I’ll do a bit more research I think.  The different types of sheep need looking at and there are some fascinating papers that explain how the development of the wool industry shows a link between wool and power, so more of that next week.   

One comment

  1. The history of wool production is so very interesting! Thank you for sharing, I can’t wait to see what fun facts you uncover next.


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