Ancient Sheep

Curly horned sheep from Greece around 300 BC
Curly Horned Sheep, Greece 300 BC

It is considered that there were either two or three types of early sheep that contributed to the development of the sheep that we see now.  An early version of the mouflon is agreed to be one of them.  Scholars have studied existing breeds of sheep and compared the characteristics of their structure (skeletal) along with their tail length, horn shape etc and of course the fleece.  As I am mainly interested their wool I’ll focus on this. 

A fleece is the name for the textile fibres taken from domesticated animals such as sheep, goats or camelids such as alpacas, or even camels.  The removal of these fibres does not harm the animal and in many cases provides for relief in the face of high temperatures.  Ancient sheep had brown coats that had both short ‘woolly’ fibres and longer ‘hairy’ ones.  The process of domestication involved centuries long selection and breeding to produce the sort of fleeces that we see now. The original wild sheep lost their coats annually as part of a natural process of shedding hair or moulting that probably enabled the early use of these fibres gathered rather than farmed. By the time of the Iron Age (1500 BC) sheep no longer shed their coats and so had to be shorn.  This meant that humans could harvest the wool in a much more efficient and regular way. It also involved two new technologies – shearing and dyeing.  There is evidence both of these in preserved fleeces and and ancient textiles and in art from then showing both the sheep themselves and people wearing woollen clothing. 

Archaeological records show the development of two types of fleece between 5000 and 1500 BC: the first, a mixture of more abundant short wool fibres, thickened at the base, combined with a smaller amount of long coarse hair; the second, also a mixture, but one in which the coarse hair had developed into a wool of a type more familiar to the fleeces of today. In the second case, the woollen fibres were of a more uniform length and gauge, and with a rounded tip.

Fibres from sheep are all designated as wool, but there are three main types.  These are kemp, the outer courser fibres, wool, the underwool, found close to the animal’s skin and hair, that varies in length and thickness. Kemp is usually short, stiff and brittle.  Wool is the softest of the fibres and usually has some ‘crimp’.  Hair has as similar length to the wool, but tends to have a wave rather than a crimp. 

Sculpture of a peasant wearing a conical felted hat circa 1st century BC
A Pilos conical hat made from felt – around 100 BC

Early fabrics produced by these fibres would almost certainly have been created by felting the wool rather than weaving.  Gathered wool would have been used for bedding and would have naturally felted with use. Felting is the process by which the scales that cover each woollen fibre are rubbed together and so become entangled and mesh together.  Both heat and moisture enable this process and there are examples of felted caps from 3,500 years ago to be seen in the National Museum of Denmark.

The image to the right shows a sculpture of a peasant wearing a Pilos conical hat made from felt, courtesy of the Louvre Museum / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)

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