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The Genesis of the Textile Industry from Adorned Nudity to Ritual Regalia: The Changing Role of Fibre Crafts and Their Evolving Techniques of Manufacture in the Ancient Near East from the Natufian to the Ghassulian

The Genesis of the Textile Industry from Adorned Nudity to Ritual Regalia: The Changing Role of Fibre Crafts and Their Evolving Techniques of Manufacture in the Ancient Near East from the Natufian to the Ghassulian

By Janet Levy. Oxford: Archaeopress 2020. Pp. x + 323. ₤52. ISBN 978-1-78969-448-2 (paper).

Reviewed by

This is a book of evidence. Levy has the tenacity of a bulldog in pursuing and dragging in every possible form of evidence for a very elusive subject that has been central to human existence for many millennia. Because of their ready perishability in most climates, string, textiles, and other fiber objects were long ignored by Mediterranean archaeologists. Egypt alone was known for textile remains—usually published, but often incorrectly represented because since the Industrial Revolution most people have no idea how spinning, weaving, plaiting, and other fiber working techniques are accomplished. In 1990, Princeton University Press published my own Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, a thick volume that had taken me 17 years of grubbing through libraries and museums to put together. With a manual finally in hand, archaeologists began paying heed to lowly fibers. Thirty years later, so much has been found, saved, analyzed, and published that entire books are needed to update the field for each region. This is just such a book: an excellent one, centered in the southern Levant but integrating the whole eastern Mediterranean from Anatolia to Egypt, from the beginning of manufactured textiles through the Chalcolithic.

When I started my research, people thought textiles began around maybe 5000 BCE; I collected evidence back to 20,000 BCE, warning that this could not be the beginning—people were already too good at fibercrafts. Palaeontologists paid attention, and in this volume Levy pulls together a new list of the earliest evidence, step by step back 90,000 years. But she concentrates on the prehistoric era when people settled down in the Near East, starting ca. 13,550 BCE: Natufian (ch. 2), Pre-Pottery Neolithic A and B (chs. 3 and 4), Pottery Neolithic (ch. 5), and Chalcolithic (ch. 6). Chapter 7 summarizes these finds and their implications, followed by four crucial appendices: appendix A explains to archaeologists the basic fibercrafts; B describes Levy’s many practical experiments (see below); C lays out each step needed to create the enormous shroud from the Cave of the Warrior; and D charts her data on Yarmukian spindlewhorls.

Her treatment, however, involves far more than cataloguing finds, as she also drums up every conceivable method of understanding those finds. Foremost among these (for me) is her experimentation. She attempted to reproduce virtually everything she dealt with—not just by making ancient-style looms and weaving on them, or learning to spin thread in the two ways people used at that time; she also tried to learn first-hand how hard it would be and how long it would take to collect appropriate pebbles in the wadis to make into spindlewhorls, or to use a flint blade to drill a central hole in a potsherd to make spindlewhorls that way. (It wasn’t difficult, taking about 15 minutes—until in one of the potsherds she hit some flint temper in her way. Did she give up? No, she kept at it until she finished the hole—an hour and forty minutes later. She suggests this is why excavators find so many half-drilled sherds.) Levy pulls no punches, detailing the “failed” experiments with the “successful,” pointing out that you learn as much or more from the failures as from successes. I can vouch for that: during my research, I, too, made many trials of spinning and weaving, and just as I was musing that if I spent that much time writing my book, I’d get done a lot sooner, I’d hit some “Aha!” moment that would catapult my understanding into whole new and unexpected realms. Just so with Levy: “The information is in the small details” (3).

Her comically frustrating attempts to grow and process flax illustrate other benefits of the experimentation method, giving her a new understanding, for instance, of Egyptian murals depicting flax cultivation. She also corrals more evidence for interpreting the bare archaeological finds by investigating ethnographic parallels, both worldwide and local, noting efficiency in time and materials. She even carries this beyond textiles, learning how olives are harvested and pressed, because those processes dictated how oil-pressing baskets had to be designed to withstand the pressing.

The book overflows with interesting deductions from Levy’s copious data. Discussing the advent of sedentism, she notes that it “encouraged the production of new task specific tools such as sickles as opposed to the earlier Swiss Army Knife approach” of the Palaeolithic, while also creating “a need for containers—for gathering, processing and particularly storing” (31). We see why basketry and textiles proliferated just then. Or again, she deduces that the Cave of the Warrior shroud must have been woven in a single summer, because there are no mismatches of tension from moving the (outdoor) loom. I differ, however, with her repeated assertion that “spinning requires light—it is a visual and tactile process” (93). It is tactile, yes; visual—only for beginners. The most skilled spinner I know is legally blind, doing everything by touch, and in North Russia, spinning was traditionally done in midwinter, often in pitch dark to save candles.

Interesting questions remain. Levy remarks how crude the sewing is, unlike the “considerable skill shown in spinning and weaving” (133). I noticed the same anomaly when analyzing magnificent Bronze Age woolen clothing from the Cherchen saltbeds (Uyghur Autonomous Region), and we both saw it in ancient Egypt. Why? Had they never sewn anything but hides? By contrast, the prehistoric Swiss pile dwellers, whose pottery is utterly crude, produced exquisite textiles and sewing: striped and beaded linens sewn together with rows of elegant insertion faggoting, exactly as in Romanian folk chemises to this day, where the insertion stitching adds stretchiness to a garment of unforgiving linen.

The book has many helpful illustrations (although a rather perfunctory index), but American readers may find the prose difficult, thanks in part to a different (though fairly consistent) use of commas. The rich information and the little gems of abrupt insight compensate. My favorite: after thoroughly demonstrating that working flax consumes vast time and labor (wool arrived later), so that early cloth was small, expensive, and mostly for elite headgear, the author opines: “Power and authority are always hatted” (96).

E.J.W. Barber
Cotsen Institute of Archaeology
University of California, Los Angeles

Book Review of The Genesis of the Textile Industry from Adorned Nudity to Ritual Regalia: The Changing Role of Fibre Crafts and Their Evolving Techniques of Manufacture in the Ancient Near East from the Natufian to the Ghassulian, by Janet Levy
Reviewed by E.J.W. Barber
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 1 (January 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1251.Barber

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