Cloth makes the world go round. On birth, a human baby is wrapped in swaddling before she even feeds. On death, survivors must pick out the deceased’s best clothes for his burial, cremation or spiritual onward journey. While culturally-framed and highly variable, the depth of these types of relationships between human bodies and finished cloth has transformed and accelerated over the Holocene. But textiles are more than just the adornment or comfort of the body; they are simultaneously and paradoxically both individual/local and social/global, with far reaching chains of consequence for the environment and for economy. The modern textile industry, through large-scale harvesting, manufacture and circulation of yarns, cloth, skills and labour, is the cornerstone of capitalist economic regimes and their globalizing colonial expansion in modern and recent history, driving the enslavement—often literally—of human labour around its reproduction and devoting vast tracts of land to fibre procurement. How far back can we trace this dual biological and sociological impact of textiles?
While the first use of fibres to make composite objects and cloth probably dates back to the major breakthrough of material culture manipulation by Homo sapiens in the Upper Palaeolithic, our biographic domination by cloth appears to have a more particular history. Accumulated archaeological and historical data hint at a deep cogenerative relationship between complex urban (or market-style) economies and textiles: the desire for cloth motivated trans-Eurasian connections along the medieval Silk Roads; it transformed European communities from egalitarian to hierarchical during the Iron Age; and it drove new political and social formations in 2nd millennium (Minoan) Aegean and 3rd millennium south-west Ur III period Mesopotamia. Large-scale textile harvesting and circulation was also by no means unique to the Old World: many if not all of the emergent complex societies of the New World built their social systems on (or with) the circulation of cloth at or very near the centre (for example, among the Inca, and in central America in the Classic Maya, textiles were used as currency). Moreover, when Europeans expanded into the New World as a result of the desire of northern and western European elites to bypass Italian and Ottoman textile monopolies, textiles were—indirectly through the import of sheep, grazing practices and associated pathogens—a biological agent of conquest and ecological ruin, characterized as a “Plague of Sheep”. In the 18th and 19th centuries, textiles were—in the form of cottons exported initially from India—the irresistible lever by which slaves were wrenched from Africa to the Americas, only to be put to work on producing yet more cotton. In contrast to our normal historical vision of change (which emphasise the shift from stone to bronze and then iron), it is instead textiles that have most domesticated the human species since the ‘Urban Revolution’.
Such is the association that large-scale textile manufacture could be argued to form the defining feature of expansionist ‘complex society’. However, since the products themselves are so perishable and hence archaeologically invisible and, more insidiously, because textile studies have long been gendered as a feminine pursuit (and thereby wrongly ranked as less-important to the historical sciences), the impact of cloth on long-term economy and environment has been too often been sidelined as ephemeral. There is therefore a critical need to develop innovative techniques to access the impact of textile industries over the longue durée, to pilot the appropriateness of developing technologies and approaches to this poorly understood relationship.
Different regions of the world established different yarn-yielding agroeconomic regimes for the major cloth fibres (linen, wool, cotton and silk) according to particular environmental and cultural restraints, so developing this approach requires a unique dialogue between both regional and disciplinary specialization, built on evidence from key geographical regions for the history of textile production changes. Western Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean provide the best launchpad for such a study, having been the focus of intensive investigations directed at both changing textile technologies and multi-scale landscape change. Critical regions for textile impact include northern Syro-Mesopotamia and the Aegean, where early urban centres were heavily linked to textile manufacture. For example, the expansion of sheep-farming for wool-production in these areas has long been discussed—as “secondary” product, wool was far more profitable than mutton, thus replacing linen cloth. However, the ecological impact of such a change is understudied8, requiring new streams of data, techniques and creative new theoretical approaches.