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Site surrenders fabric of prehistoric life.

Archaeologists excavating an ancient Turkish site in 1988 found a puzzling, calcium-encrusted piece of material clinging to what was probably the handle of a bone tool. Microscopic analysis of the find, which measures about 3 inches by 1.5 inches, now identifies it as the earliest known fragment of cloth, scientists announced last week.

A team of archaeologists directed by Robert Braidwood of the University of Chicago and Halet Cambel of Istanbul (Turkey) University recovered the partially fossilized cloth at Cayonu in southeastern Turkey.

Several radiocarbon dates obtained from artifacts found near the cloth place it at around 9,000 years old. Previously, the oldest examples of prehistoric cloth -- ranging from 8,000 to 8,500 years old -- came from another Turkish site and an Israeli cave.

"The uses of textiles are innumerable, and it's hard to say how the Cayonu people employed cloth," says Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, the Netherlands. Vogelsang-Eastwood, one of the few archaeologists who specialize in the study of ancient textiles, identified the Cayonu find as cloth.

She suspects the fabric served as a grip for the bone handle, which was fashioned out of an antler.

Vogelsang-Eastwood plans to use a scanning electron microscope to determine the nature of the fabric. Other early cloth specimens have been made of linen, which displays a characteristic polygon pattern when greatly magnified, she explains.

Cayonu residents probably produced cloth on a four-sided wooden frame, the Dutch archaeologist proposes on the basis of her examination of the new find. It appears, she says, that weavers interlaced pairs of threads horizontally around single vertical threads held in place on a frame.

This method derived from the already well-established practice of basket weaving, Vogelsang-Eastwood holds. It remains unclear when and where people first applied basketry techniques to weaving, although such innovation probably arose independently in several parts of the world, she argues.

Inhabitants of Cayonu may have developed a method of soaking the stems of flax plants and then beating them to loosen linen fibers for weaving, Vogelsang-Eastwood suggests. Investigators had previously found large flax seeds at the site that appear to belong to a domesticated version of the plant, Braidwood points out. Ancient residents may also have produced oil from flax seeds, he says.

Cayonu's early citizens moved from a hunting and gathering life to farming in a year-round settlement, according to Braidwood. Sedentary activity in an arid region may have sparked the replacement of animal-skin clothing with lighter, cloth apparel, he contends.

Vogelsang-Eastwood expects the Cayonu discovery to invigorate the study of ancient textiles.

"People now realize that textiles can be found at archaeological sites," she remarks. "I expect to see more examples of ancient cloth uncovered in the near future."
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Title Annotation:ancient cloth found at Cayonu site in southeastern Turkey
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 24, 1993
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