A textile dialogue on spinning and weaving at Arslantepe (Eastern Turkey)

The preservation of archaeological textiles is rare. Fabrics can survive only in specific environmental conditions: in very dry and humid environment, in low temperatures, glacial places and in salt mines. In the majority of cases, we have only small fragments of textiles, mainly in carbonised or mineralised status. This is why to analyse the ancient textile production we have to focus on an indirect evidence, the textile kit: spindle whorls, loom weights, spools, distaffs, spindles and scissors.

Textile tools have to be interpreted according to a functional approach and their interpretation has to be combined with:

  • functional analysis of the contexts of retrieval ;
  • experimental data ;
  • ethnographic and direct historical analogy ;

Simultaneously, the interpretation of the textile production, as all of the rest of the craft production, should be contextualised in the frame of socio-economic, cultural and historical developments. In this frame, it should also be considered that textile techniques were often an expression of the household production and often they may be characterised by a strong “conservative” continuity.

It is in consideration of the heuristic value that textile production may have to identify changes at the productive level of a society that we would like to propose a diachronic approach to the study of the textile tools. To work on textile tools on a diachronic scale does not only allow to interpret better the technical evolution and transformations of textile production but also to understand how craft production may have developed over time and which role textile production could have played in the economy and in the social organization of a community.


Arslantepe (the Mound of the Lion) is one of the largest mounds of anthropic formation of the Malatya plain, in Eastern Turkey (Fig. 1). The history of the archaeological investigations at Arslantepe is very long; the first to start the excavations at the site was Louis Delaporte who in the early thirties brought to light the famous Lions Gate (from which the name that was given to the site) of the Neo Hittite period. Since 1961 Arslantepe has been excavated by an Italian expedition that has been directed by P. Meriggi, S.M. Puglisi, A. Palmieri, and currently by M. Frangipane.

Fig. 1: Anatolia and the location of Arslantepe.

Romina Laurito and Giulio Palumbi met at Arslantepe in the early 90’s when still students at the University “La Sapienza” (Fig. 2). While Romina started working at first on the clay-sealings, mainly in recognizing the sealed objects (doors, sacks, baskets, pots closed with textiles or leather), and later on the textile tools in direct collaboration with the Centre for Textile Research (CTR) at the University of Copenhagen, a center of excellence dedicated to textile related research, Giulio has been working ever since on red-black ceramics from the site. This post is the first experiment in a dialogue concerning textile production that has developed from different types of experience and various perspectives.

Fig. 2: Romina Laurito and Giulio Palumbi in the field at Arslantepe.

Arslantepe records an uninterrupted occupation stretching from the second half of the fifth millennium (Late Chalcolithic 1-2) to the first half the first millennium (Early Iron Age) and it is the longest cultural sequence recorded in the region of the Anatolian Upper Euphrates so far.

Thanks to this long occupation, and to a detailed sequence of both domestic and non- domestic contexts that overlapped in the same area of the site, Arslantepe provides an ideal case-study for adopting a long-term diachronic perspective on textile production and for investigating all aspects related to the technical and productive transformation of textile techniques in the frame of the larger economic, social and historical developments that took place at the site.

All of the textile tools coming from this long timespan at Arslantepe have been studied by Romina Laurito, but in this post we would like to focus on the materials dating to the fourth and the very beginning of the third millennium. This is because in this relatively short span of time stretching from 3700 and 2800 BC (ca) it is possible to follow a trajectory of radical social and economic transformations connected to the entrenchment of a centralised economy at the site during the second half of the fourth millennium, that was followed by a collapse and radical cultural changes at the very beginning of the third millennium.

Can this cycle of economic growth and collapse be traced in the evolution of the textile tool-kits and of the related spinning and weaving techniques?

An overview of the analysed contexts

Our analysis starts with period VII (3700 – 3500 BC) when the settlement records a sharp social and functional differentiation in the inhabited areas. While the margins of the settlement were occupied by small domestic structures, the top of the mound hosted large élite residences (Fig. 3) and a monumental temple with tripartite plan recalling the Ubaid architectural tradition. In this temple, large amounts of mass-produced bowls and the presence of clay sealings point to practices of controlled redistribution in a ritualised contex. In the following period VIA (3400 – 3200 BC), that records a process of economic centralisation and strong links with Mesopotamia and the Uruk culture, a monumental public complex, the so-called “Palace”, was built on the southern slopes of the mound (Fig. 4). The palace was composed of several inter-related buildings and the large amounts of administrative material and thousands of mass-produced bowls witness the existence of an apparatus of functionaries in charge of economic transactions and redistributive activities. While the northern slopes of the mound were occupied by residential élites, the total absence of “common” domestic buildings at the site suggests that in this period the population had been moved outside the settlement.

Fig. 3: Distribution of the spinning tools in the settlement of period VII.

Fig. 4: The Palace of period VIA and distribution of textile tools in the settlement of period VIA.

The destruction of the Palace opened a phase of changes and instability. Period VIB1 (3100-2900 BC) marked a radical break from the previous cultural and architectural traditions. Arslantepe was occupied by a community of pastoralists living in wattle and daub huts who produced hand-made ceramics featuring strong links with the contemporary Kura-Araxes traditions of Eastern Anatolian and the Southern Caucasus. The short-lived pastoral occupation of period VIB1 was soon after replaced by a rural village composed of mud-brick rectangular houses and, on the top of the mound, of a monumental defensive wall that protected an “acropolis”. (Fig. 5) The wheel-made ceramics of this rural community were a direct development of Uruk traditions and were linked to Northern Syria.

Fig. 5: The Village of period VIB2 and distribution of textile tools in the settlement.

Visible and invisible tools

More than 120 textile tools were recorded at Arslantepe from the Late Chalcolithic (periods VII and VI A) to the Early Bronze Age I (periods VI B1 and VIB2). If the textile tools from the following periods VI C, VI D and V A are added, on the whole we have 251 objects. All in all, Arslantepe does not have a large number of textile tools in comparison to other settlements dating to the same periods. It might sound strange especially if we consider that – in general – spinning and weaving were among the most common and intensive daily activities carried out in antiquity. The possibility that many textile tools could be made with perishable raw material, for example in wood, must be kept in mind. This is a difficult part of the investigation: looking at the ‘invisible craft’ of ancient textile production. In our opinion, we should not underestimate the potential impact of this absence on the analysis of textile tools and textile production.

Animal or vegetal fibres?

There is not so far any direct evidence that vegetal fibres were exploited at Arslantepe for textile production. On the other hand, both direct (remains of textiles) and indirect evidence (clay-sealings) point to the existence and possibly the predominant role of animal fibres in textile production at Arslantepe. On the basis of these data, what kind of relations existed between textile production and animal husbandry ?

In the period stretching from 3700 and 2800 BC, important changes took place in terms of herding strategies at the site. While period VII still records “traditional” and diversified rearing strategies reflecting a broad-spectrum domestic economy, the entrenchment of a centralised economy in period VIA favoured the development of specialised herding strategies focused on sheep and goats. The impact of central intervention on the rearing strategies of the region was so strong that even after the collapse of the centralised institutions sheep and goats remained, by a large margin, the most commonly reared species. While it is not surprising that specialised strategies characterised the animal economy of the Kura-Araxes pastoral community of period VIB1 (with a slight shift towards the exploitation of dairy products), sheep and goats still were the main reared species of the rural village of period VIB2. However, even if from the analysis of the kill-off patterns of caprines in periods VIA, VIB1 and VIB2 meat emerges as the main focus of the animal economy, wool must have represented the main secondary product to feed textile production at the site.

Changes and continuity in spinning activities at Arslantepe

All the spinning tools in Arslantepe VII were found in residential buildings and they were more numerous in the elite residential building. No evidence of textile tools were found in the ceremonial Temple C. The majority are made of bone and are convex or conical in shape. They constitute a predominant and homogeneous group of spindle whorls (Fig. 6A) with a specific weight and large diameters (see graphs).

Fig. 6: A) spindle whorls from period VII; B) spindle whorls of period VIB2.

A very small number of textile tools date to period VI A, the period of the palace, and the size of the spindle-whorls is similar to those of the previous period and they were found in elite residential buildings.
After the collapse of the palace, we have rare evidence of textile activities in period VI B1, which is quite astonishing if we consider that this period involved the occupation by a community of pastoralists.
Immediately after this short period, spinning activities were again evident in the rural village of period VI B2. In the village, spinning tools were found together with other domestic equipment thus suggesting that spinning was one of the daily domestic activities in this period.
Regarding the spinning tools, a significant change in the spindle whorls can be detected from period VI B2 onwards. Despite the limited number of objects, there is a significant difference between the Late Chalcolithic tools and those of the Early Bronze Age : in particular the use of a broader range of materials during period VI B2 (spindle whorls made of clay, stone and bone) (Fig. 6B) and a change in terms of weight and diameter of the spindle whorls that are generally smaller and lighter than those of the earlier periods (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7: Ratio weight/diameter of the spindle whorls at Arslantepe (from period VII to period V).

Experimental approach

The experiments conducted by CTR on spindle whorls technology aimed to recognize “universal” parameters which could define the quality of the thread spun. The experimental results suggest that the weight and diameter of the spindle whorls are the two main functional parameters which together make it possible to determine the characteristics of the yarn.

Based on the CTR analysis, during period VI B2 spinners were probably able to spin very thin and perhaps less tightly spun yarn in comparison to the earlier period VII. The range of the whorls indicates that, from the Early Bronze Age, it was possible to produce softer, more loosely spun yarns and perhaps a larger variety of yarns.

We decided to carry out a new series of experiments with the aim of verifying the general framework proposed by CTR. All of the spindle whorls made of bone, clay, stone, sherds from Arslantepe VII and Arslantepe VIB2 have been reproduced in partnership with the Museo delle Origini (Sapienza Università di Roma). An expert spinner (Fig. 8) that used the exact replicas of the spindle whorls from Arslantepe confirmed the CTR parameters.

Fig. 8: Assunta Perilli experimenting with spindle-whorls.

This experience also allowed to determine that the processing of wool fleeces is a crucial step for obtaining a thin and resistant yarn. It is one more variable that we have to take into account for interpreting advances in spinning activity during prehistoric times.

Changes and continuity in weaving activity at Arslantepe

Loom weights are the main markers of weaving activities and in particular of the use of vertical warp-weighted looms.
In period VII a set composed of 23 heavy, thick and unfired clay loom weights was found in situ in a side room of the elite building (Fig. 9A).
Following the CTR directions in the study of textile tools (see Andersson and Nosch 2015 and the experiments conducted on textile tools at CTR), the weight and thickness of the Arslantepe VII loom weights tell us that the type of fabric produced had approximately six threads per centimetre in the warp.

Fig. 9: A) Loom weights of period VII; B) Loom weights of period VIA.

Also in the following period VI A, a set of loom weights was found in an élite residential building. This is a set of 18 fired clay loom weights with standardised shape and dimension that were less heavy and thick than those of period VII (Fig. 9B). CTR calculations suggest a medium-sized loom weight working on an open fabric with a starting border width of about 75 cm and spacing of six warp threads per centimetre. The thousands of clay sealings/cretulae found in the palace of period VIA enable us to compare the textile imprints on the back of the cretulae used to seal pots or sacks with the types of fabric that were estimated on the basis of the dimensions of the loom weights.

The quality of fabrics identified on cretulae/clay sealings corresponds well with the quality estimated from the loom weight sets for both the VII and VI A periods, that is a thread count of between six to twelve threads per centimetre. Once again, the imprints of cloth on cretuale corroborate the calculations based on the CTR experience (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10: clay-sealings (cretulae) bearing imprints of textiles.

After the collapse of the palace loom weights disappear. Loom weights, which are a clear indication of the presence and use of warp-weighted looms (Fig. 11A), were not found in the pastoral occupation of period VI B1 nor in the rural village of period VI B2. This may suggest that other types of looms and different types of weaving techniques may have emerged at Arslantepe at the turn of the third millennium, such as small and portable looms that that were made of completely perishable materials and that did not require the use of weights (Fig. 11B).

Fig. 11: A) vertical warp-weighted looms (https://www.pinterest.com/folowatkins/micel-folcland/); B) other types of looms.

Spinning and weaving: some reflections

Changes in shape, size and weight of textile tools, as well as the presence or absence of specific tools point to changes and evolution in spinning and weaving techniques from the Chalcolithic to the Early Bronze Age.

In terms of spinning techniques, the large variability in whorls’ weight and diameter (with a preference for large dimensions) that is recorded in the Chalcolithic (periods VII and VIA) gives way to smaller size spinning tools in the Early Bronze Age (period VIB2).

In terms of weaving technologies, the presence of loom weights in the Late Chalcolithic levels (periods VII and VIA) points to the use of vertical looms. The fact that loom weights disappeared at the beginning of the Early Bronze Age (periods VIB1 and VIB2) could suggest the introduction at Arslantepe of new weaving technologies possibly related to the horizontal loom.

As to the contexts of retrieval of the textile tools at Arslantepe, it is important to stress that they were exclusively found in residential structures. Specialised textile workshops are not recorded so-far at Arslantepe not even in connection with public buildings (such as Temple C of period VII and in the Palace of period VIA). In spite of this negative evidence, we still do not know if spinning and weaving were completely disconnected from the sphere of the centralised economy. However, at Arslantepe textile activities were constantly linked to the domestic sphere and seem to have mainly orbited around the household production both in the Chalcolithic and in the Early Bronze Age. Simultaneously, the different quantitative occurrence of spindle whorls (usually abundant) and loom weights (much rarer) and the fact that spinning and weaving tools were never found together in the same room or building raises intriguing hypotheses.

While spinning was definitely a diffused and possibly capillary activity carried out in the domestic buildings from all periods, weaving was not. In the Chalcolithic, only a few houses hosted a loom, a fact that may imply that only a few families possessed the know-how to make the loom work to produce textiles, and it is probably not by chance that these were the families living in the elite residences.

At Arslantepe, textile production was domestic (or ‘in the home’?), but this is probably too generic a term to account for the complexity of the social fabric of a community even at the household level. These are new reflections and hypotheses that emerged from our recent “textile” dialogues. We shall continue working to test them, but in the meantime new ideas are literally “spinning” !


Publications on textile tools and production at Arslantepe

Laurito R., Lemorini C., Perilli A. 2014. Making Textiles at Arslantepe in the 4th and 3rd Millennia BCE. Archaeological Data and Experimental Archaeology, in: C. Breniquet et C. Michel (eds), Wool Economy in the Ancient Near East and the Aegean: From the Beginnings of Sheep Husbandry to Institutional Textile Industry, Nanterre, 151-168.

Laurito R. 2013. Textile Production: Some Notes on Spinning and Weaving Tools, in: F. Manuelli (ed.), Arslantepe – The Late Bronze Age Assemblages. Hittite Influence and Local Traditions in an Eastern Anatolian Community, Arslantepe vol. IX, Rome, 224-233.

Laurito R. 2012. Changes in Textile Production at Arslantepe during the 4th and 3rd Millennium BCE, Origini 34, 317-328.

Laurito R. 2010. Textile Tools and Textile Production. The Archaeological Evidence of Weaving at Arslantepe, in: M. Frangipane (ed.), Economic Centralisation in Formative States in the Near East: Archaeological Data and the Reconstruction of Economic Systems. The Case of Arslantepe-Malatya between the 4th and 3rd Millennium BC, Rome, 275-285.

Frangipane M., Andersson E., Laurito R., Möller-Wiering S., Nosch M.-L., Rast-Eicher A. 2009. Arslantepe, Malatya (Turkey): Textiles, Tools and Imprints of Fabrics from the Forth to the Second Millennium BCE, Paléorient 35/1, 5-30.

CTR publications:

Andersson Strand E., Nosch M.-L. Cutler J. 2015. Tools, Textiles and Contexts: Investigating Textile Production in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age, Oxbow Books
CTR e-book: http://ctr.hum.ku.dk/conferences/2014/E-Book_Traditional_textile_crafts.pdf
For technical reports see: http://ctr.hum.ku.dk/tools/
For technical reports on Arslantepe: http://ctr.hum.ku.dk/tools/toolsreports/Technical_Textiles_Tools_Report_Arslantepe.pdf

Les auteurs

Romina Laurito is Archaeologist, PhD. Since 2012 appointed at the Archaeological Superintendence for Arts and Landscapes for the metropolitan area of Rome, the province of Viterbo and Southern Etruria. Specialist in Near Eastern Prehistory and Archaeology. Areas of interests are ancient administrative systems, clay sealings, textile tools and production, experimental archaeology, museology, communication.

Giulio Palumbi est chargé de Recherche au CNRS. Il est spécialiste de la préhistoire d’Anatolie orientale et du Caucase. UMR 5133 – Archéorient, MSH Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée, Lyon.

Pour citer ce billet : Romina Laurito et Giulio Palumbi. A textile dialogue on spinning and weaving at Arslantepe (Eastern Turkey), ArchéOrient - Le Blog, 31 mars 2017, [En ligne] http://archeorient.hypotheses.org/7296

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