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Many fantasy books mention clothes. These are usually made of wool or linen. If there’s an “Asian” civilization nearby, perhaps even silk. But what did early civilizations really use for their clothes? I’m not talking about Medieval clothes or even Roman ones. I’m talking before that. Way before. About 8,000 years before that, to be exact.

A recent study mentioned in Phys.org answers that question with a surprising answer.

Çatalhöyük

As many as 10,000 people lived in Çatalhöyük (ancient Iconium) in Turkey some 8,000-9,000 years ago. This makes it the largest known settlement from what archaeologists call the Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods.

The inhabitants lived in mudbrick houses that were crammed together. No footpaths or streets were used between the dwellings, which were clustered in a honeycomb-like maze. Most were accessed by holes in the ceiling and doors on the side of the houses, with doors reached by ladders and stairs. The rooftops were effectively streets.

The ceiling openings also served as the only source of ventilation, allowing smoke from the houses’ open hearths and ovens to escape. Houses had plaster interiors characterized by squared-off timber ladders or steep stairs. The main rooms contained raised platforms that may have been used for a range of domestic activities. Typical houses contained two rooms for everyday activities such as cooking and crafting. All interior walls and platforms were plastered to a smooth finish. Ancillary rooms were used as storage and were accessed through low openings from the main rooms.

All rooms were kept scrupulously clean. Archaeologists identified very little rubbish in the buildings. In good weather, many daily activities may also have taken place on the rooftops, which may have formed a plaza. In later periods, large communal ovens appear to have been built on these rooftops. Over time, houses were renewed by partial demolition and rebuilding on a foundation of rubble, which was how a mound was gradually built up. As many as eighteen levels of the settlement have been uncovered.

Çatalhöyük house | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books
Source: Wikipedia

Vivid murals and figurines are found throughout the settlement, on interior and exterior walls. Distinctive clay figurines of women, notably the Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, have been found in the upper levels of the site. Although no identifiable temples have been found, the graves, murals, and figurines suggest that the people of Çatalhöyük had a religion rich in symbols. Rooms with concentrations of these items may have been shrines or public meeting areas. Predominant images include hunting scenes and red images of the now-extinct aurochs (wild cattle) and stags. Relief figures are carved on walls, such as lionesses facing one another. Heads of animals, especially of cattle, were mounted on walls.

Çatalhöyük Clothes

Experts have been discussing what kind of clothes people wore in Çatalhöyük since 1962 when they found the first pieces of cloth here.

Bask fiber Stone Age textile | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books
Stone Age cloth found in Çatalhöyük. Source: Antoinette Rast-Eicher, University of Bern via Phys.org

Some specialists believed that people made their clothes from wool. Others thought they made them out of linen instead.

After almost 60 years, we now know the answer, thanks to a study by Bender Jørgensen and her colleagues published in Antiquity, an archaeological journal.

“In the past, researchers largely neglected the possibility that the fabric fibers could be anything other than wool or linen, but lately another material has received more attention,” Bender Jørgensen says. However, it turned out that several of the textiles are clearly made of bast fiber from oak trees. They are also the oldest preserved woven fabrics in the world. People in Çatalhöyük used assorted varieties of exactly this material.

“Bast fibers were used for thousands of years to make rope, thread, and in turn also yarn and cloth,” says Bender Jørgensen.

Bast Fiber

Bast fiber is found between the bark and the wood in trees such as willow, oak, or linden.

You may remember how six-year-old Onfim was scrawling letters onto his birchbark notebook in 1220 AD Novgorod with his bone stylus.

The people from Catalhöyük used oak bark, and thus fashioned their clothes from the bark of trees that they found in their surroundings. They also used oak timber as a building material for their homes. And they harvested the bast fibers when trees were felled.

Bast fiber is collected from the inner bark or bast surrounding the stem of certain plants. Bast fibers are classified as soft fibers and are flexible. Some bast fibers are obtained from herbs cultivated in agriculture, as for instance flax, hemp, or ramie. Bast fibers from wild plants, as stinging nettle, and trees such as lime or linden, willow, oak, wisteria, and mulberry have also been used in the past.

Bask fibers | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books
Bast fibers. Source: Wikimedia

The term “bast” derives from Old English bæst (“inner bark of trees from which ropes were made”), from Proto-Germanic bastaz (“bast, rope”). It may have the same root as Latin fascis (“bundle”) and Middle Irish basc (“necklace”).

No Flax, No Linen

Bender Jørgensen notes that a lot of people often overlook bast fiber as an early material. “Linen tends to dominate the discussion about the types of fabric fibers people used,” she says. However, no large quantities of flaxseed have been found in the region, suggesting that people in Çatalhöyük did not cultivate flax or use linen.

Flax, also known as common flax or linseed, is a flowering plant cultivated as a food and fiber crop in regions of the world with temperate climates. Textiles made from flax are known in Western countries as linen and are traditionally used for bed sheets, underclothes, and table linen. The plant species is known only as a cultivated plant and appears to have been domesticated just once from the wild species Linum bienne, called pale flax.

As it turns out, people in this area did not import linen from elsewhere, as many researchers have previously thought, but used the resources they had plentiful access to.

So, now you have another nice detail to add to your fantasy novel: clothes made of bast fibers. Happy writing!