The Basket Age

By Shanti Menon|Monday, January 01, 1996
There are two reasons, according to Jim Adovasio, we don’t think of baskets or textiles when we think of the Stone Age. One is that stones and bones, being far more durable, are far more common at archeological sites than artifacts made of fiber. But the other reason, says Adovasio, an archeologist at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pennsylvania, is a bias on the part of archeologists who study the era. The Upper Paleolithic record has largely been interpreted by males who are closet macho hunters of the steppes--if not explicit ones, he says. Their emphasis has been on stone technology, large-animal hunting, and the accoutrements of machismo. Weaving isn’t as exciting as running around sticking things into mammoths.

And yet it has been around a long time, as four small pieces of clay described by Adovasio this past year make clear. Found at a site called Pavlov in the Czech Republic, they are 27,000 years old--and impressed with patterns that could only have been created by woven fibers. These artifacts push back the date of the earliest known weaving by 10,000 years.

The conventional wisdom has been that a time-consuming task like weaving would only be practiced by sedentary, agrarian cultures. The people of Pavlov were hunter-gatherers, but technologically sophisticated ones-- the world’s oldest known ceramics were also discovered at the site. University of Illinois archeologist Olga Soffer was looking for more ceramics when she happened upon a few pieces of fired clay with regular impressions. I had no idea what it was, Soffer recalls, but I knew I was dealing with something important.

When Soffer asked Adovasio to take a look, he instantly recognized the distinct interlaced pattern of woven fibers. High-resolution photographs revealed at least two types of weave. Adovasio thinks the impressions represent finely woven baskets, bags, or mats--he can’t say how flexible the fabric was--which could have been made of milkweed, nettle, or the fibrous bark of alder or yew. How the weave was impressed on the clay fragments is uncertain; the Pavlov people may have used baskets as molds for clay pots, or they may simply have trodden on mats laid on moist clay floors. In any case, says Adovasio, the regularity and narrow gauge of the weaving demonstrate that the technology wasn’t new even 27,000 years ago.
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