Saturday, 11 February 2012

Expanding Indus fibre crops

Two recent articles in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, report new evidence for species used in Harappan fibre work. Rita Wright and colleagues have reported evidence for jute textiles (Cochorus capsularis), based on analysis of fibre impressions preserved in ceramics. As with work done on plant impressions in pottery, this demonstrates that quite fine detail can be preserved in impressions, recorded in casts and studied with SEM. While we have perhaps long suspected jute, which is native to South Asia, was grown in the Indus period, seed finds from sites such as Rojdi (Weber 1991) were ambiguous as whether this species was cultivated, and processed for fibres.  Processing  involves retting (rotting in water), something I encountered a few years ago in the Son valley. My photo below shows a stack of harvested jute which is about to be weighed down with stones (visible in the water behind) for a week or two, before it is pounded to remove the fibres.
Posing for a photo with recently harvested jut that is about to retted  in the side channel of the Son river behind.

 Finds of textiles from eastern Iran published a few years ago by Irene Good, in the book  Ancient Textiles: Production, Craft and Society, included a couple examples of jute, as well as many of sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea), which were also presumed to have been imported from the Indus to the east. Unfortunately as a small-seeded legume, recognizing the presence of sunn hemp in seed assemblages, especially as this crop and not a related weedy species, is not yet really possible, and could prove intractable. Taken together with evidence for flax seeds, and cotton in the Indus Valley [see my 2008 review pdf], as well as wild silk production (from the Assam silk moth), reported by Good & al. from Harappa in Archaeometry 2009, the Harappan civilization was quite the centre of textile crop diversity in the Bronze Age (compared to apparently only flax cultivation in contemporary Egypt or Mesopotamia). This adds weight to the notion that Indus exports, including those of the textually known Meluhha merchants of the Persian Gulf, included a range of cloth types.

Wild fibre sources were also important, and spun and woven net material from Shahi Tump, has also been reported recently by Thomas, Tengberg et al. in AASc. In this case, they appear to be using the local dwarf Mazari palms (Nannarrhops ritchiana). One of the excellent components of the paper is comparative study of palm phytoliths (admittedly of the limited taxa range that might be found in Pakistan), but which shows clearly that there is significant and taxonomically-informative variation in the spikey silica balls that palms produce. The next challenge will be doing more work on this variation and it taxonomic interpretation in the palm-rich tropics.

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