Early Flax Cultivation
The Latin name for common flax, Linum usitatissimum, means «very useful». For over 5,000 years, beginning in the Late Neolithic, people have cultivated flax for the extraction of its fibers to make yarn.
Flax was, however, domesticated even earlier for its seeds and seed oil, about 9,000—10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region. Flax has dominated as a raw material for textiles in Europe up until the 18th century, when it was replaced by cotton, and later on, artificial fibers.
The flax plant can easily reach a height of one meter (about 42 inches). It has one or more slim stalks with relatively short leaves. Flax is an annual herbaceous plant.
Flax: one multi-purpose crop, or many specialized varieties?
Flax is a plant which has a wide geographic range, both now and as far back as the Neolithic, and thus its exhibited traits (such as its height) are subject to the widely-varying conditions of whichever region it may be in. For example, flax will respond variably to climatic conditions, soil types, and cultivation methods.
The flax plant (Linum usitatissimum ssp. usitatissimum) can be subdivided into four convarieties (subspecies) 28 varieties. Today, there are only two convarieties which are commonly used for cultivation and commerce. One variety is preferred for the extraction of its seeds and seed oil, the other is the preferred variety for fiber crops.
The oil variety of the flax plant grows to a height of about 70 cm (about 27,5 inches) and is densely branched. It can have up to 100 seed capsules with relatively large sized seeds (in average 5.5 mm x 3 mm) which contain around 40% oil.
The fiber variety of the flax plant can grow taller than 70 cm and is more sparsely branched. It can have up to 30 capsules with relatively small seeds (4.4 mm x 2.2 mm).
Archaeobotanical research has detected that at least two different varieties of flax were cultivated back in the Neolithic: a tall and densely-growing type, with few branches and high-quality fiber, and a second type which was shorter, more sparsely sown, and which had many branches and oil-rich seeds. This research has led to the hypothesis that people grew different flax varieties depending on the purpose of the crop— for example, if they wanted to extract its seeds or fibers.
This has also supported the assumption that flax was originally domesticated for its seeds. As time went on, flax fibers appear to increase in importance, especially from the middle phase of the Late Neolithic.
In the Iron Age, we can also assume that specialized production sites would prefer the variety of the flax plant with the most advantageous characteristics. So, when it comes to sites with specialized linen production, we can imagine a need for the absolute finest of fibers, and the desire to produce high-quality fabrics.
On the other hand, we can argue that the flax crop would work excellently as a multi-purpose crop: people could adjust the desired yield of seeds or fibers depending on the moment of harvest (see below). In this case, one and the same variety of the flax plant was cultivated and provided the settlement with both uses.
Seeds from the flax plant have a brownish-red color. They have an oblong-ovular shape, thin with sharp edges and they have a dent in the edge near the top.
Flax as an oil crop
It is commonly argued that the ingestion of linseed and linseed oil, along with the cultivation for this purpose, goes further back in time than the use of fibers for textile production. The oil-rich seeds of the flax plant contain high concentrations of linoleic acid and x-linolenic acid. These are essential fatty acids, which cannot be produced by the human body.
How was the oil extracted?
How was linseed oil made back in the Viking Age? We can imagine the seeds were pressed in some fashion to release their natural oil. From Turkey, we know about traditional linseed extraction process which started with roasting the seeds. The roasted seeds were then ground with a hand grinder, resulting in a flour-like substance. This was then mixed with water, which yielded in a type of dough, and pressed with a wooden beam to extract the oil.
Growing the Flax Plant
in Iron Age Scandinavia
In Iron Age Scandinavia, cultivation of flax was widespread. There were settlement locations where there was a highly specialized production for the processing of flax for fibers. This was especially the case in southern Scandinavia (Denmark, the southern regions of Sweden and Norway), due to advantageous climatic conditions for flax cultivation.
When it comes to soil and optimal growing conditions, flax thrives best in soil with adequate drainage, like sandy to clayish loams. Areas with coastal climates are especially well suited. Climate, soil, and other growing conditions also influence the number of fiber bundles.
Since flax is a cultivated plant, it does not do well with, and this meant that people needed to weed the crop thoroughly. Flax has very short roots and needs a fertile and moist soil. It is likely that flax was used grown in a rotation system along with other types of crops. Fertilizing was thus not necessary. In fact, fertilizing could lead to thick stems with fibers less suited for textile production. On the other hand, if flax was cultivated as an oil crop, we might assume that fertilization was used.
Yearly Plant Cycle of Summer flax
Flax is an annual plant, which meant that sowing was a yearly activity. Summer flax is sown in April or May. Modern agricultural experience shows that this plant yields better fiber quality when sown relatively close together (ca. 40 plants per sq. ft.).
Around the end of June, the plant starts blooming, though only for a couple of days. The flowers are small and have a blueish-purple color.
Flax is harvested around 90 to 100 days after sowing. The growing season would have depended on local conditions, such as temperature, rainfall, etc.
The moment of the harvest is also dependent on the desired result – is flax grown for its seeds or for its fibers, or both? Here, we should also note, that it would be logical to assume that people wanted to harvest at least enough seeds for next year’s sowing.
The best fibers: The highest quality fibers are present in the stem of the plant when it still has a green color. These fibers are fine fibers, and to get these it would mean a relatively short growing season and early harvest. At this point, however, the seeds are not ripe, nor will they ripen after the plant is harvested.
The best seeds: When flax is purely grown for its seeds, the harvest will be later: people wait until the seeds are fully matured. When this happens, the capsules become yellow and start to split.
Both seeds and fibers: Finally, there is a third possibility. It is possible to harvest the flax when only the lower third of the stem starts to turn yellow. At this point, the seeds are not fully matured, but they will ripen in the sunshine when the flax is laid out in the fields for the drying and retting process.
Historical Background of Flax Cultivation
A more than 10,000 year old practice
The oldest archaeological evidence of flax cultivation are preserved seeds. Archaeobotanists can distinguish between wild and domesticated flax seeds, which can identify if foraging of wild flax, or cultivation, were carried out at the settlement site.
Archaeobotanical analysis can also indicate different plant varieties. These varieties had different characteristics and qualities. Some have a higher quality and quantity of seed oil, while other varieties posses more and better fibers. When large trends are visible, wherein people are introducing a new type, this can be significant, and can give information about the purpose of the crop: was it grown for oil or fiber extraction, or both?
Flax was presumably domesticated in the Middle East, but Mesopotamia and India have been suggested as other possible locations.
It is believed that the cultivated species of flax was developed from «pale flax» (Linum bienne). This wild plant ranged across southwest Asia, north Africa, and western and southern Europe.
The domestication took place from about 9000–8000 BC, a time of great cultural changes and the beginning of plant cultivation, animal husbandry, and the appearance of more permanent settlements.
It is assumed that the plant was originally cultivated for its nutritional value, meaning the extraction of its seeds and seed oil. In the 8th millennium BC, flax cultivation spread over a wide geographical area, from south-western Asia into Europe, the Nile Delta and western Asia.
Some of the oldest evidence for the exploitation of flax fibers for linen come from the Middle East. A fragment of white woven cloth was found wrapped around a primitive tool in Cayonu, Turkey. It was examined and dated to around 8000 BC. Another fragment comes from a desert cave in Israel, a twined fabric radiocarbon dated to approx. 7065 BC. Others argue that flax textile technology started in Egypt, and point to the finds from the pharaoh tombs, such as the textile fragments, the mural inscriptions on the walls, and papyruses. From there, it’s possible the technology travelled with the Phoenicians and then spread to new areas.
Spread to Europe
Flax was cultivated by the 5th-millenium BC Neolithic Linear Pottery Culture (termed the Linearbandkeramik or LBK culture in German) and spread throughout Europe. The earliest finds of cultivated flax in Europe are from Neolithic settlements in Switzerland, Germany, and northern Italy, from 5400-4900 BC (and in the British Isles around 4000 BC). They include seeds and seed capsules.
The earliest preserved linen fragments (like cords, nets and textiles) are known from the Alpine lake dwellings, from 4000–2800 BC. Most linen fragments are dated to about two thousand years after the starting point of flax cultivation in the same area (or, more precisely, after the oldest flax seed finds).
Intensification of flax cultivation
In the 4th to 3rd millennia, an intensification of flax cultivation took place at the Alpine lake dwellings. Archaeobotanical analyses also indicate the introduction of a new flax variety, one with smaller seed sizes. People now preferred a variety of the flax plant which had characteristics advantageous for fiber extraction. This meant a plant with smaller seeds and a lower oil content, but more numerous and higher-quality fibers.
In addition to the finds of flax seeds and capsule fragments, there is a significant abundance of flax stem fragments («shives») at these sites. This indicates an increase in linen textile production, and the appearance of sites specialized in the cultivation and processing of flax.
The introduction of the new variety, in addition to changes in flax cultivation and production, is connected to what archaeologists denote with the term «secondary products revolution.» This refers to a larger societal change characterized by the adoption of animal traction ( the use of farm animals like oxen to assist in farming activities like plowing) and the increased production of secondary products such as dairy and wool products.
Farming practices were at that point employed for the cultivation of a fiber crop (instead of a food crop). This would mean different work tasks which were time- and resource-consuming, like preparing fields, sowing, tending to, and caring for the plants, and finally, obtaining the fiber. It is notable that people were willing to put in this much time and effort for the flax’s fiber.
At the same time, the cultivation of flax for its fiber did not mean that the foraging of wild, indigenous fiber plants ceased. Reeds, grasses, inner tree bark, and the like were still collected, alongside the domesticated flax plant.
Flax Cultivation in Scandinavia
Earliest evidence traces flax cultivation to the Bronze Age
Charred flax seeds are a common find at Iron Age Scandinavian settlement sites, particularly in southern Scandinavia.
The present archaeological record indicates that flax cultivation began much earlier, however. The earliest finds of flax cultivation in Scandinavia are dated to the Bronze Age. Most are from the Late Bronze Age (900–500 BC). The oldest finds were recorded in Odense, Denmark, and dated to the Early Bronze Age (800–1100 BC).
In Sweden, the oldest traces of flax cultivation are from Uppsala, dated to 1000 BC, while the first traces from northern Sweden appear during the first century AD.
Flax seeds found at archaeological sites from this early period are traditionally interpreted as indications of flax cultivation as an oil seed crop. It is also interesting to note that seeds of Camelina (gold of pleasure) were located at many of the same settlement sites from the Roman Iron Age (0–400 AD). This plant also has oil-rich seeds and was likely cultivated for oil production.
When did Linen Production start in Scandinavia?
From Denmark, the earliest evidence of linen textiles dates to the early Roman Iron Age (0-160 AD), from the Slusegård graveyard on the island of Bornholm.
The number of linen textiles in Scandinavia from this early period is limited. Therefore, it is commonly argued that these old linen textiles were in fact trade goods, originating in the Roman Empire or the northern part of Germany. Until recently, it was assumed that linen textile production in Scandinavia did not begin before the Late Iron Age, ca. 500 AD. However, finds of nettle fabric (e.g. Lusehøj grave mound on Funen island) show that the method of using plant fibers for textile production was known in Scandinavia in the late Bronze Age.
What’s more, a special type of structure can shed new light on this subject: so-called ‘retting pits’ Since the flax plant is a bast plant, the extraction of fibers from the stem required a process called retting. (Read about retting here). When water is used for retting, the plant material has a better chance at surviving, compared to «field retting», which leaves almost no archaeological footprint. As retting pits only are necessary for extracting fibers (and not seeds) it is a good indication of the plant being used in this fashion.
Retting pits have been found at multiple locations in southern Scandinavia. They are dated to the Late Bronze Age and early Pre-Roman Iron Age, ca. 800–250 BC. This shows that processing flax for linen production began already in this early period.
Example of retting pits at Seden syd
On farmsteads from the late Roman Iron Age and Migration Period at the site of Seden Syd (on the isle of Funen in Denmark), over 30 waterlogged pits were identified, and production at the site was presumably specialized, including textile production. Plant traces, macrofossils, and pollen analysis found indications of flax, hemp, and nettle. At the bottom of three pits, bundles of flax stems were found. In addition, nettle seeds were recorded in some of the pits.
Flax stalks were found at the archaeological excavation at the getting pit at Helstedgård Sydvest. © The City Museum Odense, Denmark.
At the archaeological site at Frydenlund a waterlogged pit was found with a lining made from a hollow tree trunk. © The City Museum Odense, Denmark.
Linen Increases in Importance
The importance of linen increased with time. In the Iron Age, we can imagine that seeds were still harvested, of which most were stored for next year sowing, and smaller amounts would be used to make oil. In addition, the seeds provided a nutritional supplement, and had possible medicinal applications, alongside other uses like perhaps the oiling of metal utensils for rust protection.
and suggested further reading
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