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New research on the cultural history of the useful plant Linum usitatissimum L. (flax), a resource for food and textiles for 8,000 years

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EDITORIAL
New research on the cultural history of the useful plant
Linum usitatissimum L. (flax), a resource for food and textiles
for 8,000 years
Sabine Karg
Received: 28 September 2011 / Accepted: 3 October 2011
Ó Springer-Verlag 2011
Keywords Flax Linum species Ancient economy Oil
and textile production
Flax delivers the raw material for food, medicines and
textiles and has therefore been of great importance for
human culture and development for more than 8,000 years.
Still today the products of flax play a role in our modern
everyday life. The seeds are well-known to be healthy, they
are of nutritional value and contain large amounts of short-
chain x-3 fatty acids; linen clothes have become more
popular again during recent decades and linseed oil is one
of the oldest commercial oils that has been used for cen-
turies in painting and varnishing. No artificial chemical
product has replaced the products of flax.
The cultural history of flax can be traced by botanical
remains uncovered during archaeological excavations, such
as seeds, capsule fragments, stems of flax and pollen, as
well as by flax products such as fibres and textiles.
Archaeological finds like flax retting structures and arte-
facts give evidence of textile production. Additional
information on the use of flax is given by historical written
sources and ancient wall paintings. But how old is the use
of flax? In Fig. 1 the presence of wild, as well as domestic
flax seeds and capsules, textile fragments and textile
impressions in clay on aceramic and early Neolithic sites is
mapped. The oldest records have been made in the area of
the Fertile Crescent and date back to the 9th millennium
B.C. (Helbæk 1959; van Zeist and Bakker-Heeres 1975).
Therefore we have to assume that cultivation of flax started
in that region, most probably for its oil (Allaby et al. 2005).
The oldest European archaeobotanical evidence for
cultivated flax derives from archaeological sites located
north of the Alps and is dated to the Linearbandkeramik
(Kreuz 2007). It is still not known if already at that time
different landraces of flax existed. New results from mea-
suring the seed size of uncarbonized flax seeds suggest the
presence of different forms of flax for oil and for fibre
exploitation since at least the 3rd millennium
B.C. (Herbig
2002; Herbig and Maier 2011). These finds are now being
tested for ancient DNA.
Flax cultivation and the manufacturing of its various
products imply an enormous input of human labour, start-
ing with preparing the land suitable for cultivation, plant-
ing or sowing the flax fields, weeding the fields in order to
guarantee an efficient yield, harvesting, and ending with
the various technical processes that have to be done to
obtain fibres for textile production from the woody stems
and oil from the seeds. Some of these activities have left
visible archaeological features and structures, as flax ret-
ting pits that have been overlooked in many archaeological
excavations until now. Only recently archaeologists have
become aware of flax drying structures. New investigations
suggest that flax and textile production played a yet
underestimated part of domestic industry, maybe already
performed by specialized craftsmen and -women and
thereby formed an important economic aspect of daily life
during the past millennia in many European countries
(Leuzinger and Rast-Eicher 2011; Maier and Schlichtherle
2011). However, the whole process of flax production
needs to be better understood: from the procurement of the
seed for sowing, the cultivation methods, the harvesting
and processing of the plants to the ultimate production
Communicated by F. Bittmann.
S. Karg (&)
SAXO Institute, Archaeology, University of Copenhagen,
2300 Copenhagen S, Denmark
e-mail: karg@hum.ku.dk
123
Veget Hist Archaeobot
DOI 10.1007/s00334-011-0326-y
processes of the oil and fibres, in order to evaluate the
importance of flax in the past. Only the sum of all these
parts will give a whole picture and will help us to under-
stand the relationship between ancient societies and this
fascinating plant.
References
Allaby RG, Peterson GW, Merriwether DA, Fu YB (2005) Evidence
of the domestication history of flax (Linum usitatissimum L.)
from genetic diversity of the sad2 locus. Theor Appl Genet 112:
58–65
Helbæk H (1959) Notes on the evolution and history of Linum.
KUML 1959:103–129
Herbig C (2002) Archa
¨
obotanische Untersuchungen in der spa
¨
tneoli-
thischen Moorsiedlung Torwiesen II im Federseemoor (Stadt
Buchau, Kreis Biberach). Unpubl master thesis, University of
Frankfurt/Main
Herbig C, Maier U (2011) Flax for oil and fibre? Morphometric
analysis of flax seeds and new aspects of flax cultivation in Late
Neolithic wetland settlements in southwest Germany. Veget Hist
Archaeobot 20. doi:10.1007/s00334-011-0289-z (this volume)
Karg S (ed) (2009) Flax (Linum usitatissimum L.)—a natural resource
for food and textiles for 8,000 years. Cross-disciplinary inves-
tigations on the evolution and cultural history of flax and linen.
In: Workshop Info 1, Communicating Culture, Programme and
abstracts
Karg S (ed) (2010) Flax (Linum usitatissimum L.)—a natural resource
for food and textiles for 8,000 years. Cross-disciplinary inves-
tigations on the evolution and cultural history of flax and linen.
In: Workshop Info 2, Communicating Culture, Programme and
abstracts
Kreuz A (2007) Archaeobotanical perspectives on the beginning of
agriculture north of the Alps. In: Colledge S, Conolly J (eds)
Archaeobotanical perspectives on the origin and spread of
agriculture in southwest Asia and Europe. Left Coast Press,
Walnut Creek, pp 259–294
Leuzinger U, Rast-Eicher A (2011) Flax processing in the Neolithic
and Bronze Age pile-dwelling settlements of eastern Switzer-
land. Veget Hist Archaeobot 20. doi:10.1007/s00334-011-
0286-2 (this volume)
Maier U, Schlichtherle (2011) Flax cultivation and textile production
in Neolithic wetland settlements on Lake Constance and in
Upper Swabia (south-west Germany). Veget Hist Archaeobot 20.
doi:10.1007/s00334-011-0300-8 (this volume)
Van Zeist W, Bakker-Heeres JA (1975) Evidence for linseed
cultivation before 6000
B.C. J Arch Sci 2:215–219
Fig. 1 Presence of wild and domestic flax seeds (/capsules) and
textiles (/impressions) in aceramic and early Neolithic sites. The map
is credited to Sue Colledge (UCL, UK) and James Conolly (Trent
University Ontario); http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/
view/neoplants_ahrb_2005/
Veget Hist Archaeobot
123
... angustifolium) was likely domesticated and was the only progenitor of the cultivated flax. In Europe, the domestication of flax fibres is dated to the Neolithic period with the Linearbandkeramik Culture (5500-4500 BC) ( (Kreuz, 2007), quoted in (Karg, 2011)). According to the map presented by Karg et al., simplified and readapted in Figure 3, in contrast to that in the Middle East, only the domesticated plant was cultivated in southern and western Europe (Karg, 2011). ...
... In Europe, the domestication of flax fibres is dated to the Neolithic period with the Linearbandkeramik Culture (5500-4500 BC) ( (Kreuz, 2007), quoted in (Karg, 2011)). According to the map presented by Karg et al., simplified and readapted in Figure 3, in contrast to that in the Middle East, only the domesticated plant was cultivated in southern and western Europe (Karg, 2011). ...
... Future research should be focused on developing and adapting these techniques to the field of cultural heritage. of pale flax (green) has been obtained from (Desta, 2019;Diederichsen & Hammer, 1995;Gutaker et al., 2019). The centres of archaeological findings have been adapted from (Colledge & Conolly, 2017;Harris, 2014;Karg, 2011). QNM to study the mechanical properties at the cell wall level in . ...
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... These include Glomus type fungal bodies (Type HdV-1103) and fungal cells (Type HdV-200) ( Fig. 3; Fig. 4_No. [35][36] 5 . Glomus is the largest genus of arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, occurring on a variety of host plants and indirectly indicative of soil erosion 7,10 . ...
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... There are strong indications that at first flax was mainly cultivated for the oil (Allaby et al. 2005, 63). Measuring the seed size of flax suggests the presence of different forms of flax for oil and for fibre production since at least the third millennium B.C. (Herbig and Maier 2011;Karg 2011). Early flax processing technology has been studied by several authors (Herbig and Maier 2011;Leuzinger and Rast-Eicher 2011;Maier and Schlichtherle 2011). ...
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... Льон звичайний або льон-довгунець (Linum usitatissimum L.) -одна з найбільш поширених сільськогосподарських культур України, історія використання якої людством нараховує понад 8000 років [1]. Сьогодні льон є джерелом сировини для харчової промисловості, лікарських препаратів та текстильної продукції. ...
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Archäobotanische Untersuchungen in der spätneolithischen Moorsiedlung Torwiesen II im Federseemoor
  • C Herbig
Notes on the evolution and history of Linum
  • H Helbæk
1 Presence of wild and domestic flax seeds (/capsules) and textiles (/impressions) in aceramic and early Neolithic sites. The map is credited to
  • Fig
Fig. 1 Presence of wild and domestic flax seeds (/capsules) and textiles (/impressions) in aceramic and early Neolithic sites. The map is credited to Sue Colledge (UCL, UK) and James Conolly (Trent University Ontario); http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/ view/neoplants_ahrb_2005/
Flax (Linum usitatissimum L.)—a natural resource for food and textiles for 8,000 years. Cross-disciplinary investigations on the evolution and cultural history of flax and linen Programme and abstracts
Karg S (ed) (2009) Flax (Linum usitatissimum L.)—a natural resource for food and textiles for 8,000 years. Cross-disciplinary investigations on the evolution and cultural history of flax and linen. In: Workshop Info 1, Communicating Culture, Programme and abstracts