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K. Kris Hirst

Making String in Prehistory

By January 13, 2009

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There was an interesting paper in Antiquity last summer written by Karen Hardy, discussing how making string is an often overlooked but incredibly important, tiny skill useful to human beings.
Reconstruction of the Egtved Girl's Clothing
Reconstruction of the Egtved Girl's Clothing
Photo Credit: FinnWikiNo

String making, says Hardy, was an essential tool of the paleolithic person. String was used in prehistory to tie things up; to make clothing (as in the string skirt of the Iron Age Egtved girl seen in the glamorous drawing); to make bags for carrying things; bowstrings for hunting; nets for fishing and small game trapping; to hang decorative pendants. And, in an extraordinary case, to make quipu, that communication strategy of 5,000 years of South American society.

The problem is, as Olga Soffer and James Adovasio have pointed out, that vegetal matter is only very rarely preserved in archaeological contexts. Oh, sure, we can see it when it is used as decoration for clay pots, and sometimes it will burn and be preserved in wattle and daub houses, but by and large, when it rots, it's gone.

Earliest String

On occasion we're very lucky indeed. The earliest sites with direct evidence for string making include Ohalo II in Israel (ca. 19,000 years bp), Lascaux Cave in France (ca. 17,000 years bp), and Fukui Cave in Japan (ca. 15,000 bp). Chances are good, though that string making has been around a lot longer--perforated beads have been found at Howiesons Poort/Still Bay sites like Blombos cave in South Africa at some 75,000-80,000 years ago.

More on Textiles in Archaeology

String Sites

Hardy, Karen 2008 Prehistoric string theory: How twisted fibres helped to shape the world. Antiquity 82(316):271280.

Inuit Sculpture of Girl with Cat's Cradle, National Gallery, Ottawa, Canada
Inuit Sculpture of Girl with Cat's Cradle, National Gallery, Ottawa, Canada Photo by
Jen Millward


June 28, 2009 at 8:18 am
(1) Wilkie Collins says:

The actual technique of string making whereby you twist two bundles in the same direction, and twist the two bundles together in the opposite direction is something that every archaeologist should try for themselves. Use sinew, vegetable fiber or whatever.

Once you see how easy it is, and play with some raw fiber with an eye to use it, you will feel that the process must have been done very early on. It is far simpler and more intuitive than even flintknapping.


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