Cultivation of Fibre Flax in Prehistory

The bushier seed flax plant

According to Vavilov (1987), flax was domesticated independently, in Africa and Asia, from the same wild parent plant  Linum bienne, to create the domesticated  Linum usitatissimumHe suggests that natural selection lead to the development of the long and short stemmed varieties, used for textiles and food respectively. These differences were created by the plants’ response to the ambient climate. Fibre flax, growing in the cooler North and food flax in the warmer south. Ivanov (1926) demonstrated this experimentally by moving the fibre plants south and seed plants north. The results showed that the fibre plants became shorter and bushier, with an increase in the yield of seeds and quality of seed oil. Whereas the seed plants grew taller, and were less bushy, yielding fewer seeds and a low quality oil. So this demonstrates that once cultivars were available, it was geography and not breeding that created the two forms of the plant.

Long stems of fibre flax

We know domesticated flax, spread across the globe over time, and archaeological remains can help us explore the process by examining finds including: seed and pollen analysis of soil samples, and preserved flax thread or linen remnants. Breniquet (2015) says that cultivated flax was grown in ancient Mesopitamia between 12 & 8000 BC; co-inciding with the appearance of both twined and woven textiles, such as basket weaving, spinning and cloth weaving cloth. This was noted to have preceded the domestication of  wool producing animals and production of woollen textiles, which appear when settled, agricultural communities formed in the neolithic period. Evidence from Eastern European sites suggests that bast fibre textiles emerged during the late paeleolithic (Sankari 2000), whilst flax and linen are evident in Northern Europe by C4000BC. The British Museum’s collection of Swiss Lake Dwelling Textiles, has given researchers the opportunity to examine and analyse these ancient fibres, with finds indicating processes for harvesting and extracting the fibres, through to spinning to dyeing and weaving (Higget et al 2011).

Although today Britain is an island, it was part of mainland Europe until rising sea levels cut it off, around 6000 BC. Whilst evidence found on the mainland, suggests that Britain did not make the transition to settled, agricultural communities until 4000 BC;  ancient plant DNA recovered from the underwater Boulder Cliff site, in the Solent, shows wheat was grown there, before it was submerged. It is thought seeds were obtained through trading goods and skills with “advanced” societies in Southern Europe (Allerby 2015). Allerby suggests that only lowland areas were actively engaged in farming at this time, but Clay (2001) notes that flax seeds and lime tree pollen were found in late mesolithic and neolithic settlement deposits in Buxton, Derbyshire, which was much further inland. However as no textile remnants have been found so there is no evidence for how flax was used.

Yet despite the evidence of the spread of cultivated flax we don’t really know how it happened. Was knowledge spread by word of mouth, trade or some form of proto-marriage, that created opportunities to share knowledge between tribal group. We don’t know who first discovered that the retted or rotted flax plant, contained a fibre that could be stripped out and used to make cloth, or why they tried to do so. Who first twisted the fibres? Invented the drop spindle and spun the fibre ever more finely? Wove with it?  Built the first looms for weaving? For a plant still used today, that lead to the development of technologies for preparing and creating textiles, created global trade, funded wars, peace, education, religions, and other important facets of later societies, it seems a pity that its origins are lost in time.

Fragment of Neolithic / Bronze Age Textile  British Museum

References and Bibliography

Allerby, R (2015) Changing Perceptions of Britain from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic Age. Warwick Knowledge Centre [online] Available at: Accessed 23/08/16

Clay, P (2001). An Archaeological Resource Assessment and Research Agenda for The Neolithic and Early-Middle Bronze Age of the East Midlands. [Online]. Available at: Accessed 23/08/16

Higget C, Harris H, Cartwright C, Cruickshank P (2011) Assessing the Potential of Historic Archaeological Collections: A Pilot Study of the British Museum’s Swiss Lake Dwelling Textiles. British Museum Technical Research Bulletin Vol 5 (pdf)

Ivanov MM (1926) Variation in the Chemical Composition of the Seeds of Oleiferous Plants in Dependence on Geographical Factors IN Vavilov NI, Dorofiev VF (ed) (1987 published post huomusly) (translated Love D (1992)) Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Sankari H (2000) Towards Bast Fibre Production In Finland: Stem And Fibre Yields And Mechanical Fibre Properties Of Selected Fibre Hemp And Linse Genotype,  Academic Thesis.  Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry of the University of Helsinki. [online] accessed 24/07/2016

Vavilov NI, Dorofiev VF (ed) (1987 ) (translated Love D (1992)) Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.


Cultivation of Fibre Flax in Prehistory

Agricultural Scenery – Floating Mills


(Floating mills on the Seine, Paris, 1310. Francais, 2092, 37v. Bibliotech National de France)

The joy or sometimes drawback, of studying history is the number of rabbit holes one can disappear into without warning,  diverting attention from the main topic of study. My current diversion is the floating flour mills, of the great rivers of Europe, from the 6th C onwards. I discovered them in a fascinating book, about the travels of  12th Century student and would be etymologist, Alexander Neckham, between England and University in Paris. I’m reading it to add depth to a local history study I’m doing,  following the fortunes of a 12th C, Southampton Merchant, Gervase le Riche, who was involved in trading fleece and wool with European merchants. One intriguing aspect of his story is a journey he undertook, to deliver his contribution towards Richard I’s ransom, in exchange for lands. I’ll share more of his story as my research progresses. During his journey Gervase, like Alexander, would have seen, and remarked on these floating mills, as a curiosity. They were not used in 12th C Britain,  and trials in the early modern period were unsuccessful (Langdon 2004).

Throughout the medieval period mills were owned by the feudal overlord of a manor, the King, a noble, barons or monastery. The peasantry paid a fee or banality to the miller to grind their grain, which he collected on behalf of his Lord. Peasants would try to avoid fees by using their own quern stones or handmills, or using the mill of cheaper, nearby manor.However as evidenced by this quote from a 12th C document, granting a mill and its rights to a local priory, this resulted in high penalties:

Wherefore no other mill, by any other man, maybe made in the said town, save by the will and concessions of the said canons. Nor may they (townsmen) have handmills. If nevertheless, anyone of the said town should refuse to come to the said mill, I an my heirs shall compel him to follow (attend) it; and if any be found attending another mill, the sack and corn shall be the canons, and the horse [carrying the same], as well as the penalty shall be to me and my heirs.

(Translation of charter, 1150, granting the mill of Silsden to the priory by Cecilia de Rumelia, Lady of the Manor of Silsden) (Bennet and Elton, 1898)

Floating mills, were also under feudal ownership and spread through Europe, following their invention in Rome, where they were invented in around 537AD. The invading Goths, smashed the aqueducts carrying fresh water to the city’s fountains, also removing the supply to the water mills, along their length. According to Procopius,the resourceful citizens, attached milling apparatus to boats and anchored them in the Tiber, building a bridge between them for access and to delivery of grain & collect flour by donkey. This provided the means to produce flour, bake bread and withstand the siege. The number of mills grew over time, within the protective city walls and finally became obsolete in the early 19th Century  (Caggia and Gwynn). The mills were versatile as they could operate under bridges, as in Paris or in open water, as  in Germany and Eastern Europe. The Parisians employed men in boats to deliver grain and collect the flour (Holmes 1952), whilst the Germans and Eastern Europeans constructed jetties between mill and shore, for this purpose (Panorama SK 2014). During floods or when ships needed to pass the mills could be towed to shore and when drought reduced  the depth of a river, one horse could easily tow one upstream, to a more favourable site.


Model of a Byzantine Ship Mill, on display at the Museum of History, Science and Technology, Istanbul, built on a similar pattern to the French design.

There appear to be 2 different designs for the mills, the simpler and more versatile one hull, pictured above, which worked as described by Holmes below:

The wheel is over the side; the millstones and operator are on a cupola shaped platform with peaked roof, which is build amidships on each hull. A ladder leads up to this. Sacks of grain are being brought in small boats and passed up to the millers. Each miller pours the grain into a funnel which is over the stone. The milled flour is pouring into sacks beneath the platform.

(Daily  Living in the Twelfth Century, Based on the Observations of Alexander Neckam in London and Paris, pp103 -104)

and the more complex two hulled ship, illustrated below, which was designed with a specific mooring in mind, and used similar technology:

800px-schiffmuehle01Schiffmuhle by H Ernst 1805

Ship mills have a key advantage over static mills, because they float the wheel is always in the correct position in water, so their operation is unaffected by  the usual range of changes in water levels, ensuring a constant supply of flour. The only restriction on their use was making sure there was sufficient clearance  between the wheel and the river bed, to prevent fouling or breakages.The mills are powered by the relatively inefficient, yet ideal for purpose, undershot wheel, designed to turn when water hits the bottom paddles (de Decker, 2010). de Decker, claims this also made them useful as tide mills, but further research is required to confirm this. Static mills, have an overshot or breast shot wheel that sits at a preset height above the river.If the river level rises significantly, the wheel becomes inoperable, so flood was a very real problem. In addition a separate water supply is needed to turn the wheel, so water is collected in a weir or millpond, at a higher elevation than the mill, and a leat is then dug to convey the water to mill wheel. Water flow and speed is controlled by sluice gates. Whilst these wheels are larger and more efficient, their use requires a specific situation and a great deal of labour in both construction and maintenance (de Decker); hence the popularity of ship mills:

Location of Ship Mills on Major European Rivers

This is not an exhaustive list and I hope to add to it as I learn more:

River Countries Dates if known
Danube Austria,
Germany, Bohemia
From 1493 to 19th C
Elbe Bohemia
Last known 1911
Garon France
Kura Georgia –
10th C to 1930s
Loire France
Marne France
Mur Austria
Rhine Strasbourg
Mainz, Koln – known as “Rheinmulen”
9th to 12th C
Seine Paris, France
Tiber Rome 6th to 19th C
Weser Germany, Bremen
(Source: Wikipedia –

However, ship mills were not without their own problems and could be potentially lethal, as described by  Caggìa & Gwynne:

The mills floating on the Tiber were at the mercy of the unpredictable river currents. A heavy rainfall in Umbria or northen Lazio would swell the river and rise the water level in Rome, while periods of continuous rain would cause disastrous floods. Often the moorings were insufficient to resist the violence of the waters and the mills would be carried off by the swift tides often with people still inside. Examples of mills crashing against bridges (causing further damage to both bridge and mill); or wedging in the arch of a bridge damming the river and thus causing the waters to rise higher have also been recorded. Moreover, the artificial barriers used to direct the water onto the wheels would make the situation worse in the case of flood by impeding the flow. Floating mills were also a hazard for rowing boats and bathers. Indeed the tradition of children diving after watermelons thrown into the Tiber on Saint Bartholomew’s day was later banned because of the number of accidents.

It is also of note, that the hull had a lifespan of 30- 50 years, due to the variable quality of construction, and constant battering from the waters. The wheels needed replacement every 10 years or so (de Decker). However it is likely that this was less costly than building and maintaining a fixed mill. In later centuries they would also become a nuisance to shipping and could not compete with the improved technologies offered by the industrial revolution.

So ship mills faded out of use between the late 18th and early 20th C, mainly because a mill moored alongside is not productive, efficient or financially viable. However trials are now taking place, with some success, in Germany, using a modern version of a ship mill to generate hydroelectric power, whilst other replicas are being used as irrigation systems for municipal parks (Wikipedia, Germany). They are also tourist attractions with museums installing replicas across the rivers of Central Europe, including this beautiful example, at the Floating Mill Museum, Koloravo, Slovakia, which includes the longest, roofed,  wooden bridge, for access to the mill, in Europe:


I would like to thank the members of the British Medieval History and European Medieval History Facebook groups, who kindly shared their knowledge with me, and gave me pointers as to sources and resources used in creating this post, many for whom English is a second language.

References and Biblioography

Bennet R, Elton J (1898) History of Corn Milling, Vol II. Simpkin, Marshall and Co Ltd, London p211

Caggia S, Gwynn P (undated) The Mills on the River Tiber, In Nerone, The Insiders Guide to Rome. [online] Accessed 16/08/2016

De Decker K. (2010) Boat Mills, Water Powered Floating Factories, Low Tech Magazine [online]

Holmes UT, Jr (1952 ) Daily  Living in the Twelfth Century, Based on the Observations of Alexander Neckam in London and Paris, The University of Wisconsin Press, London pp103 -104

Langdon J. (2004) Mills in the Medieval Economy, 1300 -1540, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Panorama SK (2016) Slovakia Document Store – The Floating Mill in Kolarovo [online] Accessed 16/8/2016

Wikipedia Germany (undated) Schiffe Muehle [online]  Accessed 16/8/2016


Agricultural Scenery – Floating Mills

Bast Fibre Plants in the Stone Age

In my previous post, the use of bast fibres for textile production, net, rope and basket making, was noted to be a feature of cultures towards the late paelolithic period.  This seems to imply that the plants were cultivated for this purpose, in an era well before formal agriculture was known; which in turn implies that  late paelolithic and the following, mesolithic people were possibly more settled than their hunter -gatherer lifestyle implies. However it is also possible that the areas the people roamed in pursuit of foodstuffs were actually rich in the various plants that bast can be harvested from. So settling in a place for a season where those plants were ready to be harvested and prepared, could also allow them to produce fine textiles, during the summer months when the period of daylight was longer. Harris (2014)  suggests that plant fibre was used before sheep or goat  wool for producing a yarn to make textiles, this will be explored in a later post.It is however worth noting that there are many similarities between the processes used to prepare plant fibre and wool for spinning and weaving, suggesting that if Harris is correct, Neolithic man would have applied the learning of his ancestors to the creation of this “new” fibre.

WILD PALE FLAX Alvesgaspar – Own Work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Whilst we will be looking at how the fibres were prepared and used in a later post, its important to note that for the extant examples of finely woven and embroidered textiles found in late paeleolithic and mesolithic site to exist, high quality fibres were required. Weaving a  fine textile demands a high level of skill and a finely and evenly spun thread, with few if any slubs or spinning errors. The weft and warp are well matched, with few, if any errors in the weave. Therefore, according to Ranson (2015), the plants used for linen textiles had to be specifically grown for fibre. The uncultivated plants produce both fibre and seed, and the bast from “seed flax” is short, coarse and uneven, due to the large number of side stems, bearing a great number of seed producing flowers. The stems of “fibre flax” have few disruptive side stems in order to produce a fine, even and long bast.


However it is possible that the fine linen and embroidery threads were not obtained

CC BY-SA 3.0, https// 369351

from flax, but from other bast producing plants such as nettle. Nettle is a  common wild plant throughout the British Isles and produces a long and silky fibre, which is finer than flax. According to Heise (2003), it is not possible to determine the fibre content of linen without first chemically testing a sample, so it could be that the “linen” discovered in paeleolithic sites, could have been made from the long nettle fibre. One can imagine though that harvesting the nettles must have been a somewhat painful operation unless the workers had some form of hand covering. Nettles were also used for rope and fishing nets, with archaeological remains of neolithic cloth and rope being found in Denmark and Britain (Quinion 1996)

Tree bast was also useful for making cordage from the coarse fibres of the inner bark (Wigforrs 2014). Trees native to Britain that can be potentially used in this way include:

  1. Linden or Lime Tree
  2. Pine
  3. Birch
  4. Willow

One the fibres had been stripped out they could be spun and plied. However this would suggest that some way of tensioning  the cord would have been required, unless only small lengths were made to serve a given purpose (Barber 1994). Potentially there could have been clearings made in forests to produce a rough approximation to a rope walk if long cords were produced, with a substantial tree used to anchor the cords to be plied and the person making the rope walking backwards as he twisted the cords together. Alternatively he could have tied the cords to a  heavy stone or even his big toe and leant backwards in a sitting position to ply and tension the rope, perhaps using a stick or “ten” as suggested by Wigforss… something we will probably never know.

References and Bibliography

Barber, E.W. (1994). Women’s work: the first 20,000 years: women, cloth and society in early times. New York: W.W. Norton.

Clarke R, Merlin M. (2013) Cannabis: Evolution and Ethnobotany. University of California Ltd, London. online [] Accessed: 29/7/2016

Harris S (2014). Flax fibre: Innovation and Change in the Early Neolithic A Technological and Material Perspective.University College London. Online [] Accessed: 29/7/2016

Heise J.A. (2002-3) Hemp and Nettle, Two Food/Fibre/ Medical plants in use in Eastern Europe. [Online] www, Accessed 5/8/2016

Quinion M (1996) Fibres from the Earth [online] Accessed 6/8/2016

Ranson R (2015)  Linen Flax – Flax plant for spinning and weaving. [online] Accessed: 29/7/2016

Wigforss E (2014) Evidence for a Stone Age fibre technology – a closer look at the prehistoric String Theory Lunds Universitet [online] Accessed  6/8/2016

Yorkshire Hemp (2016) History [online] Accessed 6/8/2016


Bast Fibre Plants in the Stone Age