Bone Awl and Needle Finds from the Sveti Mihovil Site near Bale. The Fabrication of Clothing from Animal Hides and the Earliest Prehistoric Fabrics

Finds of bone awls and needles at Sveti Mihovil near Bale

A number of bone fragments — parts of awls and needles — were recovered in the course of archaeological investigation performed in 2006 and 2007 at the Sveti Mihovil Bronze Age hillfort settlement near the town of Bale.

Bone awls and needles

The needles and awls recovered at the Sveti Mihovil site are preserved as small fragments (T. 1, Figs.1–3). In prehistoric and later periods bone was a very convenient and suitable material for the fabrication of tools and ornaments. The characteristics of bone made objects created out of this material more robust and durable than implements crafted in wood. It required only moderate effort to improve the form of the object, and a smooth surface was easily obtained, which was particularly important in crafting piercing tools like awls and needles. We find awls and needles of this kind in use on the Istrian peninsula as far back as the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic and Eneolithic periods, through to the late Bronze Age. As items of ethnological interest, bone tools were fabricated and utilised in Istria through to the recent past. The awl was a bone tool used to pierce soft to medium firm leather in preparation for sewing, i.e., making clothing. Needles are in essence similar to awls, differing from them by the level of finish and burnishing and by some morphological characteristics. They lack a knob or broadening at the proximal section, indicating that they are to be passed through the material. Given the high burnish and finish the finds in question are clearly needles. The thin and sharp tips indicate that they could only be used with leather prepared for that purpose, and likely to sew other light materials. The nature of this material cannot be ascertained with confidence, there being no direct evidence, but we can surmise that these were fabrics created with plant fibre thread.



Fig. 1 Satellite image of the Istrian peninsula with the prehistoric Sveti Mihovil site near Bale indicated.



Animal hide processing and piercing, and leather clothing sewing techniques in the Palaeolithic, Neolithic and Eneolithic periods and in the Bronze Age

The use and processing of animal hides is one of the oldest human activities, with its roots in the Palaeolithic period. Along with food gathering, the primary concern of our palaeolithic ancestors was to protect their bodies from the elements (cold, rain, snow and so forth). To this end they used raw animal hides. The earliest tanning processes likely involved smoking the hides and treating them with the fat and brain/marrow derived from slaughtered animals. The preparation of the hides began with the removal of dirt, hair and residual meat. Over time raw hides become stiff and brittle, and people developed methods to overcome this by processing the hides. Wetting and rinsing restores the moisture lost during preservation. Residual hair and hair roots, the epidermis, and proteins that hinder tanning, are removed from the hide (Fig. 2). The tanning process usually requires some ten to twelve hours, depending largely on the tanning agent and the technological process. Other natural materials used to tan leather include the bark and wood of tree species like oak, fir and spruce. The tanning of hides is followed by the drying process. Upon drying, the edges of sections of leather to be joined to create an item of clothing were pierced with a small bone awl and sewn together with leather or plant fibres or thread using a bone needle. The final phase involved joining the seams of the separate cut leather sections and the addition of leather ornaments to the clothing. This activity developed into a trade and later into the leather industry. The earliest clothing was developed in the period from 500,000 to 100,000 BC. Archaeological finds from the late Palaeolithic, from 40,000 to 10,000 BC, offer insights into hide processing and tanning, and leather sewing and clothing fabrication techniques (Fig. 8a). Based on finds of bone awls and needles we can posit that Upper Palaeolithic and early Neolithic communities on the Istrian peninsula used similar techniques in crafting leather clothing.



Fig. 2 A reconstruction of the drying and sewing of leather clothing during the Upper Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods (drawing: R. Zlatunić).




Thread making techniques and the weaving or sewing of the first prehistoric fabrics

The production of thread using plant fibres or animal hair has its roots in the Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, when twisted plant fibres were used for sewing leather. Prehistoric communities of the Middle East and the Greek peninsula in the Mesolithic, Pre-Neolithic, Neolithic, Eneolithic and Bronze Age periods (8,000–5,000 years BP) used primarily plant-based raw materials such as flax (Linum usitatissimum), reedmace (a marshland herb), oak, linden, and willow fibres to make thread as is evident from preserved textile samples. In the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods hemp (Cannabis sativa) fibre was also used make twine. The oldest known fabric made from hemp fibre was found at Çatal Hüyük in Turkey and dates to about 10,000 years before present (BP). Textiles made of plant fibres from about 7,000 years ago have been recovered in Egypt. These include finds of mats, spiral baskets and primitive fabrics (Figs. 3–5), while the oldest recovered rope from this area is several centuries more recent. In the area of the Alps the first use of flax and reedmace dates to about 4,000 to 3,000 years BP. The early sheep (Ovis aries) of the Neolithic period had short hair similar to that of deer, and true sheep’s wool first appeared in Europe late in the Neolithic period and into the Eneolithic and Bronze Age, while in the Middle East and Asia Minor there is evidence of the use of sheep’s wool earlier in the Neolithic. The earliest evidence of sheep’s wool textile in Europe are the remains of fabric found at Clairvaux-les-Lacs in Switzerland, dated to 2900 BC, and at Wiepenkathen in the north of Germany, dated to 2400 BC. Along with wool, the late Iron Age in some parts of Europe saw the use of the long hairs of the manes of horses for weaving. The fur of hares and other wild animals were also used late in the Bronze Age and in the early Iron Age.



Fig. 3 A reconstruction of plant fibres being spun by hand prior to making fabric during the Neolithic and Eneolithic periods (drawing: R. Zlatunić).




Fig. 4 Hand knitting of plant fibre mats during the Neolithic and Eneolithic periods (drawing: R. Zlatunić).

Fig. 5 Hand knitting of plant fibre-based clothing during the Neolithic and Eneolithic periods (drawing: R. Zlatunić).



The processing of hemp and flax to produce fibre

The processing of hemp and flax to produce fibres involved a number of steps. After soaking and drying the stems of hemp and flax are unbundled and laid out. They are then beaten and carded to separate the fine fibres from the woody part of the stem. Combing is then used to separate the long from the short fibres. In the prehistoric period the short fibres were used to make twine, while the long fibres were used to make thread. These fibres are used to sew leather and textile clothing. In further processing the fibres are spun and wound onto a distaff (Fig. 3) or, in the Neolithic and Eneolithic periods, on clay spindles, the likes of which have been recovered in modern Greece (Prodromos, Otzaki, Servia, Achilleion, Soufli Magoula, Elateia, Nea Nikomedeia and Sesklo), and in modern Albania (the Vastëmi I and Dunavec I sites). When preparing fibre for yarn, the fibres were placed over a hook, while the spindle was suspended freely on the yarn. The process of obtaining yarn involved evenly drawing fibres from the distaff with one hand, while the other hand spun the material with the weight or spindle whorl spinning at the end thus drawing out and firmly twisting the fibres into yarn (Fig.3). Effective spinning required the ideal spindle with a straight or oblique perforated/tubular opening with a diameter of up to one cm. A spindle with a poorly centred opening was useless. The weight and diameter are important in the interpretation of a spindle. The weight of the spindle indicates the type of spinning: the spinning of long fibres required a weight of up to 150 grams, while spinning shorter fibres required a spindle of from 8 to 33 grams. Prehistoric communities living on the Istrian peninsula likely produced thread with plant fibres and used vertical looms to weave textile. Indicative of this are Bronze Age and Iron Age weights, unadorned and decorated ceramic and bone spindle whorls that served as weights on distaffs, loom weights, bobbins/spools and similar items.



Prehistoric fabric processing and fabrication techniques

Textile clothing made of plant fibre thread, and the fabrics later made with wool, developed out of the techniques of weaving baskets by hand, for which there is evidence dating back to the early Neolithic period in the Middle East and the Peloponnese peninsula (Franchthi c. 6000 years BP and Thrace (Sitagori)). Techniques such as knotless knitting, knotted nets, spiral coiling, and weaving (Fig. 6) were used to create clothing. The domestication of sheep and goats led to the invention of weaving, but only when the fleece of these animals became suitable for spinning yarn and weaving. From that point on woollen clothing gradually displaced leather and fur clothing. Later phases of the European Neolithic saw a number of vertical (warp-weighted) loom forms on which fabrics were woven in the upright position. The warp of these looms is strung between two vertical uprights. The use of weights is critical to the use of these looms, ensuring the proper tautness of the warp of the weave. The weaving process involved three sets of threads forming the weave. Two sets of threads were held in place while a third thread was manually drawn through with a shuttle (Fig. 7). This method of creating fabric remains in use among some nomadic people in the Middle East. Clothing made of plant fibre-based textile, and later of woollen fabric, were decorated with various motifs. From the late Neolithic we have decorative motifs that are also found on the pottery of some of the late Neolithic cultures. Textile clothing was coloured with plant-based dyes. Fabrics were decorated with pressed/stamped motifs done with dye applied with the aid of clay stamps (pintadera) the likes of which have been recovered at multiple sites on the Istrian peninsula (Gromače-Brijuni, Laganiši).



Fig. 6 Six types of knots and the knitting of plant fibre-based textile clothing during the Neolithic and Eneolithic periods (drawing: R. Zlatunić).




The appearance of Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Eneolithic and Bronze Age clothing

We can get an idea of the clothing worn by men and women during the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Neolithic, Eneolithic and Bronze Age periods from the preserved archaeological finds — artefacts of the bone industry (needles and awls), stylised depictions of hairstyles, textile artefacts, jewellery on anthropomorphic figural sculptural art, and from the recovered remains of clothing on the ice-preserved natural mummy named Ötzi. Other archaeological finds of Bronze Age fabrics in the north of Europe are from burials in log coffins made of oak, where the high moisture preserved parts of clothing, finds of fabric from burials at Verruchio in the north of modern Italy (the Iron Age Villanovan culture), and in salt mines in Austria (Hallstatt). These finds tell us of the appearance and development of woven clothing over a period of several thousand years that saw changes in materials from the Neolithic use of plant fibres to the emergence of the first woollen clothing of the Iron Age.

The results of the examination of the Ötzi mummy and the remains of his clothing, and the finds of sections of fabric in Switzerland, Denmark, the north of Italy, Austria, and Bosnia and Herzegovina (Pustopolje-Kupres) from the late Neolithic to the Bronze Age offer a more complete picture of the lifestyle and clothing of the late Neolithic and Eneolithic periods. The footwear and clothing of the Ötzi mummy was suited to cold winter conditions (Fig. 8b). It comprised garb crafted of fabrics of woven plant fibres (multithreaded knitting), a mat made of woven grass, a leather cloak, leather leggings and footwear — moccasins/sandals of woven plant fibres. The appearance of clothing more suited to warmer weather can be surmised on the basis of finds of parts of fabrics found in grave burials at sites in the above mentioned countries and on the basis of burials from the pre-ceramic Neolithic in Anatolia, at Çatal Hüyük, where most of the deceased were buried clothed entirely or partially in textile garb. The clothing worn by men included leather belts, leggings and cloaks/tunics (multithread knitting), while women wore skirts of various sizes and forms (multithread knitting), belts and cloaks (Fig. 9). We can surmise that Neolithic, Eneolithic and Bronze Age communities on the Istrian peninsula employed similar methods of knitting and weaving clothing, and that they wore similar clothing in the winter and summer periods.

Another important element helpful in our reconstruction of clothing in the Neolithic, Eneolithic and Bronze Age periods are the finds of anthropomorphic figural sculpture of the early Neolithic Linear Pottery culture (LBK/Linearbandkeramik culture) (5500–4900 BC) in modern Hungary (Bicske, Sé) and Germany (Nerkewitz, Ostheimand Eilsleben), the middle Neolithic Lengyel culture (4900–4300 BC) in Austria (Falkenstein), the late Neolithic Vinča culture (4500–4300 BC, Vinča, Kosovska Mitrovica) and the phase of the Eneolithic culture of Ljubljansko barje (Ig II) in Slovenia. This wealth of forms and ornamentation speaks not only of the imagination of the authors of these sculptural works, but also of the quotidian reality of Neolithic and Eneolithic society. We should, however, exercise caution in our interpretation because the decorative elements on all anthropomorphic figurines do not represent only clothing or fabric patterns, jewellery (necklaces and medallions), and hairstyles — they may also depict tattoos or the geometric cults of fertility and the cosmological world.



Fig. 7 A conceptual reconstruction of a vertical (warp-weighted) loom and the weaving of fabrics in the late Neolithic period (from: Zlatunić (2002) 2004, 91, Fig. 71; Bazzanella 1998, 200–201, Figs. 15, 16).




Fig. 8a The appearance of men's clothing during the Upper Palaeolithic and early Neolithic.


Fig. 8b The appearance of men's clothing during the late Neolithic and Eneolithic (leather leggings, leather upper garment, belt, cloak and hood/cap of knitted plant fibres (drawing: R. Zlatunić).





Fig. 9 The appearance of women's clothing during the Neolithic and Eneolithic — skirts of various sizes and forms (multithread knitting), belts and cloaks, and knitted or leather moccasins and sandals (drawing: R. Zlatunić).





Based on the archaeological finds and the traditional knitting techniques we still find across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Central and South America, we believe that Upper Palaeolithic, Neolithic, Eneolithic and Bronze Age people living on the Istrian peninsula used similar methods to craft leather clothing and similar knitting and weaving techniques involving the use of plant fibres. Their clothing was similar to the types of summer and winter garb that have been documented across Europe.





1. Sveti Mihovil - Bale 2007; Sector I; Trench Ia; Quadrant C4; SU IIIb; depth 0.90–0.95 m.
Bone tool; bone needle; split and worked bone needle; most of the needle is preserved (broken into two parts and glued together); animal bone; burnished surface.
Inv. no.: P-31991
Height: 5.9 cm; thickness: 0.8 cm; weight: 3 g
Fragments: 2
Pcs.: 1
Investigator: Romuald Zlatunić




2-2a. Sveti Mihovil - Bale 2007; Sector I; Trench Ia; Quadrant A4; SU IIIa; depth 0.70–0.90 m.
Bone tool; fragment of a needle; head of a bone needle with perforation; a small part of the needle is preserved; animal bone; burnished.
Inv. no.: P-31996
Height: 2.6 cm; width: 0.7 cm; head thickness: 0.8 cm; weight: 0.4 g
Pcs.: 1
Investigator: Romuald Zlatunić



3. Sveti Mihovil - Bale 2007; Sector I; Trench Ia; Quadrant B2; SU IIIa; depth 0.70–0.90 m.
Bone tool; bone awl. Preserved fragment constituting most of a bone awl. Burnished surface.
Inv. no.: P-31997
Height: 8.5 cm; width: 0.5 cm; thickness: 0.3–0.4 cm; weight: 4 g
Pcs.: 1
Investigator: Romuald Zlatunić






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Bone Awl and Needle Finds from the Sveti Mihovil Site near Bale : the Fabrication of Clothing from Animal Hides and the Earliest Prehistoric Fabrics



Carrarina 4, Pula

Window to the Past
27. 7. – 26. 10. 2021.


Exhibition and text author:
Romuald Zlatunić

 Organizer and publisher: Archaeological Museum of Istria

 For the organizer and publisher: Darko Komšo

Editorial Board:
Darko Komšo, Adriana Gri Štorga, Irena Buršić

 Set up & graphic design:
Vjeran Juhas

Exhibition coordinator:
Monika Petrović

Romuald Zlatunić

Romuald Zlatunić

Translation in Italian:
Elis Barbalich-Geromella

English translation:
Neven Ferenčić

Irena Buršić, Giulia Codacci-Terlević,
Adriana Gri Štorga, Milena Špigić

Print: MPS Pula

Print run: 500

Pula, 2021.

Typo3 site by Ulisys d.o.o. , 2010.