Flax has a long and fascinating history. This plant was domesticated around 8,000 bce1 in the Fertile Crescent area2, first for its seeds and then for its fibres1,3. Although its uses existed long before domestication, residues of flax yarn dated 30,000 years ago have been found in the Caucasus area4. However, Ancient Egypt laid the foundations for the cultivation of flax as a textile fibre crop5. Today flax fibres are used in high-value textiles and in natural actuators6 or reinforcements in composite materials7. Flax is therefore a bridge between ages and civilizations. For several decades, the development of non- or micro-destructive analysis techniques has led to numerous works on the conservation of ancient textiles. Non-destructive methods, such as optical microscopy8 or vibrational techniques9,10, have been largely used to investigate archaeological textiles, principally to evaluate their degradation mechanisms and state of conservation. Vibrational spectroscopy studies can now benefit from synchrotron radiation11 and X-ray diffraction measurement in the archaeometric study of historical textiles12,13. Conservation of mechanical performance and the ultrastructural differences between ancient and modern flax varieties have not been examined thus far. Here we examine the morphological, ultrastructural and mechanical characteristics of a yarn from an Egyptian mortuary linen dating from the early Middle Kingdom (Eleventh Dynasty, ca. 2033–1963 bce) and compare them with a modern flax yarn to assess the quality and durability of ancient flax fibres and relate these to their processing methods. Advanced microscopy techniques, such as nano-tomography, multiphoton excitation microscopy and atomic force microscopy were used. Our findings reveal the cultural know-how of this ancient civilization in producing high-fineness fibres, as well as the exceptional durability of flax, which is sometimes questioned, demonstrating their potential as reinforcements in high-technology composites.
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V.P. and G.H. sincerely thank P. Malécot and the MIFHySTO research platform (FEMTO-ST, UTINAM and ICB institutes) at Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté (UBFC) for the technical and scientific support provided for nano-tomography experiments; X. Falourd and L. Foucat (INRAE, BIBS platform) for NMR investigations. We thank the INTERREG IV Cross Channel programme for funding this work through the FLOWER project (grant no. 23); SOLEIL Synchrotron for funding the 99180266 and 99200015 in-house proposals; and the EIPHI Graduate school (contract “ANR-17-EURE-0002”).
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Photos from permanent collections of Le Louvre and the British Museum or from non-exhibited collections of Le Louvre Museum.
SEM images, tomography images and distribution of diameters.
SEM images and SHG images.
Source data of distribution of indentation modulus, indentation modulus profiles and processed AFM images.
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Melelli, A., Shah, D.U., Hapsari, G. et al. Lessons on textile history and fibre durability from a 4,000-year-old Egyptian flax yarn. Nat. Plants 7, 1200–1206 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41477-021-00998-8