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Lessons on textile history and fibre durability from a 4,000-year-old Egyptian flax yarn

Abstract

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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Fig. 1: Examples of the uses of flax in ancient Egypt.
Fig. 2: SEM and nano-tomography images of modern and 4,000-year-old flax.
Fig. 3: Focus on kink-band (defect) regions in the fibres.
Fig. 4: AFM peak force measurements in old and modern flax fibres.

Data availability

The data that support the plots within this paper and the findings of this work are available from the corresponding author and at the following address: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.72394. Source data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The open-source and commercial software used for data analysis are referenced in the Methods section.

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Acknowledgements

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”).

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Authors

Contributions

A.B. and D.U.S designed this work. A.M., G.H., O.A., S.D., V.P., J.B., F.J. and A.B. collected and analysed data. A.B., A.M. and D.U.S wrote and revised the paper, with contributions from G.H., R.C., O.A., V.P., D.B., S.D., J.B. and F.J.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Alain Bourmaud.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Plants thanks the anonymous reviewers for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–6, Methods and Tables 1–2.

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Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

Photos from permanent collections of Le Louvre and the British Museum or from non-exhibited collections of Le Louvre Museum.

Source Data Fig. 2

SEM images, tomography images and distribution of diameters.

Source Data Fig. 3

SEM images and SHG images.

Source Data Fig. 4

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

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