The study of the structure of individual linen fibers in ancient Egyptian fabrics showed that this material has been preserved for more than four thousand years due to unusual features. The research results were published in the scientific journal Nature Plants.
"We studied the structural and mechanical characteristics of the fabrics and linen shrouds of ancient Egyptian mummies during the Middle Kingdom and compared them with how modern linen fabrics are arranged. The high strength and softness of ancient fabrics turned out to be associated with the methods of processing individual linen fibers," the researchers write.
According to modern concepts, the first fabrics were made from wild flax and appeared about 30 thousand years ago. Flax began to be cultivated much later, about 8 thousand years ago. It was especially actively cultivated by the inhabitants of Ancient Egypt, who used linen fabrics as a basis for shrouds, as well as in social and cultural life.
Many samples of Egyptian linen fabrics have survived to this day in almost perfect condition. Therefore, the technique of their manufacture and the physical properties of flax fiber are of interest not only to historians and archaeologists, but also to chemists, physicists and engineers.
Researchers led by Alain Bormeau from the University of Brittany-South (France) carried out one of the first such studies using scanning electron and multiphoton microscopes, as well as an X-ray tomograph.
The photographs taken with these devices pointed to several interesting features of ancient Egyptian fabrics. In particular, scientists have found that ancient linen fibers were practically equal to their modern counterparts in terms of density and number of spiral turns, despite the fact that they were made by hand.
In addition to this, physicists discovered that Egyptian textiles were composed of very homogeneous individual linen fibers, which gave the fabrics additional flexibility and strength compared to their modern fabrics. As Bormo and his colleagues suggest, this is due to the special technique of soaking flax in the last stages of its processing, which Pliny the Elder wrote about.
According to the historian, the ancient Egyptians placed flax stalks in vats of water or pressed them with stones near the banks of the river, where they were soaked for five to seven days, if the weather was favorable. After the stems were dried, workers placed them in a damp room and subsequently beat them off with stones, which turned the flax into a collection of fine fibers.
Now the harvested flax is simply left in the field for several weeks. During this time, the weather can change greatly, due to which the fibers become very heterogeneous in size and properties, which negatively affects the quality of modern linen threads and fabrics. In addition, scientists have found that ancient fabrics greatly outperform them in fiber porosity, making ancient Egyptian textiles particularly lightweight yet durable.
As the researchers suggest, this feature is associated with how flax grew in the arid climate of Ancient Egypt. Bormo and his colleagues hope that many of the features of ancient textiles they discovered can be embodied in the production of modern linen fabrics, which will significantly improve their quality and durability.