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The international FLAX network

FLAX – a natural resource for food and textiles since 8000 years. Cross-disciplinary investigations on the evolution and cultural history of the economic plant flax (Linum usitatissimum L.).

Investigator and finances

Dr. Sabine Karg, Senior Researcher, is currently financed by the German Research Foundation (DFG). The network was founded in 2009 by financial support from the Danish Research Council for Culture and Communication (FKK).

Topic

Flax (Linum usitatissimum L.) is an important plant for its oil and fibres and is therefore vital for human culture and development since more than 8000 years. The seeds contain nutritional values and high amounts of short-chain omega-3 fatty acids; clothes and netting made of linen are the oldest textiles manufactured by our ancestors. Linseed oil is one of the oldest commercial oils that is used since centuries in painting and varnishing. No artificial chemical product has replaced those of flax which still play a role in our modern everyday life.
The history of flax can be traced by botanical finds in archaeological excavations, such as seeds, capsule fragments, stems of flax, and textiles and by help of written sources, as ancient inscriptions. The oldest botanical records are from the Near East and date to the 9th millennium BC. Flax is also frequently found in archaeological excavations all over Europe. In particular, a highly specialized flax cultivation and production is seen between the 4th and 2nd millennium BC in several archaeological sites situated in the Northern Alpine Foreland.

 

 

Mission

The FLAX-network promotes international and cross-disciplinary collaboration, and offers thereby a platform to create new research projects.

Recent identification of retting installations at the island of Funen, Denmark, has led to an entirely new understanding of plant fibre retting installations in the archaeological record. Structures previously simply identified as ‘pits’ or ‘basins’ can now undergo a revised interpretation.

Molecular studies show that it is possible to distinguish the genetic codes of modern oil and fibre flax (Prof. Robin Allaby, University of Warwick, England).

Unfortunately ancient DNA has not yet been detected in the archaeological flax material.

A unique collaboration between archaeologists and physicists took place in 2010 with the aim to understand the nanotechnological characteristics of ancient fibres. Tests in the European Synchrotron Facility demonstrated the potential of distinguishing various types of plant fibres on a nanoscale (Prof. Bodil Holst, University of Bergen, Norway).

The main aim of the network collaboration

The main aim of the network collaboration is to shed light on the evolution and cultural history of the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum L.): the wild progenitors, the genetic changes by the process of domestication, the spread of the plant from its original regions to Europe, the cultivation regimes, the role in diet and as a textile plant, the processing methods of the fibres, the development and amelioration of techniques to manufacture textiles in the long-term perspective.

Events

Two international research workshops were organized in Denmark. Financial support was given by the Danish Research Council and the Centre for Textile Research at Copenhagen University. The workshops provided a platform to communicate and exchange new knowledge on the flax plant. Many new research results were exchanged by both, researchers from the humanities and the natural sciences.

November 2009: Flax – A natural resource for food and textiles: archaeological and historical cultivation and processing methods. International, interdisciplinary workshop held in the Carlsberg Academy in Valby.

July 2010: Flax – The origin and spread of cultivated flax in the Near East and in Europe. Workshop held at University of Copenhagen and at the Research Centre Sagnlandet in Lejre.

 

Publications

As an outcome of a discussion during the first workshop a technical comment in the journal Science was published in 2010.The proceedings of the research workshops were published in 2011 in the peer reviewed Springer journal Vegetation History and Archaeology 20.

Current activities

Comprehensive research is currently carried out with ancient botanical finds of flax and connected textile tools that were excavated in the UNESCO lake dwellings that date to the 4th and 3rd millennium BC (Karg 2016-2019). The team is composed of archaeologists, textile researchers, botanists and specialists in experimental archaeology. Old landraces of flax are cultivated under controlled conditions (Prof. Sabine Gruber, University of Hohenheim, Germany).

Future events

A session about “Plant fibres” at the EAA meeting 2017 is planned.