Vlasac (Serbia) Mesolithic decorative garments

Reconstruction of excavated cloak from Vlasac, Serbia, c. 7th millennium BC. Reconstruction of excavated cloak from Vlasac, Serbia, c. 7th millennium BC.

The archaeological site of Vlasac lies in the Upper Gorge of the Danube, modern Servia. Among the finds are two burials, apparently from the seventh millennium BC, that appear to include clothing embellished with applied fish teeth and shell beads.

Sometimes the proposed garments are incorrectly described as being decorated with appliqué and embroidery and as such would have been some of the oldest recorded examples of these techniques. The teeth and beads are non-cloth items (so not resulting in appliqué). They were sewn onto a ground material of some kind without decorative stitching (so not producing embroidery) and as such they come under the general heading of applied decoration.

There are numerous examples of prehistoric garments decorated with applied objects, but the age of this particular group makes it noteworthy. Vlasac is an important settlement among a number of Mesolithic and Neolithic sites found along the Danube. The site was first excavated in 1970-1971, with later seasons in 2006-2009. Radiometric evidence indicates that the site was probably occupied for some time in the seventh millennium BC. As noted above, among the various burials excavated were that of an adult woman of between 30-40 years old and a separate grave of a child of about one year old. Both were buried with numerous pharyngeal teeth from carp (probably rutilus species) and perforated shells of a sea snail (cyclope neritea), which appear to have been sewn onto garments of some form (probably leather, but this has not been confirmed), which have long disappeared. It is likely that the teeth and shells were sewn onto the ground material with sinew or leather thread of some kind.

The woman’s burial (H2) was found during the 2006 excavations. The burial was partly damaged by river erosion. There were 642 perforated, unperforated and fragmentary carp teeth found over, around and underneath the body. Most of the teeth were associated with the back of the skeleton, with concentrations beneath and around the pelvis, followed by the thighs and upper torso. In addition 32 C. neritea shells were found along the upper part of her back with a small number underneath the upper leg bones (femora). The child’s burial (H297) was found in Trench 3/2006. The grave included 701 perforated and unperforated, as well as fragmented carp teeth ornaments. In addition there were 22 C. neritea shells. The majority of the carp teeth ornaments were found around and beneath the skeleton, while the shells were found in a horizontal line along the lower back.

It would appear that both bodies were buried wearing hip length cloaks that were finished along the lower edge, with a line of C. neritea shells. In addition, there was another garment, probably a skirt, with similar teeth decoration. There is no indication to directly suggest that these were special burial garments, they could easily be daily garments that were thought suitable for burial purposes. It is worth noting that carp is a freshwater fish that lives in many places including the Danube, so the teeth could have been locally sourced. In contrast, C. neritea lives in salt water conditions and the nearest sea is the Mediterranean, which is several hundreds of kilometres away. This would indicate that the shells had been deliberately moved in large quantities in order for them to be available and used in Vlasac.

Source: CRISTIANI, E. and D. BORIC (2012). '8500-year-old Late Mesolithic garment embroidery from Vlasac (Serbia): technological, use-wear and residue analyses,' Journal of Archaeological Science, 39, pp. 3450-3489.

Digital sources:

Digital source of illustration (retrieved 9th July 2016).


Last modified on Thursday, 13 May 2021 17:56