The “Flax Age”

From Literary Hub (hat tip: David Winter), an interesting proposition, excerpted from The Golden Thread by Karissa St. Clair:

What If We Called It the ‘Flax Age’ Instead of the ‘Iron Age’? Correcting the Historical Bias Against Domestic Materials

Archaeology has traditionally had a fundamental bias against fabric. Fabrics are after all highly perishable, withering away within months or years, and only rarely leaving traces behind for those coming millennia later to find. Archaeologists—predominantly male—gave ancient ages names like “Iron” and “Bronze,” rather than “Pottery” or “Flax.” This implies that metal objects were the principal features of these times, when they are simply often the most visible and long-lasting remnants. Technologies using perishable materials, such as wood and textiles, may well have been more pivotal in the daily lives of the people who lived through them, but evidence of their existence has, for the most part, been absorbed back into the earth. 

There are exceptions, of course, and traces can and do survive, usually thanks to an unusual climate: freezing, damp anaerobic conditions or extremely dry ones. The climate in Egypt, for example, is ideal for preserving all manner of usually perishable things and we subsequently know far more about ancient Egyptian textiles than those from most other regions. As archaeology has matured and diversified, scholars have increasingly looked for—and found—evidence of fine, complex textiles stretching farther back than anyone would have guessed. Their beauty and the skill needed to make them suggest a very different image of our earliest forebears than the club-wielding, simpleminded thugs of popular imagination.

Read the whole thing


A lot of Scottish highland “tradition” is not medieval at all, but a product of the nineteenth century – this includes one of the most Scottish emblems of all: the woven pattern known as tartan. And yet, to a North American, that is still a very long time indeed – and never underestimate the power of nationalist feeling to make people cherish something anyway! (I remember, in Canada, when inukshuks and the dish poutine seem to have come out of nowhere in the early 1990s to assume instant status as national icons, and when Bob and Doug Mackenzie taught us that “hoser” was a typically Canadian insult, even though I had never heard it before their schtick became famous c. 1982.) Tartan, according to Wikipedia,

is made with alternating bands of coloured (pre-dyed) threads woven as both warp and weft at right angles to each other. The weft is woven in a simple twill, two over—two under the warp, advancing one thread at each pass. This forms visible diagonal lines where different colours cross, which give the appearance of new colours blended from the original ones. The resulting blocks of colour repeat vertically and horizontally in a distinctive pattern of squares and lines known as a sett.

It is doubtful that particular tartans represented anything specific prior to the mid-nineteenth century, but with the Victorian “invention of tradition” they came to be associated with particular Scottish regions, clans, or institutions, with a certain amount of prescriptiveness. In reality, most people choose which tartan to wear for aesthetic reasons alone, although by the strictest standards of propriety, they should not. But the good news is that tartan is a tradition that has become universalized. You don’t need to steal someone else’s tartan, because you can always get one of your own, and register it with the Scottish Register of Tartans. Naturally this appeals to groups with Scottish connections, but all sorts of tartans exist, or so I discovered from Facebook on Tartan Day (April 6). Some examples:

17796562_10154362353636892_6086054473039248723_nRoyal College of Physicians, Edinburgh. Tartans do not need to be allusive but this one is: four colors represent the four humors of Hippocrates – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. (Presumably this is for historical reasons only and not reflective of the current curriculum.) My friend Rick Num brought this one to my attention.



“Organised by Dunedin (Florida) local doctor Pat Snair and designed and woven by Lochcarron of Scotland for the Toronto Blue Jays – the Canadian city’s baseball team which does its winter training in Florida.”




“A tartan created for Domino’s Pizza Group which integrates its well-known brand colours. The Tartan will be used to mark the opening of a new store in Glasgow and will be made available for team members who would like to wear a kilt.”




“Designed by Polly Wittering of House of Edgar to commemorate the return of the Stone of Destiny from Westminster.”





“Designed in December 1981 by Peter E. MacDonald. Commemorates the 250th Anniversary of founding of Georgia but is now widely regarded as the Georgia State tartan. Was designed at the suggestion of Dr Micheil MacDonald following discussions with officers of Stone Mountain Games… Adopted as the official State tartan by the State legislature on 1st May 1997.”



“Based on the colours of the International Bear Brotherhood flag, this tartan is the first in the Equality series of kilts for Kilted Bros, LLC.”





“Full name is ‘Metropolitan Atlanta Police Emerald Society Pipe Band’. Designed by Thomas D. Alexander III and Marjorie Warren with help from Alistair Buchan of Lochcarron. The Society was formed to promote brotherhood and to care for their own. The Society is open to all interested persons.”




“The University of Georgia tartan was commissioned for UGA by Mr. Estes & Mrs. Hoover, who hired Matthew Newsome of the Scottish Tartans Museum in Franklin, NC, to design the tartan. Ownership of this tartan has now been transferred to the University of Georgia.”




“Designed in 2002 by Dr. Phil Smith for Auburn University, Montgomery, Alabama, USA. Threadcount corrected in Sept 2004 in line with designer’s note. Sole agents are Scotpress of Auburn, Alabama.”




“Also called ‘We Are Crimson,’ this was the winning tartan in a design contest for an official University of Alabama tartan sponsored by the College of Human Environmental Sciences at the University of Alabama. ‘I wanted my tartan to be easily recognized as the University’s plaid,’ Rich said of her design. ‘So, naturally I wanted the predominant colors to be crimson and white, with accents of black and grey. Secondly, I wanted it to represent the entire University, so I used 13 lines to represent the 13 colleges that comprise The University of Alabama today. Then, in the center of the design, the innermost white square represents Denny Chimes, and the whole central plaid represents the Quad because the Quad is the heart of the campus. The four corners of the centre plaid speak to our past and represent the four original buildings that survived the fire set by the Union troops during the Civil War.'”

I think that is the most allusive tartan I’ve ever encountered.

The Register (which since 2009 has been administered by the National Archives of Scotland) has its own tartan and, I’m pleased to note, its own coat of arms. Apparently it recognizes some 4000 tartan designs – which for now does not include one for Reinhardt University.