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Linum usitatissimum. An archaeobotanical view on a preserved seed of ‘the most common one’

Updated: Feb 16, 2023

© Amy Holguin, School of Archaeology, University of Oxford, EXPLO project.

The picture shows an uncharred flax seed found under waterlogged conditions in Ploča Mičov Grad at Lake Ohrid in North Macedonia.

This site is part of the so-called EXPLO research project, which studies Neolithic to Bronze Age lakeshore sites in Greece, Albania, and North Macedonia to understand how climate, environment and agriculture have developed over the last 10,000 years and how they influenced each other mutually. In this sense, EXPLO stands short for ‘Exploring the dynamics and causes of prehistoric land use change in the cradle of European farming’. The project is led by an interdisciplinary team from the universities of Bern, Oxford, and Thessaloniki and was awarded an ‘ERC Synergy Grant’ in 2018 from the European Research Council (ERC). A unique combination of underwater archaeology, ecology, biology, and climate science is used to understand adjustment strategies by early farming communities to cope with changing climate and environmental conditions.

The lakeshore sites in the southern Balkans, namely at the big lakes Ohrid, Prespa and Orestiada, are of great interest in this case because thousands of prehistoric wooden building structures (allowing dendrochronology) have been preserved here, but at the same time they have never been excavated on a large scale. ‘The excavation sites which have virtually not been studied at all until now are of outstanding scientific value’, explains Albert Hafner. ‘They could prove to be just as important as Neolithic and Bronze Age lakeshore settlements around the Alps.’

Coming back to our linseed: The presence of it at this archaeological site indicates that the people living there were gathering flax seeds and cultivating flax as a crop. Moreover, the presence of fax seeds could suggest that the people living there were engaged in textile production or grew flax for food purposes. The age and context of the crop could also help to establish a chronology of agriculture in the region or provide information about the spreading of this crop and perhaps of processing techniques.

In the already mentioned Neolithic wetland settlements of the Alpine foothills, flax textiles have remained preserved due to the underwater preservation conditions. But even older finds were made throughout Europe, showing that flax or linen was already used widely during the Neolithic period. Hopefully, further excavations on the lakesides in south-eastern Europe can shed more light to the cultural-historical significance of flax.

In any case: Flax is a plant living up to its Latin name Linum usitatissimum, where usitatissimum is a superlative and translates to ‘the most common one’. Indeed, it is one of the most important crops in history and was widely used troughout it. But Linum is not only usitatum but also utile - useful - (or even utilissimum - the most useful) because all parts of this plant can be used: the seeds for their oil and the fibres for making textiles.

We are looking forward to more contributions regarding this interesting plant, its cultivation and its different uses!


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