Date of this Version
Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.
Centuries before the initiation of formal silk trade with Han China ca. 200 BC, silk appeared as far west as the Baden-Wurtemberg region of Germany. The use of wild (Antheraea sp.) silks has also been documented for western Asia and the Mediterranean region since early medieval times, but the extent and antiquity of this fiber technology is presently unclear. The domesticated silkworm Bombyx mori is derived from a species native to northern India, Assam and Bengal, known as Bombyx mandarina Moore. It was in China that this moth was domesticated, and the process of de-gumming developed at some point during the second half of the third millennium BC. Accurate discernment between silk made from Antheraea and that made from Bombyx sp. is thus essential to understanding the real extent of pre-Han silk exchange in antiquity. Study of ancient silk fragments based on morphological observations is often hampered by poor preservation. The employment of biochemical analyses offers definitive confirmation of silk in archaeological samples, as well as the identification of the silhnoth species from which they derived, allowing a more accurate reconstruction of the nature and extent of early sericulture, and of the long-distance exchange of this important luxury commodity.
Recently, a discovery of a silk thread was made from a 21st Dynasty (ca. 1000 BC) mummy's hair which was excavated from Deir al Medina by Czerny in the 1930's and is presently on display in the Hrdlicka Museum in Prague (Strouhal, personal communication; Lubec et. al., 1993). A subsequent examination of the Deir al Medina mummy has thrown serious doubt on the interpretation of this find, however, which is most likely a remnant of a 20th century conservation treatment. Nevertheless, evidence for early silk outside of China before the Han period exists, and the list of occurrences continues to grow (see figure 1). In considering the amount of silk or possible silk in mid-first millennium Europe, the Near East and South Asia (for thorough review see Good 1995), it is important to consider what might have been made from wild silkmoths, either through indigenous discovery, or possibly as imitation of inaccessable Chinese silk.
Silk is a highly crystallized polymer protein, which at the molecular level resembles cellulose, because of the highly repetitive sequence of molecules which make up the chains. It is an animal protein. Wild silk is biochemically distinct from domesticated silk, primarily due to the different composition and ratio of amino acids between different species. Wild silk is from one of several commercially viable species of the SATURNHDAE, Antheraea pernyi (Chinese tussah) or Antheraea mvlitta (Indian tussah), among others (Lucas and Rudall 968:478-479; Peigler 1993; Watt 1893). There is a species from another family of moths and butterflies which produces a workable silk, whose present natural range is in the Mediterranean, known as LASIOCAMPIDAE Pachypasa otus (see figure 2) (Lucas and Rudall 1968:485; Freina and Witt 1987:379- 380), which was quite probably the source of the so-called silks of Cos of fifth century BC Greece (Leggett 1949:56; Richter 1929:28; Braun, 1993; Zeuner 1968:484-485).