The Wool Road of Northern Eurasia

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We all know about the Silk Road (which is actually a recent term), and some of us also know about the Bronze Road, the Iron Road, the Horse and Chariot Road, the Fur Road, the Glass Road, the Spice Road, and the Tea Road.  Now we really have to take seriously the existence of a Wool Road.

As I have often noted, I began my international investigation of the mummies of the Tarim Basin as a genetics project in 1991, since that was around the time that it became possible to study ancient DNA.  After four years of diligent collection and analysis, I grew disenchanted with the expected precision of genetics research, and in 1995 I returned to Eastern Central Asia (ECA) with Elizabeth Barber and Irene Good, prehistoric textile specialists, to study the archeologically recovered textiles of the region.  The results of their work turned out to yield tremendously valuable and revealing results about the origins and technology of the ancient textiles we examined.

Now we have a comprehensive survey of the C14 dates of 52 fragments of woven woolen textiles that interprets the nature and spread of this technology during the Bronze Age:

N. I. Shishlina, O. V. Orfinskaya, P. Hommel, E. P. Zazovskaya, P. S. Ankushevae,, and J. van der Plicht, "Bronze Age Wool Textile of the Northern Eurasia:  New Radiocarbon Data", Nanotechnologies in Russia, 15.9-10 (2020), 629–638.


The Bronze Age of northern Eurasia is characterised by major socio-economic changes. A secondary products revolution defined an overall trajectory in these global economic transformations. Innovative changes in fibre technologies led to the appearance of woven wool textiles and the production and consumption of new types of garment. Analysis of the first direct AMS 14C dates from woven wool fibres from Bronze Age sites across northern Eurasia allow us to define key stages in the directional spread of woven wool textiles and to determine the cultural context of this process of technological transmission.


Direct radiocarbon dating of the Bronze Age wool textiles and synchronous carbon-contained samples enables new details to be added to our understanding of the chronology of early wool economy and associated textile technologies and its transmission within northern Eurasia. Chronological phases and comparative analyses (including 14C-dates from Anatolia, South Caucasus, and China) reveal different phases of cultural and technological exchanges between the Near East and the Caucasus and special role of steppe groups (a few generations of weavers) in a dispersal spanning of new technology during the third millennium BC (Figs. 3, 4). Chronological and historical phases of the process are summarized as follows.

—After 3300 calBC: early exchanges of prestige goods across Near East and the North Caucasus, with wool-cotton textiles moving as part of the elite exchange networks; mixed wool-cotton textile dates around 2910–2600 calBC.

—The mid third millennium BC: spread of wool textile technologies and associated management out of the Near East / Anatolia and into the southern Caucasus; according to 14C data obtained for textiles and synchronous samples this happened between 2550–1925 calBC; an almost synchronous date was obtained from the dates of the northern steppe regions, suggesting that the spread of innovative technology from the South Caucasus to the steppe zone and further north up to the forest zone occurred as part of the same process between 2450–1900 calBC.

—Between 1925–1775 calBC there was rapid eastward transmission of the wool (and associated technologies) across the steppe and forest-steppe of the Volga and southern Urals, out across Kazakhstan and into western China between 1700–1225 calBC. This same process of transmission through the steppe ultimately brought woven wool textiles into societies around the western Altai and the Sayan Mountains of southern Siberia.

Textile communities in the Caucasus and the adjacent areas of the steppe (Bedeni, Catacomb and Babino synchronous cultures) shared the same economic pathways and began to communicate and exchange technological knowledge of wool textile production during the second half of the third millennium BC, stimulating the expansion of pre-existing local networks of exchange. In about 200 years, these networks brought a new approach to the management and exploitation of animal herds from communities in the steppe and the piedmont area of the northern Caucasus. A new secondary product appeared: woven woollen textiles. Was this the result of imported livestock or an intensive phase of selective breeding by Catacomb culture shepherds? What is clear from the early production of wool items in the steppe is that it was a small scale, domestic activity of the local communities.

A far more rapid transmission occurred during the early second millennium BC through culturally connected communities of pastoralists known to archaeologists as the Timber-grave culture in the Middle Volga and Ural regions, Alakul (Early Andronovo) in the Urals region, and northern Kazakhstan as well as Federovo (Late Andronovo) in southern Siberia.

By the mid second millennium BC, through the steppe and forest-steppe zones of northern Eurasia from the Caucasus and the adjacent steppe to Kazakhstan—a “Wool Road” consisting of extensive networks of multi-direction and multicultural exchange, ran through the communities of Eurasia both in and around the steppe zone. 

This pattern of transmission was operating in parallel with the spread of wool technologies through the very different cultural environment of Western and Central Asia.

We assume that the wool clothing found in the Tarim Basin fits within the same processes of transmission through this northern Eurasian “Wool Road.”  The coincidence of the date of these finds, various similarities seen in the details of their clothing with those from Timber-grave and Alakul cultures of the Volga region, the Urals, Kazakhstan, and a basic similarity of their technological traditions suggest that the origins of these Chinese woollen textiles and textiles of the Eurasian steppe and forest zones are closely related. 

Weavers shared a preference for red-coloured dyes and a special interest in composite hats or headdresses ornamented with feathers and other organic materials. They also showed a strong preference for the use of leather, fur, and wool textiles together in the production of composite garments.

These tendencies seem to be in contrast with wool items from the southern Caucasus dated to the second half of the third millennium BC, known for the use of combined wool and plant fibres and their distinctive patterns of weaving.

In summary, the results of this study define a clear spatio-temporal trajectory of the emergence and rapid spread of woven woollen textile production across northern Eurasia and offers new insight into the processes underlying this transformation.

The findings for the timing and spread of wool technology comport well with those for bronze, chariots, horse riding, iron, weapon types, ornamentation and artwork, and other archeologically recovered cultural artifacts that we have examined in previous posts.  Moreover, they are conveniently correlated with archeological cultures such as Andronovo with which we are familiar from previous posts on various other early technologies.

N.B.:  In these age-old Bronze Age times, there is nothing in ECA that can remotely be considered as "Chinese".

I invite Language Log readers to adduce relevant terms for wool and weaving that would have existed during the Bronze Age.

Selected readings


  1. Cervantes said,

    April 12, 2021 @ 6:50 am

    Readers may be interested in Bret Devereaux's discussion of ancient textile production — I've linked to the penultimate installment in the series but you can navigate to the beginning if you like. He focuses on the Mediterranean area but the technological considerations are probably the same. The effort invested in spinning yarn is extraordinary, apparently women had to pretty much do this constantly until the invention of the spinning wheel.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    April 12, 2021 @ 7:06 am

    Yes, the distaff side.

    Read Elizabeth Barber's great book, Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 12, 2021 @ 8:55 am

    Annie Gottlieb reminds me that there was also an Amber Road. I had written about that in various places, and was fascinated by the fact that there is clear evidence for flourishing trade along this route from the Baltic to the Mediterranean already during Neolithic times (although recent scholarship emphasizes the last three thousand years).

    That further reminded me of this lecture that was given in my department on July 13, 2017: "Wine Road before the Silk Road: Hypotheses on the Origins of Chinese and Eurasian Drinking Culture". It was delivered by Peter Kupfer, Professor, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz, Germany.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 12, 2021 @ 10:29 am

    This is certainly no criticism of the scholarly substance of the article, but it's interesting to note that one recurrent side-effect of English becoming the lingua franca of scholarship even for pieces both authored by non-native-speakers and published in journals that may well be edited by non-native speakers is that you get article titles like "Bronze Age Wool Textile of the Northern Eurasia," which is unidiomatic-to-ungrammatical in exactly the way that English spoken by L1 Russophones often is, and would have only needed two small tweaks to be idiomatic English (e.g. "Bronze Age Wool Textiles of Northern Eurasia"). It is of course these days true (for better or worse) that publishing in occasionally unidiomatic English will get their scholarship a wider readership than publishing in fluent and elegant Russian would.

    Interestingly enough, while the abstract and conclusions are written in an academic-jargony sort of English there were no similar unidiomatic ESLisms that leapt out at me at first reading. Whatever one might say against the jargony register (and one can't fault the authors for following the conventions of the genre), one can easily imagine L1 Anglophone scholars producing more or less the same jargony text. I'm not sure if that was just good luck or they had some assistance from someone with good English skills in editing the text but that person wasn't asked to look at the title.

  5. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    April 12, 2021 @ 3:51 pm

    @ Cervantes — The spinster was useful, until she wasn’t.

    In English, the word became derogatory, and it is my impression that the easier and more mechanized spinning became, the more derogatory the word spinster became — more associated with marriage than with spinning. I don’t know if this was paralleled in other languages.

  6. Monscampus said,

    April 12, 2021 @ 7:10 pm

    @Barbara So that's were spinster came from? Interesting.

    Going to school in a textile region we sang many a song about spinning and weaving, a very popular one is called "Spinn, spinn, meine liebe Tochter!" The mother promises her a pair of shoes as a reward, but the daughter complains how much spinning hurts her finger. At long last she even promises her a husband and the daughter jumps at it. She says she'll do her very best for a man and the pain has stopped – oddly enough. Was that supposed to be the easy way out?

  7. maidhc said,

    April 13, 2021 @ 2:47 am

    The production of wool depends not only on technology, but also having the right breed of sheep. Modern domestic sheep have bendy fibers that help them to lock together to make a strong thread. Wild sheep do not have this as much.

    Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest used to collect wool from wild North American sheep (indirectly via rooing), but it didn't make a workable fabric without mixing in other kinds of fiber.

    This article History of the domestic sheep says that sheep may been domesticated as early as 11000 BCE, but they were used for food and sheepskins. It says that the first evidence of breeding sheep for wool production didn't happen until around 6000 BCE, and the first evidence of wool clothing was a couple of millennia later.

    Part 1 of the article suggested by Cervantes above gives more detail on this early period (and also flax).

    The spinning wheel as we know it today wasn't invented until about 1500 AD, although earlier versions may go back to India around 1000 AD (Spinning wheel). Before that, spinning was done with a drop spindle, which is much slower.

  8. Alexander Browne said,

    April 13, 2021 @ 9:12 am

    If anyone else is curious about "rooing", I didn't find it in Wiktionary, but the OED has an entry:

    Scottish (Orkney and Shetland).

    transitive. To strip (a sheep) of wool by hand, instead of by shearing; to pluck (wool) in this manner; (also) to clip (a sheep).

    And Wikipedia has this:

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 13, 2021 @ 11:10 am

    This 2016 post-and-thread on languagehat discusses wool-related "rooing," its reported Old Norse etymology, and whether or not it's the same verb that appears in the Van Morrison song "I Wanna Roo You (Scottish Derivative)."

  10. Steve Morrison said,

    April 13, 2021 @ 2:55 pm

    World Wide Words also has an entry for Roo.

  11. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    April 13, 2021 @ 4:46 pm

    Looser fibers prepared for spinning are called roving, but I am having a hard time finding a derivation for the word online.

    My recollection is that there is also a term for collecting bits of wool from hedgerows and other places where sheep may have snagged their fleeces in Yorkshire. The term for this process of scavenging or gleaning, or the term for the fibers so collected, eludes me, although it might have been roving also.

    I would be interested to know if there is any connection between “roo” and “roving.”

  12. julie lee said,

    April 14, 2021 @ 12:09 am

    Thank you, Victor, for the most interesting post.

    I've been looking at old words and have found that the Chinese word YANG 羊 anciently *LANG) for "sheep, goat" appears to have come from Old Indic *URAN-, in turn from Akkadian *URANUM "lamb, ram" (the asterisk indicating an ancient sound reconstructed by linguists) , with cognates German LAMM "lamb", English RAM, Latin LANA "wool", Welsh GWLAN, Irish OLANN "wool", similar to Chinese *LANG "sheep, goat".

    Interestingly, a number of Chinese words have the same sound:

    RONG, *NJUNG 絨 “wool, felt"
    RONG *NJUNG 戎 "bushy-haired"
    RONG, *NJUNG 戎 "general name of tribes on the western frontier
    RONG , *NJUNG 戎 "weapons of war; warlike; war; military chariots".

    Could it be the ancient Western Rong, or Western Rong Barbarians, were simply the Wool (Rong) People ?  Apparently they were also the Rong "Bushy-haired" People and the Rong "Warlike" People; and war (rong) and military chariots (rong) were what they did, besides producing wool.  

  13. Chris Button said,

    April 14, 2021 @ 6:25 am

    I tend to think 羊 is a native term. I reconstruct it with a velar onset as *ɣàŋ. It's related to words like 養 *ɣàŋʔ (cf. the relationship of Old Irish dinu "lamb" with Sanskrit dhāpáyate "suckle, nourish" and, via the same PIE root, "felix" which can then bring in words like 祥…)

  14. Cervantes said,

    April 14, 2021 @ 10:50 am

    I'm pretty sure Van Morrison doesn't want to rip hair off his girlfriend's body.

  15. julie lee said,

    April 14, 2021 @ 11:37 am

    Re my previous comment,

    Perhaps I should say that instead of products (wool, felt, military weapons, war chariots) and activities (war, warfare) giving their name RONG to the RONG western barbarians, it was the other way around.  RONG, the blanket ancient name of the western barbarians, gave their name to their products (wool, military weapons and chariots) and activities (warfare) . 

    Similarly "China", the name of a people, gave their name to a product, china/chinaware or porcelain;  and "Assassin" ( Arabic أَسَاسِيِّين‎ [ʾasāsiyyīn], “people who are faithful to the foundation [of the faith]”,  the name  of a community of Ismaili Muslims in the Alamut period (Wiktionary), gave its name to an activity ( assassination).  

    I shall respond to Chris Button's comment on the reconstruction
    *LANG for YANG, "sheep, goat", later today.

  16. Cervantes said,

    April 14, 2021 @ 1:23 pm

    Hmm. Maybe you know something most people don't, but the standard etymology is that Europeans believed the Ismailis used hashish.

  17. cameron said,

    April 14, 2021 @ 2:25 pm

    Not just Europeans, the usual term for that sect in Arabic is الحشاشون, and in Persian it's حشّاشین. So yeah, hashish in both cases

  18. Philip Anderson said,

    April 14, 2021 @ 2:29 pm

    @Barbara Phillips Long:
    “Woolgathering” springs to mind:

  19. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 14, 2021 @ 4:43 pm

    @Cervantes, one can easily imagine a sheep-herding society where a verb originally describing an unpleasant-for-the-sheep method of stripping sheep bare developed an extended metaphorical sense of "to strip bare" in a less unpleasant way more befitting an idealized relationship between a rock musician and his lady of the moment. Although I don't actually think that's what was going on in Van's native Belfast English, and the theory that he just wanted a nonsense word that rhymed with "woo" seems the most plausible.

  20. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    April 14, 2021 @ 5:14 pm

    @Philip Anderson — Thank you! I should have thought of that.

    I am familiar with woolgathering and the term brown study mentioned in the post you cite. I am curious now about how gleaning wool would come to mean lost in thought, because perhaps there is a step in the gathering process for which documentation is lacking. Standing back to observe a hedge, for instance, before collecting the less obvious turns of wool along with the obvious ones?

  21. julie lee said,

    April 14, 2021 @ 6:58 pm

    Thank you, Chris Button, for your comment regarding *LANG "sheep"

    Not being a linguist, I have relied on the work of historical linguists Zheng-Zhang Shang Fang, Axel Schuessler, William Baxter, Laurent Sagart, and Li Fang-kuei for their reconstructions of ancient Sinitic sounds.
    For YANG 羊, Zheng-zhang gives *LANG, Li gives *RANG, Schuessler, citing Baxter, gives *(L)JIANG.  

    They all agree pretty well with Old Indic *URAN- and IE words for lamb, ram, wool  given in my  comment above.  As you know, Sinitic transcriptions of foreign words often represent a find -n with a final -ng because the Sinitic script is a syllabary, and is not alphabetic.  The transcriber can only transcribe a foreign sound with an available Sinitic syllable.  

    Zheng-Zheng and Li consulted Chinese dialects and perhaps peripheral languages such as Japanese, Korean, Tibetan, and Vietnamese for their reconstructions.  I doubt if they consulted Old Indic or Akkadian for the reconstruction of 羊 YANG "sheep".
    So their method of reconstruction seems to have worked here.

  22. Chris Button said,

    April 14, 2021 @ 7:40 pm

    @ Julie Lee

    The liquid doesn't take into account the velar onsets of 羌 and 姜. Baxter & Sagart (2014) reconstruct an articulatorily unlikely voiced uvular *ɢ- onset to account for this. Pulleyblank's was already there in 1991 with his suggestion of a voiced velar fricative *ɣ-, which is far more likely. Incidentally, Schuessler only reconstructs *j- without the option of *l- in his Minimal Old Chinese book, but that's immaterial to this discussion.

  23. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 14, 2021 @ 8:41 pm

    Barbara Phillips Long: The OED says

    a. In figurative phrase to go (run, be) wool-gathering, formerly always a, (or †on, †of) wool-gathering: to indulge in wandering fancies or purposeless thinking; to be in a dreamy or absent-minded state: said esp. of ‘the wits’, etc. Similarly, to send or set (a) wool-gathering.

    1553 T. Wilson Arte of Rhetorique ii. 59 Hackyng & hemmyng as though our wittes and our senses were a woll gatheryng.

    [Skipping the rest of the citations.]

    b. Hence, Indulgence in idle imagining or aimless speculation.

    1608 T. Middleton Familie of Love (new ed.) v. sig. H2 Ha you summond your wits from woolgathering?

    [Skipping again. By the way, most of the italics are supposed to be bold italics.]

  24. Philip Taylor said,

    April 15, 2021 @ 4:01 am

    Just checking whether bold and/or bold italics are available here [using <b> & <i>].

    Just checking whether bold and/or bold italics are available here [using <strong> & <em>].

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 15, 2021 @ 10:20 am

    Thanks, Philip. In that case the beginning of definition 2. a. is

    In figurative phrase to go (run, be) wool-gathering, formerly always a (or †on, †of) wool-gathering:

    (Sorry about the extra comma after "a" in my earlier comment.)

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