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A History of the Bag – Mankind’s Oldest Companion?

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History’s First Bag.

What has been mankind’s oldest true companion? While many might vote for the dog, evidence seems to point to the bag. While there’s no physical proof mankind has been carrying bags for possibly millions of years, it just makes sense that a bag of some kind has been with humans for a very long time.

Virtually the only existing archaeological evidence is seen in cave paintings and carvings thousands of years old where human-like figures are seen to be carrying what appear to be grass-woven satchels, usually hanging from an arm. In this article we’ll review some of this evidence and discuss how mankind may have evolved with his bag.

The ubiquitous bag, despite its virtual nonexistence in the archaeological record, surely has been man’s companion for at least as long as man has used tools. That would put the bag in mankind’s hands at around 2.5 million years ago, roughly the age of the crude stone tools discovered at Oldowan Gorge in Tanzania, Africa. Early man, once he became bipedal, was a hunter / gatherer, and needed to have his hands free to pick roots, leaves, berries, carry weapons, and carry children.

The Baby or the Bag, Which Came First?

The "baby sling" is a common shouldered bag or "wrap" designed to carry a child. When humans began losing body hair there would have been little for a child to hang onto, as our primate relatives the apes do. Virtually all primitive cultures and hunter / gatherer societies have a bag or sling of some sort to carry a child. And since the baby came before the bag, hominids carrying a baby in a bag gets this author’s vote for "the first bag."

The Inuit of the northwest territories in Canada and Alaska carried their babies in a hooded portion of their parka called an amouti. The Mayan’s of central America used a type of hammock, a net carried on the back of the mother, or slung from a branch. In China, it’s called a Mei, meaning "to carry on the shoulders," as opposed to a tai, meaning "carry on a belt or waist band".

Creating something simple from an animal hide to carry tools, a child, weapons, food, bait or what have you would have been relatively easy. Kill and skin the animal, treat the coat, and use a simple stitching with a bone needle and thread made from the intestinal guts of said animal to hold it together. . .

Like Otzi the Iceman’s Tool Bag.

One of the rarest, and most fascinating, bag found in the archaeological record is the one found with Otzi, the 3500 year-old frozen mummy discovered in the Alps in the mid 1990s. Made of goatskin, the bag consisted of a pouch attached to a two yard long belt, evidence of a wood-framed backpack, and two small birch-bark containers which may have carried burning coals. What makes this so significant is it’s virtually the only known bag made from animal hide to have survived the eons.

Bark or bast –also called bast fiber: any of several strong, woody fibers, such as flax, hemp, ramie, or jute, obtained from phloem plant tissue, is used among primitive peoples in the manufacture of woven goods and cordage. Grasses and animal hide were the Iceman’s bag materials of choice, and every one of them biodegradable, often within a couple of years, let alone centuries.

The two birch-bark containers are shaped in the form of cylindrical pots were found in the Iceman’s bag. The slightly oval-shaped base has a diameter of 6–7 inches. The wall section is around 7 3/4 inches high and is formed by a rolled rectangular piece of bark. Holes were made along the edges of the individual parts, indicating they were were then stitched together with bast. Compared to ceramic vessels, birch-bark receptacles were much lighter and ironically less fragile, making them ideal for an excursion into the high mountains.

The interior of one of the Birchbark containers was blackened and contained freshly picked maple leaves peppered with various plant remains and traces of charcoal. This container was therefore probably used for keeping embers alight, with the fresh moist leaves serving as insulating material. The Iceman probably kindled his last fire with those embers.

Weaving A Bag With Grass Fibers

How did early man, or woman, conceive the idea to use grasses to weave a bag or carrier? Perhaps it came about while observing a fallen weaver bird’s nest deep in the grasslands of ancient Africa. Today, primitive tribes from all over the world weave satchels, clothing, and more using grass, bark, and branches. Many have elevated grass weaving to a fine art. The Inuit can weave a grass basket so tightly that it will hold, and repel, water.

Pacific Islanders from Truk and Papua, New Guinea weave bags that are used as purses and satchels, all out of grass or plant fiber, and decorated with mud, feathers and shells. Whereas today you might have a metal snap or plastic clip to hold a bag’s lid closed, these people figured out how to keep a bag closed with an ornamental shell or two and grass loops. Not only is it functional, it often looks pretty, too.

The Bag Develops as a Military Accessory – The Loculus of the Roman Legionnaire

Moving forward to the age of the Empire of Rome, the archaeological record contains sculpted and written evidence of people using bags.

Loculus is a Latin word literally meaning "little place" and was used in a number of ways, including to indicate a satchel, defined here as a leather bag. Satchels were carried by Roman legionaries, as a part of their sarcina or luggage. Indeed, Sarcina is a Latin word meaning "a marching pack", as in those carried by the heavy infantry of the Roman Army.

No loculus has survived through the ages in its entirety although some small pieces of leather found at Bar Hill near Strathclyde, Scotland have tentatively been identified as parts of a loculus.

The loculus is primarily known from illustrations carved on Trajan’s Column, a magnificent 126 foot tall carved stone column celebrating Roman Emperor Trajan’s 101 AD and 106 AD victories over the barbarian Dacian empire (currently modern Romania).

A typical loculus is thought to have measured about 18 by 12 inches and was likely made from goat hide or leather. It’s just the right size to be made in one piece from a single goat hide although calf leather is also possible. The bag is reinforced by diagonal straps that are stitched on. In the center of the front of the bag these straps held a bronze ring with a mushroom-shaped stud that holds the triangular flap closed.

At the top corners were two plain bronze rings used to suspend the bag while it is carried on the furca (or carrying pole); a two-pronged fork, pitchfork or fork-shaped prop, or cross-shaped pole. A legionnaire’s sarcina was carried on the furca and would have also included:

  • Loculus – a satchel
  • Cloak bag
  • Cooking pot
  • Patera – mess tin
  • Netted object

The furca also carried their bedroll, a net that held their pots and pans, tools and armor not worn during a march.

The loculus itself was probably used to store rations, maps, orders, and a legionary’s personal effects such as a figurine of a god, a painting or small mosaic of a loved one. There have been many attempts to reconstruct a loculus for historical reenactment.

Most of a legionnaire’s equipment other than his arms and armor would have been consigned to a baggage train and borne by mules and carts. Images of pack donkeys are found on a Greek wine cup circa 480 BC, currently on display at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts.

However, following the reforms of the Roman General Gaius Marius, the soldiers were expected to carry much of their rations and equipment themselves. This was done to reduce the size of the baggage train and increase the mobility of the army by allowing the soldiers to move strategically and quickly, independent of the cumbersome supply train. Such became the load of the soldiers that they became known as Marius’ Mules.

Alas, this was almost certainly not the limit of the soldier’s load. Time and again, Roman historians emphasize the importance of soldiers being self-sufficient, more mobile, and not tied to the baggage train.

The 2nd century historian Appian of Alexandria recorded the military actions of Roman General Scipio Aemilianus Africanus in late 3rd century BC. This was mainly with the objective of improving the morale of the soldiers, but it’s also clear that the army was expected to become more mobile.

The 4th century writer Vegetius advises that: "The legion is provided with iron hooks, called wolves, and iron scythes fixed to the ends of long poles; and with forks, spades, shovels, pickaxes, wheelbarrows and baskets for digging and transporting earth; together with hatchets, axes and saws for cutting wood." De Re Militari Book II: The Organization of the Legion.

Several hundred years later the Emperor Napoleon introduced a technical innovation into his army: the rucksack backpack. All of his soldiers carried 60 pound packs that provided them with enough food and water for a week on the march.

Stay tuned the next installment of the History of the Bag when we delve into greater detail the advances in textile materials from military influences. ~ Howard C. Gray "Minister of Information"