Turkey's Anatolian kilim rugs, once used as export wrapping for more valuable pile carpets, have soared in value as they have become prized by collectors.
Now new research says they date back to the Stone Age.
"We have found evidence in Turkey of the oldest woven textiles yet found in the world, and there is a direct line of descent to kilims still being woven today," British archeologist James Mellaart said.
Historians say women weavers in many Turkish villages have for 9,000 years preserved patterns that may shed new light on the region's forgotten social and religious past.
Mellaart and two colleagues, Turkish kilim expert Belkis Balpinar and West German photographer Udo Hirsch, are to publish later this year a study comparing archeological remains with present-day kilims.
"I think it's very exciting. It's a very respectable theory and I'm dying to see the book," said Alan Marcuson, editor of Hali, an authoritative Oriental carpet trade magazine.
Mellaart said he first made the link in 1961 when excavation of a late Stone Age site at Catalhuyuk, east of Ankara, produced evidence of geometric patterns and textile wall hangings.
"My Turkish colleagues immediately said, 'Those are kilims,' " Mellaart said. "But nobody then knew what kilims were, so we had nothing scientific to go on."
Until about 10 years ago, the flat-weave wool rugs were still being ignored by carpet collectors.
They were highly prized in the Turkish villages but were known to the outside world only when they were used as wrappings for the more valuable pile carpets.
Since then their low price compared with pile carpets has sparked the interest of collectors, and there has been a flood of catalogues, exhibitions and even conferences.
Gaudy tourist kilims now sell as fast as knotted pile carpets in the Istanbul bazaar and decorate homes worldwide.
Serious collectors have made old kilims an investment, and one group now bids up to $100,000 apiece for fragments hundreds of years old still being found in Turkish mosques.
Balpinar, who in 20 years as a former curator and official Turkish collector has seen innumerable examples, said the dating of old pieces was unreliable because patterns did not change.
"But I can sometimes tell the place of origin down to a single village or tribe, because the pattern is handed down from mother to daughter, probably for thousands of years," she said.
Some skeptics see the theory as farfetched, including a claim that the niche pattern now used for Moslem prayer rugs in fact derives from religious forms far older than Islam.
But Balpinar cites a total of 14 kinds of kilim motifs woven today that she believes can be traced back to ancient cults in Anatolia, the rectangle of Asia Minor that is now Turkey.
The most striking of these is the Mother Goddess represented in dozens of examples of Stone Age figurines in museums all over Turkey as fat and pregnant, with overflowing breasts.
This fertility goddess is also now the most common kilim pattern, called elibelinde by weaver women and reproduced in scores of stylized combinations of head or body with hands on hips or under the breasts.
"In one village, they still sacrifice a sheep before weaving an elibelinde kilim," Balpinar said. "They say, 'If we don't please the god, we will be punished.' "
Balpinar said traditional kilims were woven in at least half of Turkey's 35,000 villages, showing a strong thread of continuity from prehistoric times.
The theory challenges Turkish lore that Turkey was first populated by nomads who arrived from Central Asia from the 11th Century onward.
Hali magazine's Marcuson and Jaqueline Bing of the Islamic section of London's Sotheby's auction house told Reuters that the Mellart-Balpinar theory was accepted in outline among carpet specialists.
"Anatolia was not empty before the arrival of the Turks," Mellaart said.