Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.03.28

Cynthia S. Colburn, Maura K. Heyn (ed.), Reading a Dynamic Canvas: Adornment in the Ancient Mediterranean World.   Newcastle:  Cambridge Scholars, 2008.  Pp. x, 230.  ISBN 9781847184061.  £34.99.  

Reviewed by Kelly Olson, University of Western Ontario (
Word count: 2424 words

[Authors and titles of chapters are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume is different from current offerings on ancient costume,1 as it focuses wholly on archaeological evidence (3). Originally an AIA panel (Montreal 2006), the papers cover a wide geographical and cultural span, from the ancient Near East to Roman Britain, and are penned by an international group of archaeologists and art historians. "The volume's ultimate contribution is to make archeological evidence central to arguments regarding adornment and identity" (3).

As the Introduction (by Cynthia S. Colburn and Maura K. Heyn) states, dress historians use three types of evidence: actual adorned bodies (which are rare); items of adornment divorced from bodies; and visual representations of adornment (3-4). The last two are used to great advantage in this volume. One of the major themes to emerge is "the power of bodily adornment in negotiating social status...Adornment used to enhance or define one's social value by highlighting unequal access to political, economic, or ideological sources of power" (4). Another theme is the power of dress in religious communities or in the context of ritual activities, although the close connection between dress and status is also relevant here (5).

The first chapter (Cynthia S. Colburn) is entitled "Exotica and the body in the Minoan and Mycenean worlds." This chapter concerns Bronze Age imports (2500-1200 BCE) brought into the Greek world to adorn the body, some as finished products, some as raw materials, and some as prestige technologies (such as granulation; 13). Colburn is careful to note the funerary context of most of the artifacts, which, as she points out, makes it difficult to know whether the articles of adornment were worn in life or formulated specifically for the grave (14-15; it was usually the former, to judge both by ethnographic parallels and the evidence of wear or repair). In any case, burying the dead with these objects shows such items were socially significant (15). Colburn looks at visual representations of bodily ornaments from Crete (27-32), Thera (32-36), and the mainland (36-38), and notes that such items were similar to high-status objects among established Eastern elites. Thus the objects may have been associated with 'a well-established elite visual vocabulary' (40).

Chapter Two (Anne P. Chapin) is "The Lady of the Landscape: an investigation of Aegean costuming and the Xeste 3 frescoes." She points out that little is known of the costumes of Minoan, Mycenaean and Cycladic peoples of the Bronze Age, and uses artistic images of clothing to investigate constructions of identity (48). The goal of this chapter is to place the fresco conventionally known as 'The Lady of the Landscape' (Akrotiri, Thera, about 1650-1600 BCE) into a "broader iconographic, cultural, and religious perspective" (50). She notes that these figures present important new evidence for Aegean costuming: the pictorial decoration on the lady's skirt is unusual and rare, for example (49). Chapin also gives here a valuable typology of women's Neopalatial costume with drawings and discussion (59-69), in which she details and describes various belts, skirts, and blouses. Female Aegean costuming traditions were "elaborate and varied" (68), and most Aegean costumes differed from classical Greek draped clothing in that strips of cloth were cut and sewn to fashion form-fitting clothing. She concludes that (77) dress and jewelry identify the Lady of the Landscape as a member of a social elite, but not as a divine personage or goddess; in fact she has a relatively minor role to play in the painted ritual landscape of Xeste 3 (78). This very detailed look at the women in the fresco would have benefited from larger reproductions of the paintings in question-- but that is a minor quibble.

In Chapter Three, entitled "Fabric patterns as symbols of status in the Near East and early Greece," Eleanor Guralnick looks at the Neo-Assyrian empire (883-626 BC) and ancient Greece (8th-6th C BC). Interestingly, decorated garments in Near Eastern art tend on the whole to indicate holders of secular power (84) -- not even genies or heroes dress as elaborately as the king. There is a "clear relationship between status and garment decoration" in art (95), and complexity in clothing embellishment decreases as distance from the king increases. Thus the sheer quantity of decoration on the king's clothing in Near Eastern art emphasizes his authority, as in the relief of Assurnasirpal II, 883-859 BC, at Nimrud (90). In Athenian art, by contrast, patterned fabrics were popular in the 8th-7th centuries BC, but they occur almost exclusively on deities and mythological figures (104-08). By the 6th century BC, decorated clothing had ceased to be a symbol of special status (110), and no longer distinguished divine personages from ordinary mortals. Guralnick puts this down to the rise of democratic values and economic prosperity (110), an intriguing notion, although some scholars would disagree with her2. It is a shame that considerations of space rendered this section so short, as the topic is both interesting and complex, and could benefit from further scholarly inquiry. Guralnick concludes by stating that after the Persian wars in the early fifth century, decorated clothing disappears from Greek art "rather completely" (111), a change that "reaffirms the important role that clothing has in constructing and reinforcing ideologies."

But there is also much of practical value in Guralnick's chapter concerning ancient garment production. Artistic evidence confirms both that Near Eastern fabric patterns were imported into Greece (101, 110), and that Greek-designed patterns were themselves very similar to Near Eastern patterns, albeit with some new modifications. Guralnick also notes that elaborate designs on ancient garments such as concentric circles, rosettes, figure scenes, etc., likely went beyond the skill of Greek or Near Eastern weavers and were probably executed on actual clothing by other techniques (embroidery, appliqué, dyeing, quilting, etc). Rosettes on garments in Near Eastern art (98), for instance, may have been metal attachments, perhaps of gold, sewn onto the garment (86).

Chapter Four (Alexis Q. Castor) is "Grave garb: Archaic and classical Macedonian funerary costume," the subject of which is Archaic and Classical Macedonian female mortuary jewelry (116). Castor discourses on "the potential of jewelry as a document that contributes new insights into social history" (116). There are limitations to the study of Macedonian mortuary practices; most notably, the publication of finds is sparse, and the diverse contributory cultures make ethnic identification of grave goods difficult (118-19). In addition, most grave clothing has vanished; scraps of metal fastenings or jewelry can be found, but even these are missing in the Archaic/Classical period graves (see below). Interestingly, in the 6th century, graves display profligate expense in funerary garb (116); some rich graves combine modern with outmoded pieces. The 5th century however sees a more restrained mortuary style in Macedonia (ibid), although there is no evidence of a widespread economic downturn at this time (117). Perhaps in this century "political and social displays...shifted away from the cemetery venue" (134). Or perhaps the elite in the 5th century decided to distinguish themselves with a different type of burial ritual (such as marble grave markers; 137). In Classical times, almost all the Macedonian jewelry found is similar to that represented on 5th century Attic vases (138), and Macedonian ornaments from this period provide rare and welcome secure chronological and regional evidence for Greek jewelry types (140). Perhaps women wore more jewelry in daily life, but "in art and in the grave, this restrained costume conveyed essential ideas of female fashion" (139). There are also fascinating practical observations here. For instance, jewelry in a grave does not always indicate a female burial. To label one as such is "misleading" or at the very least "skim[s] over significant nuances" (118-19).3 Castor also asks whether can we distinguish between ornaments that have a purely funerary use and those worn in life. Some pieces (like facemasks) are obviously only for the grave (124); other pieces need close examination to determine a domestic or a funerary context.

Chapter 5 is "'Fashioning' initiates: dress at the Mysteries" (Laura Gawlinski). Gawlinski points out that clothing could indicate not only gender, age, wealth, etc., but also mood and situation, "marking the difference between festival and mourning, or even sacred and profane" (146). Furthermore, Greek and Roman cult practice offered "a unique venue for public display," because the gatherings were social and cultic (146). She covers several themes of the use of dress: to highlight a portion of the initiation ceremony; to draw attention to special individuals; to separate out various groups; and to mark out a person as someone who has undergone initiation (ibid). Dress was an important part of initiation but it is not always easy to assess the physical attire with which initiates were adorned; specific items varied from cult to cult and varied within each cult over time (150). She covers such articles of initiates' clothing for which we have information: wreaths (151-4); leaf-shaped lamellae (154); and veils (155). The cultic hierarchy itself was also marked out by clothing: the dadouchos and the hierophant wore special costumes, for instance; as did the Ten and the sacred women (161). Items of adornment were also used after initiation to mark the persons off as initiates (164): lamellae, purple fillets (165), and iron rings (165-6). We must not forget that meetings of mystery cults were still communal activities and gave the women involved a chance for social display (157); thus Gawlinski also covers female clothing in the text of the regulations of the Mysteries of Andania (156-61). The position of women is reflected in what each was legally allowed to wear at the rituals (158). Women were also not allowed to wear makeup, plait their hair, or wear shoes unless they were of felt or sacrificial leather (158-59). Gawlinski stresses that no single purpose lies behind all the rules (such as the limitation of female public display; 159). The magical powers of binding and knotting may perhaps have influenced the rules on hair, the ban on shoes stemmed perhaps from a fear of dirt passing between secular and sacred boundaries (among other possibilities; 160). Gawlinski states such rules seem proscriptive but are also very much prescriptive, designed to help clothing communicate status (160-61).

In "Sacerdotal activities and Parthian dress in Roman Palmyra," Maura K. Heyn examines dress worn by men in the funerary sculpture of Palmyra (170), reliefs which were powerful symbols of prestige (173), and which in part depict banqueters. Heyn distinguishes between those figures wearing 'Greco-Roman dress' (tunic and cloak) and those in 'Parthian dress' (long belted tunic worn over loose trousers; 170). Often males in Greco-Roman dress and those in Parthian dress are depicted on the same relief (173), and Heyn is interested in why an individual would have chosen one type of costume over the other in funerary sculpture. Parthian dress does offer a great opportunity for decorative display, but Heyn postulates that wealth was not the principal motivation in choosing the costume (177-8). Her hypothesis is that certain types of dress in these reliefs signaled the participation of the deceased in the ritual activities of the city (172), and thinks that Palmyrene dress in these reliefs may be priestly dress (judging from comparative dress on terracotta tokens called tesserae; 183). Thus she cautiously concludes that the funerary banquets are ritual banquets (187, 190).

Judith Rosten in "Appearance, diversity, and identity in Roman Britain" notes that items associated with personal adornment form more than 50% of excavation small finds, and "to ignore these is to waste a vast body of potentially highly informative data" (195). The sites used are several sites linked by the same road in the modern-day county of Hertfordshire, no more than 30 km apart; thus all the settlements would have had access to the same goods (199). Of her sites, Gorhambury and Verulamium are both 'high-status' sites, i.e., the former is a villa, the latter a municipium. Bladock, Braughing, and Dunstable are smaller towns where Roman influence might perhaps be less evident (205). Rosten correctly observes (197) that given movement between sites, deposition of artifacts is not limited to those who lived there, and also notes that apart from hairpins made of bone, ancient adornment consisted largely of metal articles, the ownership of which implies a degree of wealth (200). She comes to several fascinating conclusions here concerning the same object found in differing quantities on the different sites. For instance, traditional British female dress required metal brooches; thus the few instances of brooch finds at the high-status sites may mean that here Roman female dress was the more prevalent fashion -- a style which did not require brooches. There are high numerous brooch finds at the smaller sites of Bladock and Braughing (207), the lower-status sites. Dunstable on the other hand was a poor agricultural community and not even brooches are in evidence here -- cheap and practical hairpins instead predominate. Rosten also analyzes toilet implements at the sites (nail cleaners, combs, cosmetic grinders, etc), concluding that the same range of grooming practices took place at all five settlements (210).

A couple of minor quibbles: why are references cited in toto both in the footnotes and again at the end of the chapter? A bibliography at the end of the book would have sufficed, with elegant author-date citations in-text. And there is a touch too much postmodern jargon floating about: 'negotiate identity' is a favorite phrase, but what does it mean, exactly? On the whole, though, here is little to criticize in this volume, which examines not only purely archaeological evidence for ancient adornment, a new and different approach to dress in antiquity, but also ornament from places on the outskirts of mainland Greece and Italy; again, something all too rarely studied. There is much of value here for historians of ancient costume.

Table of Contents:

List of Figures
List of Tables
Map of the Aegean and Near East
Introduction: Bodily Adornment and Identity (Cynthia S. Colburn and Maura K. Heyn)
Chapter One: Exotica and the Body in the Minoan and Mycenaean Worlds (Cynthia S. Colburn)
Chapter Two: The Lady of the Landscape: An Investigation of Aegean Costuming and the Xeste 3 Frescoes (Anne P. Chapin)
Chapter Three: Fabric Patterns as Symbols of Status in the Near East and Early Greece (Eleanor Guralnick)
Chapter Four: Grave Garb: Archaic and Classical Macedonian Funerary Costume (Alexis Q. Castor)
Chapter Five: "Fashioning" Initiates: Dress at the Mysteries (Laura Gawlinski)
Chapter Six: Sacerdotal Activities and Parthian Dress in Roman Palmyra (Maura K. Heyn)
Chapter Seven: Appearance, Diversity, and Identity in Roman Britain (Judith Rosten)
List of Contributors


1.   For example, Sebesta, J. L., and L. Bonfante, eds. 1994. The World of Roman Costume. Madison, Wis. : University of Wisconsin Press; J. Edmondson and A. Keith, eds., 2008. Roman Dress and the Fabrics of Roman Culture. Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press.
2.   Hero Granger-Taylor, for example: "The approach that expects to see an impact on clothing from a single historical event is usually a mistaken one and is especially mistaken if applied to the Ancient World, when tradition ruled dress to an extent unknown in modern Europe" (Weaving clothes to shape in the ancient world: the tunic and toga of the Arringatore. Textile History 13.1 [1982]: 20).
3.   On this topic, see P. Treherne. 1995. The warrior's beauty: the masculine body and self-identity in pre-modern Europe. Journal of European Archaeology 3.1: 105-44.

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