Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.03.43

Margarita Gleba, Textile Production in Pre-Roman Italy. Ancient Textiles Series 4.   Oxford/Oakville, CT:  Oxbow Books, 2008.  Pp. xxv, 269.  ISBN 9781842173305.  $70.00.  

Reviewed by Anthony Tuck, University of Massachusetts Amherst (


Were one to construct a Venn Diagram of archaeologists interested in Pre-Roman Italy and scholars of ancient textiles, the resulting union would be, to say the least, rather intimate. The relative scarcity of scholarship on textiles and their production is curious since the evidence is abundant and the implications of that evidence are profound. Yet in spite of the relative inattention given to the materials associated with textile production in early Italy in the past, this volume manages to compile and synthesize a remarkable amount of data, frequently collected and preserved in publications and excavation storerooms, but often somewhat neglected in the interpretative framework of the sites from which that evidence comes. Textile Production in Pre-Roman Italy, a maturation of a Bryn Mawr Ph. D. treatment of the same subject, is a foundational effort that fills an important void in our understanding of this ubiquitous industry of the ancient world.

Gleba's volume differs from works that have considered the region's textiles in the past, such as L. Bonfante's Etruscan Dress (Johns Hopkins 2003), in that her concern is not with costume and the functions of social identity it creates, but rather with the textiles themselves and their modes of manufacture. The volume shares much with more broadly conceived studies such as E. Barber's Prehistoric Textiles (Princeton 1992). However, Gleba's narrower focus allows for a considerably deeper and more nuanced consideration of the social and industrial circumstances of textile manufacture in Italy during this period and thus will prove to be essential for future consideration of the subject and others to which it is related throughout the region.

The volume consists of seven sections, the topical range of which reflects the challenge the author details in her introduction: conceiving of a volume that satisfies the interest of scholars of textiles --unfamiliar with the archaeology and topography of early Italy-- and of those of early Italy -- unfamiliar with the technical processes of textile manufacture. As a result of this structural difficulty, a few elements of the book are necessarily somewhat simplistic for experts in Italian prehistory while others are rather perfunctory for people already versed in the language and mechanics of textiles. This minor reservation is quickly rendered irrelevant when one considers the scope of the enterprise and its role in filling a long neglected void in the scholarship of the region.

Part 1: Geographical and Chronological Context

This chapter is largely for the benefit of scholars interested in textiles as Gleba briefly breaks down the nomenclature associated with the various cultural phases of Italic development from the Bronze Age onward. The importance of this chapter becomes apparent throughout the subsequent sections of the volume, as the author presents data from a wide range of sites and across a broad chronological spectrum, causing some degree of potential confusion for scholars unfamiliar with the archaeology of the region. The chapter concludes with a critical note, pointing out that the roughly six centuries of evidence considered fall within the chronological spectrum of other profound sociopolitical shifts occurring in Italy. In so doing, the 'quick and necessarily uneven overview' pays the dividend of placing textile manufacturing squarely within the dynamic and rapidly evolving cultural framework of the peninsula, even as those cultural processes impact various regions differently.

Part: 2: Sources

Given the implicit difficulty of a survey of an artifact type that only rarely survives in the archaeological record, this section reflects the resourcefulness and careful data collection of the author. Here, Gleba briefly surveys the scant references in the ancient literary record to the craft of weaving but cautions against an over-dependence on such sources given their chronological discrepancy with her subject and the frequent misunderstanding of the technologies involved on the part of the ancient authors themselves. In expanding the available pool of data, Gleba appeals to sources such as representation of textiles and garments from the painted tombs of Etruscan Tarquinia or the depictions of looms on a range of other types of artifacts. She notes, however, that the most obvious and well preserved source of information concerning textile production is paradoxically only rarely explored: the physical equipment of textile manufacturing and the rare instances where textiles themselves are preserved.

In much the same way as Chapter 1 is largely for the benefit of textile scholars unfamiliar with Italic Archaeology, this section will likely benefit scholars of Early Italy who have yet fully to consider how such types of evidence can be utilized to better understand the nature and role of textile production in these early Italic communities.

Part 3: Fibres and Textiles

The complete textile is the sum of the technologies and activities of its making. In this section, Gleba provides a representative catalogue of examples of surviving textiles, mineral preserved organic pseudomorphs and textile impressions of this period of interest. Total numbers are impressive despite archaeological and climatic conditions that are usually unfavorable to the preservation of such materials. The remainder of the chapter integrates this catalogue into historical and archaeological sources for fibers, dyes and uses of finished textiles. While some elements of this survey depend on logical inference rather than direct evidence, the total weight of the argument serves to remind us that the ubiquity of such cloth underscores the enormous economic and social significance of the industry and its practitioners throughout the period.

Part 4: Techniques and Tools

This section begins with a brief treatment concerning the processing of fibers that, like the preceding part, is based on plausible inference as much as on direct evidence. However, Gleba quickly moves into an arena where the abundantly surviving implements associated with spinning and weaving have long been collected but rarely analyzed effectively. It is here that the thoroughness of her review truly begins to reward the reader. The dizzying array of whorl types, spool forms, weights, clasps and spacers reflects not the creativity in the manufacture of these artifacts, but rather the diversity and range of possible applications of them in the textile and garment industry. The wealth of surviving evidence associated with textile manufacturing is sufficient to conclude that the population of so many communities of pre-Roman Italy not only produced cloth in a variety of forms, but consented to committing an enormous amount of time and energy to the task.

Part 5: Contexts

This section rises above the details of specific evidence to consider the overall environment in which textiles are produced. As with the categories detailed above, textile-related materials, when given meaningful consideration in past publication, were treated in a manner that all too often lacks sufficient standardization. Even with the site of Poggio Civitate, which is sufficiently well preserved to allow Gleba to construct a case study of textile manufacture, important details such as relative weight of spindle whorls and loom weights are not readily available to scholars. In this case study, however, she notes that the remarkable volume of spools and spindle whorls stands in stark contrast to the relatively small number of loom weights, suggesting that one of the major commercial enterprises of the site involved not the production of textiles, but rather of thread. This observation, among many others throughout the volume, raises some provocative questions concerning the nature of the primitive economies in which these early settlements operated. The section then considers the funerary and votive contexts in which textile implements are also found. It also posits broader questions about the various kinds of textile production demonstrated by the evidence presented earlier and their relationship to the social status of the women engaged in them. From the daily practice of textile manufacture, we see the emergence and expression of community structure, of social organization and the careful negotiations of gendered behaviors among the various actors of these communities.

Part 6: Technology: Production and Trade

Here, Gleba details the evolution of textile manufacture from a limited, subsistence based craft enterprise into one of significant economic importance to communities of the Late Iron Age and Archaic periods. However, it is also here that the direct evidence for precisely how technologically associated forms of textile production moved between communities becomes especially ephemeral. Trade and exchange in textiles as commodities in their own right are certainly likely, but the movement of materials and fashions may equally be an effect of small- scale population movement or intermarriage between communities that provokes changes in both the technology and the products of that technology within the communities that receive them. It is here that we reach the limits of evidence, but certainly not the implications of what we do possess. One of the great virtues of a study such as this is the manner in which it compels us to consider the complexities not just of settlements in general but of their constituent households and the role of women within the economic dynamic of the domus.

Part 7: Coda: Textile Production in its Social Context

This brief but satisfying final section concludes by noting again the parallel trajectories of the development of technologies associated with textile manufacture and that of the urbanizing social systems in which they flourished. No form of manufacturing is more closely connected to the ancient household of Italy than spinning and weaving and it stands to reason that the physical and socio-political evolution of that domestic space would affect and direct the nature of textile manufacturing. Gleba however is also right to argue that, even though our evidence is sometimes difficult to comprehend fully, textile manufacturing likely played an important role in economic networks far greater than those of the domestic sphere and factored into ritual circumstances that marked social status and elite behaviors within these developing communities.

This is an essential book. It is every bit as illuminating in its small details as it is in its broad scope. Through a focused presentation of all available forms of evidence, the full stature and importance of textile manufacturing in ancient Italy are made abundantly clear. Gleba constructs a clear methodology for the organization and analysis of textiles and the equipment used in their production that will serve as a model for future scholarship on the subject. Moreover, she also lays the foundation for the future resolution of a number of critical questions associated with those data. But what is perhaps most exciting about this volume lies not merely in the revealing insights it presents, but in the challenge it poses to archaeologists of pre-Roman Italy to more effectively report and consider the nature of the evidence for this pivotal ancient industry. If this challenge is met, the broader academic community will soon rightly place textile manufacture among the most important industries of the ancient Mediterranean.

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