Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.02.24 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.02.24

Mary Harlow, Marie-Louise Nosch (ed.), Greek and Roman Textiles and Dress: An Interdisciplinary Anthology. Ancient textiles series, 19.   Oxford; Philadelphia:  Oxbow Books, 2014.  Pp. x, 414.  ISBN 9781782977155.  $84.00.  

Reviewed by Judith Lynn Sebesta, The University of South Dakota (


The twenty chapters in this volume survey the research methodologies on classical Greek and Roman textiles through the late antique period, demonstrate the cross- and inter-disciplinarity of this research, and reflect its international scholarly collaboration. The editors' introductory chapter (1-33) surveys the international European networks for textile research and funded projects and argues for the importance of textile research among the other "big themes" of classical antiquity research. The remaining chapters show that arriving at these answers requires analysis by modern technology and perspectives given by various disciplines (e.g. craft knowledge, gender studies, study of trade and geographical distribution). Each chapter is followed by a bibliography and includes numerous full-color and some black-and-white photos including micro-details of textiles and analytic data.

Chapters 2 through 10 address predominantly textiles of the Greek-speaking Mediterranean. Stella Spantidaki (34-45) discusses evidence for the use of embellishments such as embroidery, paint, weft-patterning, pleating or crimping. Her table of production and embellishment techniques and the sources evidencing their use summarizes the extensive tool-kit of Greek textile workers. Ellen Harlizius-Klück (46-59) analyzes the connection between gender and reproduction in mathematics. She commences with the discussion in Plato's Cratylus on the binary structure not only of numbers, but of gender: odd numbers were considered male and even numbers female. She shows how this consequent metaphor of "mentally-male fertility" (47) is connected to the discussion of statesmanship in Plato's Republic and Statesman through the example of weaving; the statesman interweaves the brave and circumspect just as a weaver interweaves the strong warp with the weaker weft. A weaving structure (e.g. pattern weaving or starting band weaving) requires classifying the threads as warp or weft just as the statesman needs to classify those he rules in order to preserve the order of the state. Cecilie Brøns (60-94) investigates literary and iconographic sources (e.g. vase-painting, statues) vis-à-vis archaeological evidence for pins and fibulae, buttons, shoulder discs, and quatrefoil clasps to conclude that, at present, the iconographic evidence does not match the archaeological evidence, in part, perhaps because much of the iconographic evidence is Attic and the types of fasteners vary geographically from site to site. Lastly, she suggests that realistic depiction of how garments were fastened might not have been very important to the artists, which leads to the question of how much we can rely on iconography to represent realistically what was worn and how. Marco Ercoles (95-110) also takes up the reliability of iconographic evidence for the dress of the citharode, who in the archaic Greek period is depicted in words or art as wearing an elaborately patterned and/or pleated chiton, a decorated mantle, and a wreath. Ercoles argues that this dress may be traceable back to the Bronze Age lyre players if we can count on cultural continuity with the Late Minoan-Mycenaean period, with some enrichment during the Orientalizing period. Matteo Martelli (111-129) examines alchemical recipes, archaeological finds, and documentary papyri of the first through fourth century CE; analysis of archaeological textiles shows that some dyestuffs used are listed in the texts and papyri. As some dyes are unstable, he suggests that scholars experiment with the recipes to test the recipes' accuracy further. Christina Margariti and Maria Kinti (130-149) discuss the conservation of a textile find from the Kerameikos Cemetery. To prevent further the deterioration of the find required the use of current technology such as stereomicroscopy, which identified the different fibers of the textile, their composition, the dyes used, and the species of the fungus damaging the textile. The collaboration of textile conservators, scientists, and archaeologists is essential to ensure the future preservation of textiles. While, clearly, transport amphoras provide evidence of economic development and trade connections, Mark Lawall (150-189) examines loom weights to show that, while they are usually regarded as economic artifacts of the household economy, they also help elucidate the economic interactions in the Aegean basin. He discovers parallels in the find patterns of both amphoras and loom weights, which elucidate changes in economic interactions from the Archaic through Late Hellenistic periods.

Women depicted on Greek and Roman tombs often have near them a wool basket. Elisabeth Trinkl (190-206) investigates the function, depiction and meaning of the wool basket, which, according to literary and epigraphic sources, was also involved in textile production in sanctuaries, particularly during ritual performances; wool baskets were possibly deposited in women's graves, but, due to the fragility of basketry, only ceramic baskets survive. Trinkl considers the possible symbolization of the wool basket as, for example, marriage and the oikos. She notes that the wool basket continued to be depicted on Roman tombstones and even in some Late Antique representations of the Madonna. In the tenth chapter Kerstin Dross-Krüpe and Annette Paetz gen Schieck (207-235) point out that because male scholars of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were familiar only with embroidery done by their wives, they thought that all decorative additions to textiles were embroidered. Dross-Krüpe surveys Greek and Roman texts to clarify what terms denote embroidery or tapestry weaving or even garment repair. Paetz gen Schieck compiles a list of embroidered textile artifacts from the Egyptian New Kingdom through the Roman and Late Antique periods. Such examples are (so far) rare in all the periods, though very slightly more examples survive from the Late Antique; these Late Antique examples are shown in colored, close-up photos. She also discusses (but does not illustrate) examples of outer-Mediterranean embroidery, notable from Kerch, Taklimakan basin, and China. The two scholars conclude that the technological innovation in textile production came from the east during all these periods.

The next seven articles focus on Roman textiles, whether from Italy, the Empire and barbarian Europe, and Coptic Egypt. Liliana Giardino has hypothesized that sheep herding and wool weaving in the territory and surrounding area of Herakleia (Southern Basilicata, Italy) were two of the most important economic activities between the third century BCE and the beginning of the Roman imperial period. To test this hypothesis, Francesco Meo (236-259) systematically analyzes archaeological objects connected with these two activities, paying particular attention to the typologies of loom weights, and their chronological and geographical distributions. His analysis of the context of loom weights in Herakleian houses illustrates that much household textile production was in fact organized economic production and that the fabric produced was of a very thin to thin quality that was probably standardized for a particular market. Lena Larsson Lovén (260-278) discusses the problems of using visual evidence in Roman art for textile research. She considers the limitations of such images, their value to supplement literary references in literature, and their use as visual communication. She cautions that visual representations of dress are shaped by artistic conventions and also by the choices and desires of the patrons and the artists. These images were expensive to commission and so patrons could "dress up" to present themselves prestigiously, rather than as they might dress every day. Traces of color survive on a number of marble portraits, and Amalie Skovmøller (279-297) analyzes such traces and surface texturing of hair, skin, and dress on such portraits to learn more about painted polychromy. She points out that microscopic analysis of the types of marble affected the amount of sculpted details and surface texturing, which, in turn, affected the visual appearance of polychromy. As such sculptures were a major means of self-presentation, whether in public or private venues, patron and artist carefully chose the marble to enhance its aesthetic dimension. Regrettable, however, is the omission of Fig. 13.14. Jessica Dixon (298-305) addresses the still controversial question of whether an adulteress was required to wear the toga as a sign of her sexual transgression. She reviews textual evidence, noting that Martial and Juvenal associate the toga with moechae, not adulteresses. Though Porphyrio and Pseudo-Acro specifically state that adulteresses wore the toga, Dixon comments that these passages are of much later date and the two authors may not have understood the social and legal aspects of the early imperial period; furthermore, she points out that the Horatian passage they comment on is about an ancilla, not an adulteress. Rather, she finds that the increased focus on transgressive sexuality and adultery during the early empire would allow easy association of the togate prostitute with the adulteress, so that the term togata could be used for both. The importance of social communication in a fullonica to fulfill specific customer requests and to communicate the directions of the manager about the complicated and varied treatments of soiled clothing and cloth is taken up by Elizabeth Bevis (306-322). She reminds us that because visual communication was also important, investigation must include mapping the areas of visibility available to a worker in order for us to gain better understanding of the dynamics of social interaction in a workshop. Her subject of study are the fullonicae of Ostia, for which she provides a number of diagrams illustrating the viewsheds from various locations within the workshops. Zofia Kaczmarek discusses the evidence for textile exchange between the Empire and the barbarian tribes beyond, even to the area of the Baltic coast. Exchange was, not surprisingly, more common in the area of limes, but barbarians also exchanged Roman textiles with other barbarians, as is shown by Roman finds in the Baltic area of Poland. She reviews evidence as to how textiles might have been transported by land and water and the historical events that might have affected the intensity and duration of such exchange.

The last four papers deal with textiles from the late antique period. Ines Bogensperger (335-344) examines the evidence for the reuse of a textile fragment from the Fayum radiocarbon dated to 650-770 CE. Analysis points to its belonging to a tunic, similar to those preserved from the Arab period. It was repaired frequently and had multiple uses, the last of which was as a grave good. The continuing necessity (and rewards) of searching collections for textile remains and analyzing them is taken up by Laura Rodríguez Peinado, Ana Cabrera Lafuente, Enrique Parra Crego, and Luis Turell Coll (345-373), who identify more than 300 fragments, mostly unpublished, in Spanish museums and collections. They provide numerous tables, chromatographs, and microscopic photos detailing the blending of colors, types of dyes and fibers, and techniques of fiber production and embellishment. In addition they discuss original uses of these textiles, their iconography and symbolism, chronology. The results of a conservation project of Coptic textiles are related by Pilar Borrego and Carmen Vega (374-398). Like Margariti and Kinti (see above), they emphasize that collaboration between experts is essential as is multispectral analysis for the technical study of fibers and samples in order for conservation to be as complete and effective as possible. Their report provides many technical illustrations, including X-rays and reconstructions of designs. Particularly useful is the table of analytical data of the thirty-seven textile fragments they analyzed; each entry is accompanied by a color image of the fragment. The last paper, by Catherine C. Taylor (399-414), examines textiles from Egypt depicting the Virgin Annunciate with a hand spindle, distaff, and wool basket. She contextualizes this image with the interest in Marian iconography in the fifth century, motives of Christian viewers and patrons that prompted the transfer of the spinning motif from classical art to the Virgin Annunciate, aspects of textile patronage, and the spiritual meaning and power of the wool-working Virgin.

Clearly these articles fulfill the programme set forth in the editors' initial article. This volume demonstrates the range of current textile research, the different avenues of questioning and investigation, and the need for interdisciplinarity and technological methodology. Particularly commendable are the inclusion of numerous color images, graphs, micro-photographs, and the like.

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