BMCR 2002.03.29

The Roman Textile Industry and its Influence. A Birthday tribute to John Peter Wild

, , , , The Roman textile industry and its influence : a birthday tribute to John Peter Wild. Exeter: Oxbow, 2001. xiii, 200 pages, 7 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps, portrait ; 25 cm. ISBN 1842170465. $35.00.

The name of John Peter Wild is well known to anyone who has delved into the world of archaeological textiles. His book Textile Manufacture in the Northern Roman Provinces (Cambridge 1970) laid the ground for modern studies on Roman textiles, not only examining excavated textiles and tools for technological information, but also carefully considering written sources for contemporary descriptions and linguistic clues. It still remains a key source on Roman textiles and their production, and the new volume, The Roman Textile Industry and its Influence, a compilation of essays written by J.P. Wild’s students and colleagues, reflects the enormous progress that textile studies have made in the thirty years since the publication of Wild’s work.

Topics range thematically from the most recent discoveries in Egypt, Asia, and Europe, to the re-examination of old finds, mostly from Northern and Central Europe. The approaches used here involve the traditional methods of textile examination, as well as the latest raw material and dye analyses.1 Such sophisticated technical studies can not only answer the questions of how a particular textile was made and with what tools but also can narrow down the possibilities of where and when it was made, thereby furthering our understanding of the importance of textile studies for a more balanced assessment of ancient cultures.

The collection consists of 21 essays, most written by the current leading experts in the field of archaeological textile studies. These essays are divided geographically and chronologically into four major themes: Roman Egypt and Nubia; Contact with Asia; Europe, inside and outside the Frontier; Later strands. An additional chapter (pp. 193-200) contains J.P. Wild’s bibliography.

The volume commences with a paper by Lise Bender Jorgensen and Ulla Mannering, ‘Mons Claudianus: investigating Roman textiles in the desert’ (pp. 1-11), which summarizes one of the most significant recent textile projects.2 Excavations carried out in 1987-1993 at the Imperial Roman quarry of Mons Claudianus, Egypt, brought to light an estimated 50,000 textiles, well preserved in rubbish dumps by the desert climate. This corpus is of utmost importance for Roman textile studies because numerous associated papyri and ostraca date the material between the first and third centuries. The article outlines the history of the project and discusses the problems and methodology of dealing with large quantities of archaeological textiles.

Dominique Cardon touches upon another important on-going project in her paper ‘On the road to Berenike: a piece of tunic in damask weave from Didymoi’ (pp. 12-20). Here, as well as in the nearby sites of Maximianon and Krokodilo, rubbish heaps containing ostraca and textiles and dated to the first century AD have been excavated since 1994. The essay examines a single textile from the vast corpus of this new material, a piece of wool tunic in damask twill and demonstrates how one piece can give much information about history and technology of textile production. Thus, mistakes found in the examined textile show a technical similarity to later Palmyran silk damasks, indicating that it was produced on a horizontal loom, and further, that various types of damask weaves were already being produced in the first century AD, having been first developed for wool in Egypt.

Dating of clothing from Roman Egypt remains imprecise and the importance of sites like Mons Claudianus and Didymoi cannot be overestimated.3 Frances Pritchard and Chris Verhecken-Lammens, the authors of the next paper, ‘Two wide-sleeved linen tunics from Roman Egypt’ (pp. 21-29), emphasize this point in connection with numerous textiles excavated in the nineteenth century that lack provenience. Their comparative examination of two such linen tunics from Egypt at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester, focuses on construction and design, concluding with the tentative dating of the pieces to the third-fourth century AD.

The authors’ observation that differences in weaving methods and decorative elements may allow identification of regional workshops is picked up in the following paper, ‘ Varia romana : textiles from a Roman army dump’ (pp. 30-37). Nettie K. Adams and Elisabeth Crowfoot present a series of textiles from the refuse dump of the Roman military camp at Qasr Ibrim, excavated in 1978. Among these is a fragment with the so-called gamma motif. The authors focus on the occurrence and meaning of this motif, also known from many other sites as well as from the representations at Dura Europos. Disappointingly, they stop short of stating that it may be useful as a chronological and geographical tag in tracing the development of textiles and clothing in Roman Egypt.4

Jane Batcheller, in ‘Goat-hair textiles from Karanis, Egypt’ (pp. 38-47) looks at a specific part of the corpus of textiles retrieved during the excavations of the Roman town Karanis (Fayum) in 1924 and 1926. The material came from fourth-fifth century AD middens and abandoned houses. Seventeen fragments of goat hair textiles, now in the Bolton museum, were subjected to microscopic examination in order to examine the structure of the fibers. The author has discovered that the hair was shed rather than shorn, which would ensure that spinners had the longest hair possible, thus making spinning coarse goat hair easier.

Sophie Desrosiers, Corinne Debaine-Francfort and Abdurassul Idriss, in ‘Two resist-dyed cottons recently found at Karadong, Xinjiang’ (pp. 48-55) discuss the cotton textiles recently excavated in Karadong, China and dated to the third century AD in relation to slightly later cottons found at the site of Berenike, in Egypt. The resist-dyed cottons are believed to have been produced in India5 but no data on Indian textiles of the period exist due to climatic conditions and poor written sources. The authors, however, noticed some similarities between excavated pieces and artistic representations, known from India, which confirm earlier theories about their origin.

Kazuko Sakamoto’s ‘A re-consideration of the human-figure emblems excavated in the at-Tar caves in Iraq’ (pp. 56-64) takes an art-historical approach to the tapestries found in Late Roman burials. By comparing them to other examples from China, Egypt, and Pazyryk, the author tentatively ascribes a provenience based on iconography and the representation of shading.

Issues of clothing are inevitably tied to any discussion of textiles. Gillian Vogelsand-Eastwood examines the origins of the Sassanian women’s clothing based on artistic depictions, mostly on silver vessels. Although the dating of this material, as she admits herself, is extremely problematic, this is a sound approach given the lack of actual examples of Sassanian dress. Her article ‘Was there Greek or Roman influence on Sassanian women’s clothing?’ (pp. 65-76) shows convincingly that artistic depictions present a combination of skirt and blouse as a typical Sassanian female costume. Since this is an Iranian tradition, the long-standing assumption that women’s dress was based on Greek models must be re-evaluated.

The next few papers deal with new and old finds from Europe. Carmen Alfaro Giner in ‘Recent discoveries of gold textiles from Augustan Age Gadir (Cádiz)’ (pp. 77-83), presents unique remains of gold textiles from 2 tombs dated to Augustan period found during 1998 rescue excavations in Spain. These elements of luxurious gold tapestry probably once decorated the headbands of the adolescent girls in whose burials they were discovered.

Antoinette Rast-Eicher offers a contribution on ‘Roman textiles in Switzerland’ (pp. 84-90). Her discussion of recent finds from Roman burial sites in the upper Rhône valley culminates with a conclusion about clothing style in different areas: “pre-Roman tradition in upper valley around Brig and in the Alps, contrasts with the imported textiles … from the lower valley around Martigni” (p. 89).

Elizabeth Wincott Heckett’s paper ‘Beyond the Empire: an Irish mantle and cloak’ (pp. 91-97), centers on two pieces of clothing from area of Celtic influence, Baronstown West. They were dated recently to the second-fourth century by carbon-14 method and are the only pieces known in Ireland for the period.

Thea Gabra-Sanders’ paper, entitled ‘The Orkney hood, re-dated and reconsidered’, features a recently re-examined piece (pp. 98-104). The unique wool hood with shoulder cape found in a bog at St. Andrews at Orkney in 1867 was dated by carbon-14 to AD 250-615. An overview of hoods known from Europe and examination of hooded depictions of the genii cucullati on Roman reliefs show that hoods were known in Europe since Roman times. It remains unclear from the paper, however, whether the article of clothing under consideration belongs to Roman or North European tradition.

Jerzy Maik’s ‘Recent textile finds of the Roman period in Poland’ (pp. 105-112) is a preliminary technical examination of about 150 textile pieces from Pomeranian Roman-period inhumation graves excavated recently in Poland. Reconstructions of burial clothing of which multiple fragments survive are similar to Roman representations of Germanic peoples. The paper is important for providing the latest information about Eastern European finds still not easily accessible to most western readers.

In ‘The early Alamanni: the start of a new textile project’ (pp. 113-116), Johanna Banck-Burgess offers some preliminary thoughts on the little-known textiles of early Alamanni, the Germanic tribes that inhabited the areas bordering the Roman Empire. After summarizing the historical background, she reasonably assumes that “Alamannic textile crafts were a melting pot for Germanic, Celtic and Roman traditions” (p. 115), thus underlining the importance of textiles as a means of social statement. This essay is significant in raising explicitly the questions of heritage and creativity in textile craft.

Klaus Tidow, in ‘Recent analyses of the textiles from Bökener Moor and Vaaler Moor’ (pp. 117-128), discusses the re-examination of seventeen textiles from two sites in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. Five of these textiles were subjected to raw material and dye analyses, with the hope of dating them more precisely. Fleece types suggested dating no earlier than the Roman Iron Age, while the red dye was identified in three textiles as Dyer’s Madder, which was used in Germany only during the Roman occupation of northwest Europe. The author concludes that more analysis is needed for other textiles from Germany so Bökeener Moor and Vaaler Moor pieces can be placed more exactly in the history of German textile production.

Heidemarie Farke’s ‘A typical costume of the North German Iron Age? Some observations during conservation of the Bernuthsfeld ‘plaid” (pp. 129-136), re-investigates clothing articles found in a bog on a man’s body in 1907. Although initially dated to the Roman period, they are different from other Iron Age textiles found so far and the author, based on technical details, suggests re-dating these textiles to the early Medieval period. During the textiles analysis, this was confirmed by carbon-14 dating, which gave a date of AD 660. The new date means that the Iron Age costume in the Northern Germany continued into Middle Ages without major changes. The paper presents an excellent case of the utility of technical study of textiles for their dating.

One of the more technical essays in the volume, Daniël De Jonghe’s ‘From the Roman horizontal loom to the 3/1 twill damask loom of the early medieval period’ (pp. 137-147), shows how studies of technical characteristics and weaving faults of archaeological textiles make possible identification of the weaving procedures and characteristics of the loom used. In this case, a horizontal loom of simple construction is hypothesized for the Late Roman silk 3/1 twill block damask in the Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels, while medieval twill damasks, on the basis of some technical differences, are believed to have been made on a drawloom.

Continuing the silk theme, Anne Muthesius tackles the often-neglected issue of textile iconography in her paper ‘A previously unrecognized lion silk at Canterbury’ (pp. 148-157). Using a striding lion motif on the eighth-eleventh century silk from the Canterbury Cathedral treasury as an example, she raises the question of the use of ancient motifs in Byzantine silks and the need to study them in order to understand the nature of transmission of the classical tradition and its meaning in Byzantine times.

Penelope Walton Rogers presents an essay on technological history, ‘The re-appearance of an old Roman loom in Medieval Europe’ (pp. 158-171). The two-beam vertical loom was used in Italy, Gaul and the eastern provinces during Roman period and reappeared for a limited time in medieval England. Based on the textual, artistic, and archaeological evidence, the last including surviving textiles and tools, the author traces how a two-beam vertical loom filled the temporal gap between the disappearance of the warp-weighted loom in the tenth century and introduction and widespread use of the treadle loom in the eleventh century.

Niomi Tarrant offers a contribution ‘Where are the Romans? Classical influences on women’s fashionable dress from the late eighteenth to the twentieth century’ (pp. 172-180), where she investigates the apparent absence of Roman influence during the neo-classical fashion in dress. Her conclusion that Greek dress types were more attractive and more practical than Roman garments is sound if somewhat superficial.

Elizabeth Peacock’s ‘The contribution of experimental archaeology to the research of ancient textiles’ (pp. 181-192) concludes the volume. She commendably summarizes the diverse contributions of experimental archaeology to ancient textile studies. As one of the experimental approaches, simulation involves reconstructing fabrics and production processes of fibers, and deals with such issues as how much time is involved in production, and what is the cost and value of textiles. Tools found in archaeological contexts are also tested for their function and suitability for reproducing particular types of textiles. Function studies of textiles include micro-identification of fibers and, recently, wear investigations. Effects of soil and environment on textiles are studied for their use in conservation. Among the recent developments, the author mentions simulation of pseudomorph formation and carbonization, as well as deterioration studies.

Despite the fact that the volume is composed of such seemingly disparate papers, several strong themes recur throughout: the importance of provenienced material; the utility of single textile pieces in providing information about chronology, origin, function, and technology; and the significance of comparative studies for the understanding of broader cultural issues. A better grouping of the papers — topically rather than geographically — might have made some of these themes more readily apparent to the reader. As it is, the issues of social significance of textiles and clothing, their iconography and importance of cultural influences are sidestepped in the individual essays.

Nevertheless, although most of the papers contain technical descriptions of individual textile fragments, these can be easily “avoided” by those unfamiliar with the jargon. The wide spectrum of topics and approaches to the study of Roman textiles makes this an accessible and useful volume not only for the specialists. The lay reader will find this collection of essays helpful in appreciating the incredible advances of textile studies in the last few decades. It also reflects how vast, geographically speaking, our corpus of Roman textiles is, covering almost the entire empire with the lamentable exception of Italy itself.6


1. M.L. Ryder’s work on fleeces has been instrumental for wool analysis. See his seminal article ‘Changes in the fleece of sheep following domestication,’ 1969, in P.J. Ucko and G.W. Dimbleby (eds.), The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals, London: Duckworth, pp. 495-521. For dye analysis see the numerous publications by P. Walton Rogers.

2. The final publication of Mons Claudianus textiles, which will be in the form of a database accessible via Internet, is eagerly awaited. For the latest report see L. Bender Jorgensen, 2000, “Textiles from Mons Claudianus Textile Project,” in D. Cardon and M. Feugere, eds., Archéologie des textiles des origines au Ve siècle, Actes du colloque de Lattes, Oct. 1999, Monographies Instrumentum 14, Éditions Monique Mergoul, pp. 253-264.

3. Another recently excavated site in the Eastern desert of Egypt is Berenike. See J.P. Wild and F.C. Wild, 1998, “The Textiles’, in S.E. Sidebotham and W.Z. Wendrich, eds., Berenike 96: Report of the Excavations at Berenike (Egyptian Red Sea Coast) and the Survey of the Eastern Desert, Research School CNWS, Leiden, pp. 221-236.

4. The typology of this and other motifs has been at the forefront of the recent investigations into Roman Egyptian clothing. See U. Mannering, 2000, ‘Roman Garments from Mons Claudianus’, in D. Cardon and M. Feugere, above n.2.

5. See J.P. Wild, 1997, ‘Cotton in Roman Egypt: Some Problems of Origin’, Al-Rafidan XVIII (special volume: Festschrift for Professor Hideo Fujii, Kokushikan University), pp. 287-298.

6. Textiles have been found at Pompeii but they remain to my knowledge unpublished.