BMCR 2019.01.42

Textiles and Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean. Ancient textiles series 31

, , Textiles and Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean. Ancient textiles series 31. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2017. xiii, 257. ISBN 9781785706721 $80.00.

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

In the last few years, research on ancient textiles has become an important field in archaeology involving the use of specialized scientific methods, such as analyses of fibre, dye, archaeobotanical and archaeozoological remains, isotopic tracing and X-ray spectroscopy, to name such a few.1 The application of analytical methods together with the examination of tools and techniques allows for a more in- depth and broad understanding of the various parameters of textile production and consumption. The present publication employs a more “traditional” examination of ancient textiles that is equally important and enlightening, namely the analysis of textual, iconographic and other archaeological evidence, since, as the editors themselves note, actual ancient textiles rarely survive.

The book is the outcome of the conference titled Textiles and Cult in the Mediterranean Area in the 1 st Millennium BC held in Copenhagen in 2013 and organized by the National Museum of Denmark in collaboration with the Centre for Textile Research of the Danish National Research Foundation of the University of Copenhagen. It is part of the Ancient Textiles Series published by the Centre and is edited by two acclaimed scholars in the field, Cecilie Brøns and Marie-Louise Nosch. The aim of the publication is to offer an interdisciplinary analysis of the connection between ancient textiles and cult. Therefore, it includes contributions from different fields that examine ancient textiles from a historical, archaeological and philological perspective. The contributions cover a large chronological period, from the 1 st millennium BCE to the Late Antiquity, and an extensive geographical area, from Italy to the Near East.

The book is divided into four parts according to geographical area (Greece, Italy, the Levant and the Near East), with the exception of the last part, which is categorized by chronological period and refers to Late Antiquity. The sections of the book, again with the exception of the last one, consist more or less of an equal number of contributions. The chapters are complemented by black-and-white or colored figures, some charts, extracts of the ancient texts cited and the relevant bibliography. The book is well edited with no spelling mistakes.

The contributors of the book examine the connection of textiles with cult through their use as a votive, as religious attire and decoration of the shrine and as a commodity, the production of which could be under the control of the religious sector. Two papers (Enegren, Ferrara and Meo) additionally examine technical matters, such as the thickness and quality of the fabrics produced, as can be deduced by loom- weights and the tension applied to the warp.

Textiles in antiquity were offered to sanctuaries and deities in order to adorn their effigy, to be worn by religious officiates and to decorate the interior of cult buildings. The practice can be attested in the Near East as early as the 3 rd millennium BCE and in specific areas, such as Italy and Sicily, the custom to adorn the statues of saints with clothes during religious festivities continues to the present day (Enegren). The practice was also common in Prehistoric Aegean, suggested both by iconographic and written evidence. The ritual included the offering of both garments and unworked cloth to a female deity or the priestess impersonating her.2 In the Classical period, the weaving of a peplos to be offered to the goddess Athena during the Panathenaia festival is a particularly well-known example, and Boloti argues for an almost undisrupted continuity of the practice from the 2 nd millennium BCE, even though the evidence is tentative for the period from the 11 th to the 8 th century BCE.

Cloth was also given to sanctuaries for the adornment of their interior, as attested in 1 st millennium BCE Assyrian and Babylonian temples (Gaspa), and is a practice that continued in Late Antiquity (Leatherbury) and can even be observed today, for example, in Greece. In the latter case the cloth offerings were destined to dress the altar, as a symbol of Christ’s tomb, constituting a reference to Christ’s burial shroud. The offering of textiles, however, was not simply an act of veneration but was imbued with a strong symbolism. Through the contribution of altar clothes, particularly those that were made from garments worn by the elite, a physical connection between the offeror and God was achieved. It was through this practice that women—at least elite women—managed to connect themselves to the altar, the focus of Christian religious practice and an area where women had no access otherwise.

There is ample iconographic evidence for the garments worn by religious officiates in the ancient world, complemented by detailed descriptions of them in Greek and Latin written sources. It is understandable, therefore, that a few papers focus on this subject. Some of the aspects examined include what might have been considered to be appropriate dress for a religious ceremony (Rivière), the use of garments to state the rank of the wearer, occasion and social context (Larson Lovén) or the garment as symbolic of a particular status and the manipulation of this association (Papadopoulou). Moreover, the type, material and manner of wearing clothes can be indicative of cultural, political and ethnological differentiations, as expressed, for example, in Herodotus’ work (Gerolemou). Here, the civilized and flourishing Egyptians dressing in linen garments are juxtaposed to the leather-clad Persian barbarians (p. 63). Of particular interest is the use of dress to mark not only personal identity but also the “identity-of-place”, that is, to create and manifest an association between specific attire and a particular religious place and event (Kristensen and Krasilnikoff). The saffron robes worn by the girls during the celebration of the Arkteia functioned as this kind of important attribute, ascribing and enhancing their connection with Brauron and the cult of Artemis there.

Textiles were also associated with the religious sector through production. Weaving tools, such as spindle whorls, loom-weights and distaffs deposited in cult areas have often been interpreted as offerings made by women, since they are indicative of one of their principal activities. There are cases, however, where the number of weaving tools or their find-spots seem to suggest actual production inside a cult building. One such case is the existence of a standing loom in one of the buildings of the sanctuary at Timpone della Motta in Calabria (Saxkjoer, Jacobsen and Mittica). Textile production in sanctuaries presumably took place in order to cover their needs in cloth, but also to generate additional income. Textual evidence from the Near East highlights the presence of textile craftsmen inside the Assyrian and Babylonian temples of the 1 st millennium BCE, responsible for making and repairing the garments used in cult (Payne). The connection between cult and cloth production is further attested by patronage over textile production, expressed by various deities, exemplified in the case of ancient Greece by Athena, particularly in her guise as Ergane (Clements).

The primary function of cloth is practical, i.e., to dress, cover, or decorate, but at the same time has an objective value, expressed through the worth of the fabric, the fiber used, its manufacture, provenance, decoration and colour. In addition, textiles can be imbued with a plethora of symbolic meanings and associations. Thus, the use of specific materials exclusively for the garments of priests, rulers or deities such as the mixed wool and linen garment sha’atnez worn only by the High Priest in Israel (Shamir) was employed as a symbolic reference to the different social and perhaps spiritual status of the wearer. Similarly, the depiction of the participants in animal sacrifice in 6 th century BCE Athens in plain garments might have aimed at promoting the idea of a unified and equal society by eliminating any trace of differentiation, with the exception of religious hierarchies (Rivière).

In the ancient world, as in the modern, the polysemy of clothes was stressed and manipulated accordingly. It is this function of cloth as a polysemic sign that underlines most of the contributions in the book and which most likely explains the connection of textiles with cult. The fact that this association transcends chronological periods and geographical areas further corroborates this notion. The present volume is an interesting and useful contribution to the study of ancient textiles that enriches our knowledge of their use and value through their examination as visual, tactile and material items.

Authors and Titles

Part I: Greece
1. Tina Boloti, “Offering of cloth and/or clothing to the sanctuaries: a case of ritual continuity from the 2nd to the 1st millennium BCE in the Aegean?”
2. Karine Rivière, “What does the clothing say about the killer?: some thoughts on textiles in depictions of sacrifice in archaic Athens”
3. Liza Cleland, “Not nothing: conceptualising textile whiteness for cult practice”
4. Jacquelyn H. Clements, “Weaving the Chalkeia: reconstruction and ritual of an Athenian festival”
5. Karen Rørby Kristensen and Jens A. Krasilnikoff, “Dress, code and identity-of-place in Greek religion: some cases from classical and Hellenistic Athens”
6. Maria Gerolemou, “Priestly dress in the ancient Mediterranean: Herodotus as a source-book”
7. Maria Papadopoulou, “Headdress for success: cultic uses of the Hellenistic Mitra”
8. Zosia Halina Archibald, “Astral symbols on a loom weight from Adjiyska Vodenitsa (ancient Pistiros), Thrace: measurement, astronomy, and cult”
Part II: Italy
9. Signe Grove Saxkjaer, Jan Kindberg Jacobsen and Gloria Paola Mittica, “Building V and ritual textile production at Timpone della Motta”
10. Hedvig Landenius Enegren, “The loom weights from the ‘Scarico di Grotta Vanella’: evidence for a sanctuary on the North Acropolis of Segesta?”
11. Bianca Ferrara and Francesco Meo, “Loom weights in sacred contexts: the square building of the Heraion near the mouth of the Sele River”
12. Alessandro Quercia, “‘Temple key’ or distaff?: an ambiguous artefact from the Greek and indigenous sanctuaries of Southern Italy”
13. Lena Larsson Lovén, “On priests, priestesses, and clothing in Roman cult practices”
Part III: The Levant and the Near East
14. Salvatore Gaspa, “Textiles in Assyrian and Babylonian temples of the 1st millennium BCE”
15. Elizabeth E. Payne, “Textile production in the Neo-Babylonian Eanna archive”
16. Miguel Ángel Andrés-Toledo, “The description of Anahita’s attire in the Yast 5”
17. Deborah Cassuto, “Modes of textile production in cultic contexts in the Iron Age Southern Levant: the finds from Tell es- Sâfi/Gath”
18. Orit Shamir, “The high priest’s garments of mixed wool and linen (sha’atnez) compared to textiles found in the land of Israel”
19. Rubina Raja, “Between fashion phenomena and status symbols: contextualising the wardrobe of the so-called ‘former priests’ of Palmyra”
20. Signe Krag, “Women in Palmyrene rituals and religious practices”
Part IV: Late Antiquity
21. Sean V. Leatherbury, “Textiles as gifts to god in late antiquity: Christian altar cloths as cultic objects”


1. Andersson Strand, E., K. M. Frei, M. Gleba, U. Mannering, M.-L. Nosch and I. Skals. 2010. “Old Textiles − New Possibilities”. European Journal of Archaeology Vol. 13, pp. 149-173, especially 149, 164.

2. Marinatos, N. 1984. Art and Religion in Thera. Athens, pp. 102-104.