Late Antique Textiles

Late Antique textiles are unique in a number of ways and provide a useful insight into the larger context of the Late Antique Period. Textiles are especially important as an art form because they combine aesthetics and function. Not only do they demonstrate popular styles and forms and speak to cultural concerns and narratives, they provide information about the daily practices of their users. Most textiles found are pieces of clothing such as tunics, shawls or cloaks, hats, and leggings, in fragment or whole. Also common are decorative pieces such as wall coverings or cushion covers.

The abundance of surviving, well-preserved Late Antique textiles is unusual among textiles in general. This is mainly a result of the burial practices adopted in Egypt during the rise of Christianity. The new practice abandoned embalming and mummification for a rapid burial in which they dressed the bodies in clothing or special burial cloths and placed them directly in the ground. The lack of embalming materials, which deteriorated the cloth over time, combined with the dry desert climate provided prime conditions for preservation.

Unfortunately, these new grave types were also especially easy to uncover, encouraging looting. There was also a lot of early archaeology that lacked proper methods of documentation, so most of these textile fragments were not recorded thoroughly upon excavation, making their exact provenance nearly impossible to uncover. Without this information we may never know where the textiles were found, when they were made, or whether they are even antique, and not contemporary fakes.

Instead, scholars must rely on other techniques such as scientific testing and scholarly comparison within our bank of knowledge. For example, A. De Moor, a Belgian scholar has recently begun using radiocarbon dating on Late Antique textiles, but methods such as this are not in common practice. Their effectiveness may remain unknown until a larger sampling of textiles in all different collections is tested (Auth). Instead, for textiles lacking an archeological context or sufficient documentation, it is best to study them in relation to pieces of a known provenance. Sometimes, like in the work of Nancy Arthur Hoskins in the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, this practice can be especially fruitful. In this case, certain fragments were found to match pieces in other museum collections and through this connection their provenances linked. Obviously this is not a common occurrence, but the precedent stands, proving that analysis through comparing fragments to one another is a useful endeavor.

Following this practice, I looked to the Bode Museum in Berlin for possible connections. One of Germany’s Staatliche Museums or ‘state’ museums, it has one of the largest collections of Late Antique Egyptian art in the world and one of the most important collections outside of Egypt. Its textile collection is especially impressive and contains about 1,500 pieces. The collection’s provenance has been relatively well documented, and serves as a good model for our collection. The majority of the textile collection was bought by the curator Wilhelm Bode in 1900 from the German consul in Cairo, C. Reinhardt. Another large portion came from the collection of T. Graf of Vienna and other private collections in 1905. 

One formal theme seen throughout the Bode Collection is the cavalry figure encircled in a medallion-shaped element, a pattern also seen in textile fragment 1966.1.900 in the Mayer collection. Here a figure on horseback, presumably a hunter or warrior, is framed by a thick circular band decorated with a subtle repeating circle pattern. Both the figure and the horse are decorated with thin white lines, possibly denoting some kind of ornate uniform. The rider appears to be holding a spear-like weapon. The space between the figure and the border is filled with small leaf and vine elements. Interestingly, underneath the horse there is another animal depicted. It is unclear what species this animal is or whether this animal is running with the horse and rider or if it is possibly being hunted.

One of the most striking comparisons to this piece in the Bode Museum is 11423 S. 57 (Wulf and Volbach). There is an almost identical figural composition, complete with a second animal underneath the horse and rider. The medallion is encased in a square filled with centaurs and lions. This piece appears to be a cushion cover or mat because of the fringe running along the edge (it was probably not incorporated into a larger cloth, such as a piece of clothing). In the catalogue by Wulff and Volbach it is dated to the fifth or sixth century. It was acquired by the Bode Museum from the Fouquet Collection in Cairo in 1922, but unfortunately, like our textiles, it has no provenance.

There are also close stylistic and iconographic parallels between our piece and 9229 in the Bode Museum: the same monotone purple and white medallion with a cavalry figure. Even here, however, within this well documented collection, the provenances of these specific pieces are known only in part because of the lack of precise archaeological documentation. Additional comparisons can be made to 6899 and 9286, both dated to the sixth or seventh century, in the Bode Museum. None of these, however, have clearly documented provenances.

There are many similarities between the Bode Museum’s collection and our own, but we still must be wary when drawing any concrete conclusions. These stylistic and iconographic comparisons do provide some level of contextual evidence, but because formal elements, iconography, and stylistic traditions were so widespread through the period and sometimes prevailed for centuries, a comparison of this kind might not actually mean that the pieces are from a similar area or time. Here we see precedence for this style in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, but these purple and white monotone geometric compositions, along with some mythological figures, can be found as early as the third century and as late as the Fatimid Caliphate in the tenth century (Török). Because of the rich and broad cultural traditions of the period, styles were mixed and modified and used over and over again over centuries. While these comparisons provide us with a foundation of possibilities, it is important to understand that these are merely clues and do not provide any definitive answers. These comparisons do, however, provide us with a context of artistic tradition. With this we can understand an array of possibilities and form a better understanding of the pieces in our collection.

Stephanie Hamilton '13 is an Art History and Architectural Studies major and Middle Eastern Studies minor at Colgate University.