Silk Textiles in Late Antique Egypt

Herbert Mayer’s bequest to the Picker collection also included fragments of Late Antique Egyptian textiles. Of the seven textile fragments, all but one are made of the traditional material of linen and wool. The one remaining fragment is made of silk, and is further separated from the group by the many vibrant colors apparent on this textile fragment. This study targets this silk textile specifically, and explores the silk trade in Late Antique Egypt to further understand the context of the silk textile of the Mayer collection. Although similar in many ways to the industry and trade of linen and wool textiles, the dynamic silk trade stretching throughout the Byzantine world allows for interesting insights into the silk trade in Egypt and the origins of our silk textile.

Silk was present in Egypt dating as early as 1070 BCE, however, a full-scale silk weaving industry did not exist in Egypt until Constantinople was established as the capital of the Eastern Empire in the fourth century (Schoeser, 23). This was a period of flourishing and prosperity for the silk industry in Egypt.. The consolidation of the Byzantine Empire allowed for the trade routes to extend further into the empire, eventually reaching North Africa. The silk trade, defined by the famed Silk Road, reached its peak during the Byzantine period. From the fourth to the eighth centuries the overland routes between China, Persia and North Africa supplied all of the silk to the region. During this period, Egypt got their raw silk from China through Syria and an extension of the Silk Road called the Persian Royal Road (24). This overland trade route supplied the silk for the growing demand of silk textiles in the emerging urban centers of Egypt.

In Late Antique Egypt silk textiles largely served a social function and conveyed class status and wealth. Often silk textiles were not used to make full garments, rather they were attached in small decorative decals to larger garments of linen or wool. The silk decals often took the form of long strips called clavi or round medallions called segmenta (G.U., 194). The presence of silk on a garment in these two decorative elements determined the value of the garment and conveyed the wealth of the wearer to society. Although the use of silk on a garment was a luxury item in itself, other factors such as dyes, weave quality and iconography would make the garment even more valuable. Polychrome dyes were especially telling of the wealth of the wearer. The very early Egyptian textiles were made of red and brown dyes only, and polychrome dyes were not prevalent in the region until the fifth and sixth centuries (195). Thus, the most common dyes were browns and reds, and they represented to least luxurious of the colors. The least common, and most expensive dyes were the true purple hues. Often purple was mimicked, but the true purple dye was the most expensive because it was only extracted from the glands of Mediterranean snails (Noever, 164). In Egypt, the village of Naqada is famous for its dark mauve silk textiles (185). The level of polychromy on our silk textile, and the appearance of vibrant purple are significant in understanding our silk. From this information, it can be inferred that this textile fragment was most likely from a time after the fifth century, when polychrome dyes were introduced to Late Antique Egypt.

Beyond dyes, the quality of the weave and iconographic motifs also convey information about the owner’s wealth and beliefs. During the early Byzantine period, from the fourth and fifth centuries, the textile motifs were dominated by the Christian motifs of the Coptic style. The introduction of Christianity to Egypt was significant both in introducing a new lexicon of imagery to Egyptian textiles, but it also marked a shift in burial practices, facilitating the preservation of silk textiles from this period. Textiles of the early Byzantine period most often included the Christian imagery of the tree of life or of popular biblical stories such as the story of Joseph. The late Byzantine period, however, saw a shift in the style of silk textiles. This period is best defined by the abstraction of forms and distinct color areas that were no longer blended together (164). The textiles of this period are often considered “more crude” than their predecessors in the Byzantine period (G.U., 195). The Christian symbolism also became less over and the interest in patterns and motifs without any identifiable iconography became more prevalent in the years leading up to the Arab conquest of the seventh century.

Despite ample silk textile remains from this period available for comparison, none seem to directly parallel our silk textile. Although few direct connections can be made, there are still conclusions to be drawn about our textile from this body of research. First, this textile seems to fit most closely with the late Byzantine period, shortly before the Arab conquest. The degree of polychromy and the clear distinction between the colors both point to this conclusion. The absence of overt Christian or even Egyptian iconographic motifs suggests that this was created at a moment when textiles were drifting away from the Christian motifs of the Byzantine period and were becoming oriented towards the abstract patterns of the Islamic period. From this information, we can also conclude that this was a luxury item. The use of silk alone suggests that this piece was a luxury item, but the amount of color dyes, especially purple, would make this piece even more significant in conveying the wealth of the wearer. Further study of this silk textile could yield more information about its origins and its function in Egyptian society. This study could include chemical testing on the specific dyes or a wider search of comparanda in an attempt to clarify the time period and place of origin of the textile. Although there is still not much known about this textile, it adds another dimension to the Mayer collection and presents ample questions for further exploration.

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Courtney Diamond ('12) is an Art History Major from Lafayette, California.