For the love of cotton
One of the key characteristics of Meroitic textiles resides at their very heart: before the threads and weaving techniques, it is their raw material – cotton fibres – that defines them as a unique textile tradition. Among the hundreds of textiles that I have been studying so far, up to 80% are solely made of cotton. As a young researcher first working on textiles, I did not pay much attention to that fact. As it was omnipresent, I took ‘cotton’ for granted. However, when I dug deeper in the world of ancient textiles, in Europe and around the Mediterranean basin, I realised that such a high proportion was more than rare: it was exceptional. Wool and linen massively dominated the assemblages, in both Pharaonic and Late Antic Egypt. In fact, these two fibres were also the fibres of choice in Sudan, until the very beginning of the Meroitic period.
What happened then, sometimes in the first century BCE, to cause such a radical shift in the textile economy?
In the words of Erik Orsenna, a French writer and academician, the Meroites had “just met with the softness of cotton”.
Cotton has obvious advantages in the hot climate of Sudan and Nubia: cotton clothing covers but breathes, and it does not retain moisture while remaining supple. And what to say of its softness and comfort? It is not hard to imagine the attraction cotton exerted on people more used to leather, wool and linen, which albeit well worked and of high quality, could not provide such an enjoyable tactile experience.
Once harvested, cotton is also incredibly easy to work with. It does not necessitate the daily rearing and manipulation of a flock or the complicated and labour-intensive process of linen preparation. The only requirement is to free the fibres from their attached seeds, a task that is easily accomplished with a rudimentary tool and numerous hands working together. Cotton fibres can then be spun and woven, and behave similarly to short staple wool. So it is almost a “field-to-thread” direct process.
Arguably, cotton is trickier to grow. It obeys to a summer agricultural calendar, different from wheat and barley, whose calendar and water requirement fit with the Nile flooding cycle. Together with sorgho, cotton belongs to another wave of botanical domestication and dispersion: the “savannah package”, which seems to have spread from the southern regions of Kordofan or the Gash Delta from the first century BCE onwards (see Fuller 2014).
The process that led the Meroites to adopt cotton cultivation could not have entirely relied on nature though: cotton growing is demanding and can only be the result of a conscious decision with heavy consequences. Growing cotton means using a sizeable part of an already scarce arable land for a non-alimentary crop; in arid landscape, it means investing quite heavily on irrigation systems; and it means enlisting a large workforce for the harvest in an over wise busy agricultural season. Despite these drawbacks, it seems that cotton cultivation took on very rapidly in Meroitic Sudan, as a growing body of archaeobotanical and textile evidence illustrates. A paleogenetic study conducted on the very well preserved remains found in the Nubian settlement of Qasr Ibrim (dated to the 4th century CE), has showed that the cotton grown in the region belonged to the Gossypium herbaceum species, was native to Africa, and did already evolved to adapt to environmental stresses such as droughts (see Palmer et. al. 2012).
It is highly probable that cotton represented a significant economic value within the Meroitic kingdom, as well as outside of its border as a trading and exchange commodity. Several Egyptian archaeological sites continue to give more and more information about the Roman’s demand in cotton textiles, which production then spread through the southern Mediterranean basin. In Meroe itself, elaborated cotton garments, with codified embroidered décor and lavish openwork borders and fringes, were bestowed upon nobles, high officials and religious dignitaries.
The current hypotheses locate cotton cultivation in Lower Nubia, in the Qasr Ibrim/Karanog region, maybe along seasonal wadis of the Butana and along the Atbara River, as well as in the Blue Nile region, in the extreme South of the Meroitic sphere of influence. Without a doubt, procuring and transforming cotton occupied an important part of the population daily activities. By understanding the Meroitic love for cotton, we can unveil fascinating aspects of the social life and economic organisation of the Meroitic kingdom.
This line of my research has immensely benefited from collaborations with archaeobotanists: first with Dorian Fuller (UCL) – who first set me on the ancient textiles path – and Charlène Bouchaud (Museum of Natural History, Paris). Together, Charlène and I recently assembled a volume of articles dedicated to the study of Cotton in the Old World, the results of a conference organised at the Museum in Paris in 2017. The history of Sudanese cotton from the Meroitic to the medieval periods is the object of a detailed study by Magdalena M. Wozniak and myself, while other contributions show the complex processes of cotton’s diffusion in Mesopotamia, ancient Palestine, the Egyptian oases, the medieval Arab world, and pre/post colonial Western Africa. Today, the Meroitic cotton textiles do not stand alone anymore: still exceptional by their sheer numbers and unique style, they are now part of a much wider network of scientific enquiries, interweaving botany, past economies, and people.
*Original quote: « Un homme qui passe remarque un arbuste dont les branches se terminent par des flocons blancs. On peut imaginer qu’il approche la main. L’espèce humaine vient de faire connaissance avec la douceur du coton ». Erik Orsenna 2006. Voyage au pays du coton. Petit précis de mondialisation. Paris, Le Livre de Poche, Fayard.
- Bouchaud C., Clapham A., Newton C., Tallet G. & Thannheiser U. 2018. “Cottoning on to Coton (Gossypium spp.) in Arabia and Africa during Antiquity”. In Mercuri A.M., D’Andrea A.C., Fornaciari R. & Höhn A. (eds.), Plants and People in the African Past. Springer [ebook]: 330-426.
- Clapham A. & Rowley-Conwy P. 2009. “The Archaeobotany of cotton (Gossypium sp.L) in Egypt and Nubia with special reference to Qasr Ibrim, Egyptian Nubia”. In Fairbairn A. & Weiss E. (eds.), From foragers to farmers. Papers in Honour of G. Hillman. Oxford: Oxbow Books, Oxford: 244-253.
- Fuller D.Q. 2014. “Agricultural innovation and State Collapse in Meroitic Nubia: the impact of the Savannah Package”. In Stevens C.J., Nixon S., Murray M.A. & Fuller D.Q. (eds.), Archaeology of African Plant Use. Walnut Creek, Left Coast Press: 165-177.
- Palmer S.A., Clapham A.J., Rose P., Freitas F.O., Owen B.D., Beresford-Jones D., Moore J.D., Kitchen J.L. & Allaby R.G. 2012. “Archaeogenomic Evidence of Punctuated Genome Evolution in Gossypium”. Molecular biology and evolution 29(8): 2031-2038.
- Wild J.P., Wild F.C. & Clapham A.J. 2007. “Irrigation and the Spread of Cotton Growing in Roman Times”. Archaeological Textiles Newsletter 44: 16-18.
- Wild F.C. 2011. “Fringes and aprons – Meroitic clothing: an update from Qasr Ibrim”. In De Moor A. & Fluck C. (eds.), Dress Accessories of the 1st Millennium AD from Egypt. Lanoo, Tielt: 110-119.
- Yvanez E. 2018. “Clothing the elite? Patterns of textile production and consumption in ancient Sudan and Nubia”. In Ulanowska A., Siennicka M. & Grupa M. (eds.), Dynamics and Organisation of Textile Production in Past Societies in Europe and the Mediterranean, Fasciculi Archaeologiae Historicae 31. Lodz, Polska Akademia Nauk, Instytut Archeologii i Etnologii: 81-92.
For a complete bibliography and a methodological discussion on the inter-disciplinarity of “cotton studies”, see Bouchaud C. & Yvanez E. (eds.), Cotton in the Old World. Domestication, cultivation, uses, and exchanges. Revue d’Ethnoécologie (en ligne) 15:
Bouchaud C., Yvanez E. & Wild J.-P. 2019. “Tightening the thread from seed to cloth. New enquiries in the archaeology of Old World cotton”. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ethnoecologie/4501
Yvanez E. & Wozniak M.M. 2019. “Cotton in ancient Sudan and Nubia. Archaeological sources and historical implications”. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ethnoecologie/4429