Detail of a Late Antique tapestry figure, photo E. Yvanez ©

By the way, why on Earth did you chose to study textile?

asked my aunt and many others when I quickly present my work. Depending on who asks the question, it is generally accompanied by a perceptible touch of disbelief: “how can one spend 10 years on such a small and unimportant subject?” with an often latent “surely there are more interesting things to do in Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology!”.

Yes, ancient textiles are small – minute fragments sometimes. Yes, they are fragile – barely there – remains of the past. Light and fleeting, how can they possibly teach us anything about ‘History’?

Today’s archaeological sites offer a stark and mineral landscape, most often devoid of the multitude of organic artifacts that used to populate their walls. Contrary to this modern vision of past environments, textiles were in fact everywhere in humans’ surroundings. Together with leather, basketry, and wood – the other great absents – textiles were the constant companions of individuals, from birth to well beyond death. Until the Industrial Revolution, home-spun and home-woven textiles received the bodies of newborns, clothed and protected children and adults, and wrapped the dead. They provided comfort in the house, warming nights and decorating walls, formed sails, sacks and saddles for transport, and provided canvases for public display on bodies and monuments. Textiles were also the result of a complex chaîne opératoire, their raw materials and finished products often coming through far-reaching trading systems. Studying textiles, I constantly switch my academic hat: one day with microscope and tape-measure, one day juggling ancient economy treaties, one day staring at burials…And this is one of my big “why’s”: pulling one thread, you can unravel a whole side of Meroitic history. A side that is not fixed in bricks and monuments, a side very close to the people, which touched their skin and projected their identity.

This archaeological outlook has often been associated, in a rather stereotypical way, with a feminine approach to historical enquiries. Here resides one of the main obstacles of textile studies, the reason why textiles have long been ignored in archaeological research: gender bias. Deemed unimportant, textiles remained “une affaire de femmes”, used as they were to needlework and ‘frivolous fashion concerns’. “How could such as inconsistent part of material culture possibly teach us anything about the Big Questions that are power structures, kingship, conflicts, and the like?” As a result of this disinterest, remains of ancient textiles were often left in the hands of the archaeologist’s wife or other female collaborator as a sort of second-class material. Fortunately for us, the “wives of archaeologists” working in Sudan and Nubia were fantastic scientists in their own right. Grace Crowfoot and Nettie K. Adams, to cite two of the most prominent, quickly became incredible pioneers in the field of textile research, leaving meticulous and ground-breaking records of their discoveries. Their journey through Sudanese archaeology and textile studies are a true inspiration, and they both stand very high on my personal “Trowel Blazers” podium!

Despite the incredible volume and quality of their work, their results struggled to sip through the general archaeological discourse. Maybe they suffered from the negative preconception of being tagged “the wife of archaeologist X” and were not fully recognized as full academics themselves. Maybe the notoriously difficult textile terminology scared the – male! – archaeologists. Whatever the reasons were, they left their trace on my mind as I embarked in this field myself and I felt – still feel sometimes! – that I had to justify my choice. Why textiles?

In the meantime, textile archaeology has become a distinct field of research and the gender stigma is starting to regress. It is now time to forget about justifications and happily work in the better integration of our results in archaeology and history in general. It rests upon our shoulders to open the discipline to other areas, keeping manufacturing techniques and dress history at out heart but expanding to economic and social questions as well, so ancient textiles can reach their true place in the study of ancient cultures.

Textile in situ on a Meroitic skeleton, Aksha. Reproduced from A. VILA, Aksha II, le cimetière méroïtique d’Aksha, Paris, 1967, fig. 118.

References: “Textiles were everywhere”: John-Peter Wild, in Textiles in Archaeology, Shire publications, Princes Risborough, 1988.

Andersson Strand E., Frei K.M., Gleba M., Mannering U., Nosch M.-L. & Skals I. 2010.  “Old Textiles – New Possibilities”. European Journal of Archaeology 13(2): 149-173.

Harlow M. & Nosch M.-L. 2014. “Weaving the Threads: methodologies in textile and dress research for the Greek and Roman world – state of the art and the case for cross-disciplinarity”. In M. Harlow & M.-L. Nosch (eds.), Greek and Roman Textiles and Dress, Ancient Textile Series 19. Oxford, Oxbow books: 1-15.

See Grace Crowfoot’s archives at the Textile Research Center in Leiden


Tags : burialcraft and technologyeconomyfuneraryNile valleyproductiontextilewrapping
Elsa Yvanez

The author Elsa Yvanez

I am an archaeologist, researcher and post-doctoral fellow at the Centre for Textile Research, Copenhagen University.