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Textile Production in Pre-Roman Italy

Textile Production in Pre-Roman Italy

By Margarita Gleba (Ancient Textiles Series 4). Pp. xxv + 269, b&w figs. 120, tables 8, maps 12. Oxbow, Oxford 2008. $70. ISBN 978-1-84217-330-5 (cloth).


Textiles are one of the most prevalent forms of material culture, yet they are also one of the most ephemeral elements of the archaeological record. Seen as impressions in more durable materials, such as pottery, or as iconographic elements or memories of pattern and design in other media, the remains of fiber textiles are preserved in their own right only under specific environmental conditions. As one who has been interested in textiles as an explanation for the rapid expansion of animal husbandry (sheep and goats) and extended trade in the central Mediterranean Copper Age, I was intrigued to see the appearance of this new book, which is a thorough gathering of available information on both the technical aspects of textile production and the implications that they have for socioeconomic organization and other contextual issues. The author already has a significant bibliography of her own, and she is rapidly distinguishing herself as an authority in the field. She delimits this study to the period 1000–400 B.C.E., or the Italian Iron Age and Archaic periods, which saw a significant shift in ways of living from egalitarian villages to urban centers with socioeconomic specialization.

Derived from the author's doctoral dissertation at Bryn Mawr College ("Textile Production in Pre-Roman Italy: Archaeological Evidence" [2005]), the book is articulated into seven parts: geographical and chronological context, sources, fibers and textiles, techniques and tools, contexts, technology production and trade, and textile production in its social context. The table of contents offers a detailed litany of subtopics that demonstrate the systematic way in which the author has approached her subject. An overview of places and phases (elaborated according to the well-known Italian concept-term facies, as well as by common categories of culture process—such as burial customs, settlement structure, exchange, and trade—and historical issues, such as colonization) presents the reader with a brief introduction to Italian protohistory (a defining concept in itself referring to anything after the Neolithic and before written history); this is particularly useful for scholars coming to the region from other stomping grounds. The three parts that follow (on sources, materials, and techniques) offer a well-researched and thoroughly documented summary that can be digested with relative ease by those who have spent less time with the subject.

There is a somewhat Spartan character to the format. The text is in a small typeface, and the photographic illustrations and line drawings are black-and-white. The quality of the illustrations is good both for the clarity of their reproduction and their relevance to the points the author makes. The table of figures, as well as the notes, extensive bibliography, and final index are all easy to use. The book is also fairly easy to hunt-and-peck as a reference work both for the materials themselves and for current scholarship in the field.

The book suffers a bit from its dissertation origins by being so thorough that information that is lacking is presented as a kind of negative conclusion. For example, Gleba remarks wistfully about the situation in Sicily: "As in the case of South Italy, however, for the period of our interest, past research has concentrated on Greek settlements . . . resulting in a limited amount of information on the indigenous sites" (21). This is somewhat true for textiles overall, with the notable exception of Lukesh's work on decorative patterns in Castelluccian Early Bronze Age ceramics, but it is no longer the case for Sicilian protohistory as a whole. Such pronouncements sound like bald statements, and they reflect mostly that a single scholar can humanly manage direct field experience in only one part of Italy and must resort to table learning for the rest.

Each topic is covered, but no one topic is treated extensively. The most discussed topics concern the iconography of production (27); distaff spinning, with a separate catalogue of finds (109); loomweights with a thorough typology (127); and spools (140). Pithy conclusions appear at the end of each section. The author's own work at Poggio Civitate (Murlo) is discussed as a case study, but it is not overly showcased. The book does a nice job of interweaving (forgive the metaphor) discussion of physical remains and iconographic and literary sources. While Italy presents most of the environmental conditions necessary for the preservation of fibers, most remains of actual cloth come from lacustrine contexts in the Alpine regions of the north. Fibers used for clothing, shrouds, wrapping, and other utilitarian purposes, including ship rigging and sails, are discussed in turn. The famed libri lintei of Etruria turn out to be a rare form of what today we might call "book art," and they may have been made from flax grown originally outside Etruria proper in the Po River valley and/or Campania (a direct consequence of Etruscan expansion?).

One of the most interesting comments about textile sources, and one particularly useful to field archaeologists, is that the bulk of the evidence comes not from iconographic sources or spectacular, rare finds, but rather from traces on associated materials, particularly metals (an unfortunate form of subordination in the archaeological record). The way in which the author has been able to observe fiber traces on finds that have long been on display in museums (that, too, is a fluke of preservation) is impressive. It bears out in linen fibers that were found on a fibula at the indigenous Sikel site of ancient Palikè, where this reviewer has worked (the form of the fibula, Middle La Tène, suggests that this object was an import to Sicily, and following Gleba's hypothesis, the fiber presence may suggest that the cloth the fibula once held together was an import too). One ought also mention the recently discovered insignia and related spearheads and other paraphernalia—most likely of the deposed Roman emperor Maxentius—that have been recovered in a secure context across the street from the Temple of Venus in the heart of Rome (of course, this is outside the scope of the author's study, as are the considerable textile finds of the Roman era in the area around Mt. Vesuvius).

The bulk of Gleba's text is refreshingly devoid of the kind of theory and metalanguage that permeates much archaeological publication today. She reserves her sixth part as a sort of reprise that summarizes in nine pages her findings in reference to a limited number of theoretical issues. After a short excursus on textiles as a form of technology and the notion of chaîne opératoire (the conceptual as well as physical steps one takes in technological activity), the author focuses on the increasing use of sheep for secondary products (wool) and the appearance and standardization of fiber-related implements (shears) and new weaves (twill, tabby, and tablet-woven textiles) as indicators of a rise in the importance of textiles—a sign both of social development in Italy and extended contact with central Europe among elites engaged in gift exchange. While these may be somewhat worn paradigms in archaeological explanation, one cannot help feeling comforted by the image of Penelope at her loom in Homer's Odyssey.

Literary similes aside, the author really does characterize textile technology as a household endeavor with little specialization until late in the Archaic period. Rather than being specialized, textile work in Italy seems to have been limited first by gender (the author argues that the iconography of textiles illustrates female protagonists exclusively and that there were no specialized male roles before the third century B.C.E.) and, as aristocracies rose out of basically egalitarian communities, by status. Textiles were the realm of aristocratic women, as evidenced by actual mantles found at Verucchio and scenes showing women at full-length vertical looms executed in repoussé on the so-called Throne of Verucchio and sculpted on Daunian stelae (drawings derived from these sources comprise the book's cover illustrations).

Gleba reports Rallo's theory that higher status was given to those who worked in wool, and we might suppose that an Italian Penelope would not have been caught dead weaving in linen. The exchange of ideas and technology, unlike that in other materials, would have spread through intermarriage rather than through the work of itinerant craftsmen. Only later would textile production shift from the realm of the female aristocratic elite to textile specialists of other social backgrounds, with the concomitant standardization and appearance of concentrated textile tool finds in sanctuaries (e.g., the sanctuaries of Saint Venera at Paestum and Lavinium, although the famous Taranto textile industry remains a mystery from an archaeological standpoint).

Part 7, described as a coda, serves as a three-page concluding statement for the book. The author reiterates how "the textile craft became a symbol of the female sphere" (199). This prerogative was restricted to the elite until a moment marked by the disappearance in the archaeological record of bronze distaffs for spinning (Penelope throws up her hands and quits weaving). Almost paradoxically, however, the author remarks on the penultimate page that "[i]t is hard to tell whether textile production was a household, a workshop, or a large-scale industry. Probably, depending on time and place, it could have been either one of these or a combination of all three" (201). She settles by saying that there is enough evidence to speak of surplus production by the end of the seventh century B.C.E. This is fair enough for a scholar who has presented in a clear and efficient manner the actual evidence that we have for textile production in this part of the world and the kinds of conclusions that we can reasonably derive from it. Gleba leaves the reader, in fact, with a broad hypothesis that can be examined by many scholars in many contexts for years to come—that textiles became specialized with the passage from an egalitarian to an aristocratic society; then, with the rise of a mercantile society and larger urban centers, textile production passed from the realm of the household to more independent workshop locations. It is the link between textile production and urbanization that is perhaps the most significant portal for future research. Gleba's book is a sincere publication that stands firmly next to pioneering syntheses, such as Barber's Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean (Princeton 1991), and in a convenient way, it shares a surprising wealth of knowledge that hopefully will inspire other scholars to make the subject their own.

Brian E. McConnell
Department of Visual Arts and Art History
Florida Atlantic University
Boca Raton, Florida 33431

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1142.McConnell

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