You are here

Textiles and Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean

April 2019 (123.2)

Book Review

Textiles and Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean

Edited by Cecilie Brøns and Marie-Louise Nosch (Ancient Textiles Series 31). Pp. xiv + 258. Oxbow, Oxford and Philadelphia 2017. $80. ISBN 978-1-78570-672-1 (cloth).

Reviewed by

The study of ancient textiles, a major yet exasperatingly perishable commodity, has burgeoned in the past 25 years as awareness of fiber crafts and the technical means for their study have improved. These 21 papers, from a conference on ancient Mediterranean cloth and clothing associated with cult, provide yet more insights, focusing on central though little-studied uses of cloth. Ever since the fiber crafts began developing more than 25,000 years ago (and new finds keep pushing the date back), humans have become increasingly dependent on and infatuated with the results: first, the remarkable powers of string, then eventually woven products as made-to-order, status-encodable substitutes for leaves, barks, and hides.

This volume contains four main divisions: Greece (one paper on a Minoan topic, seven on classical and Hellenistic), Italy (five papers, on Roman as well as other Italian), the ancient Near East (seven, on Neo-Assyrian/Babylonian, Zoroastrian, Levantine, and Palmyran Greek/Aramaic), plus one paper on Early Christian. Despite the broad span, several themes emerge; I have space here for but a few.

Most important and edifying to me—as one of the few archaeologists who was trying to study prehistoric textiles in a vacuum 30 and 40 years ago—is the remarkable and ever-increasing mass of data provided by the Centre for Textile Research (CTR) in Copenhagen, directed by Marie-Louise Nosch (an editor of this volume) and Eva Andersson Strand. Because fibers are so fragile, it is useless to say, “I’ll go dig up some cloth,” the way one might plan to locate an ancient building. Instead, the CTR very systematically studies how early textiles must have been created, using the tools their makers left us and the fibers we know they had. Thus Ferrara and Meo (ch. 11, on loom weights from a South Italian Heraion) can say that the CTR’s experiments “now allow us to establish the quality of the fabric produced by analyzing the relationship between the weight and thickness of the [excavated] loom weights: the weight determines how many threads can be attached to it while the thickness [of the weights] establishes their density [on the loom]. The relationship between the two . . . makes it possible to calculate the tension to which the threads were subjected. . . . Furthermore, the most recent developments in these studies enable us to calculate the average thickness of the threads based on the thread tension” (120). Thread size, in turn, indicates how heavy the spindle and whorl were that produced it (the heavier the whorl, the heavier the thread; but CTR experiments make that more exact), and this can again be correlated with the excavated whorls. In addition, the number of weights found in a set indicates the width of the loom, hence the probable width of the cloth. And now these “calculated” fabrics are being compared to actual fragments from other contemporary South Italian sites (121 n. 30). Extensive charts of such data from the CTR (with yet other types of useful deductions) appear in Enegren (ch. 10, 107). In short, the CTR has painstakingly constructed an entirely new  tool, not just new data, for enlarging our knowledge of ancient textiles.

Another powerful resource for textile scholars is sustained tradition—a theme as noteworthy for its use in some papers as for its absence in others. Fibers, thread, and cloth; spindles, looms, and needles; spinning, weaving, and sewing all have inherent structures that did not change much from the Neolithic to the Middle Ages. Thus it is crucial to study the ongoing rural traditions and, equally, to learn to spin and weave oneself (fun and relaxing, if you needn’t clothe your entire household). Technical understanding allowed both Gaspa (ch. 14) and Payne (ch. 15) to tack down closely the meanings of various textile- and dye-related terms in Babylonian cuneiform, while familiarity with local custom prompted Enegren (ch. 10, 110), Gaspa (ch. 14, 171), and Leatherbury (ch. 21, 243) to note the local persistence today of the antique customs of presenting cloth at sanctuaries and dressing the deity’s statues.

Before the era of fast transportation, radio, and TV, rural farmers who produced people’s cloth and clothing from scratch lived isolated from all but their nearest neighbors, and they lived dangerously close to ruin if something went wrong. So maintaining the traditions of those ancestors who had survived was the safest recipe. And it is not just tools and techniques that conserve tradition but also religiously dictated dress and location, as discussed in ancient Greece by Kristensen and Krasilnikov (ch. 5) and as persist to this day in rural Europe. We ourselves revert to 19th-century-style dress for church weddings.

Indeed, a woman’s status with regard to marriage and the ability to bear children for society was so important in western Eurasia that a garment tradition begun in the Paleolithic persists to this day in many remote areas. What was originally a simple string skirt metamorphosed in some regions, with the spread of woven cloth in the Neolithic, into a more solid wraparound skirt or back apron. This “marital” skirt (either form) is given to a girl only when she reaches puberty and is available for marriage (E.J.W. Barber, “On the Antiquity of East European Bridal Clothing,” in L. Welters, ed., Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia: Beliefs About Protection and Fertility [Oxford 1999] 13–32). Indeed, Boloti’s paper (ch. 1) on Minoan back aprons handed to skirtless young women in ritual situations would seem part and parcel of this remarkably persistent tradition (cf. E.J.W. Barber, “Some Evidence for Traditional Ritual Costume in the Bronze Age Aegean,” in M.-L. Nosch and R. Laffineur, eds., KOSMOS: Jewellery, Adornment and Textiles in the Aegean Bronze Age, Aegaeum 33 [Liège 2012] 25–9, pls. 8, 9).

Roses, too, persist as protective talismans, embroidered or woven all over traditional Balkan dress for the safety of the wearer (and showered over Faust to protect his soul from Mephistopheles). An ancient scholiast states outright that the θρóνα that Andromache weaves into a δíπλακα shirt (double weave, not likely tapestry) for her beleaguered husband Hector are specifically roses (E.J.W. Barber, Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean [Princeton 1991] 372–73), not just “flowers” (Boloti, 13 n. 72).

Learning to spin and weave in the traditional ways also enables scholars to understand more accurately what they are looking at and thus to avoid muddying the record through mislabeling. When I began researching ancient cloth, any ancient textile with a pattern was usually labeled “embroidery.” But when, after five years of library research, I traveled through Europe and Egypt in 1979 inspecting in person the known fragments, I discovered that true embroidery did not actually turn up until the Middle Bronze Age, specifically in the Levant, by which time Europe had a millennia-old tradition of overshot patterns and Egypt of “inlay”—both woven in on the loom, not sewn on afterward with a needle. Mislabeling had so muddied the record that I had to start my research over. In this volume, the catchall for patterned cloth is “tapestry,” whether the piece was overshot, inlaid, double-woven, or embroidered (yes, to answer 29 n. 26, the  Classical Greeks did know embroidery: we possess actual fragments [see Barber (1991) 206–9]). It is not unreasonable to ask that people researching textiles take the trouble to learn the different techniques (a problem at, e.g., 13 n. 72, and 59) and also what sort of time it takes to produce each (misleading on, e.g., 36, 46). Likewise for carding, a technique new in medieval guilds, vs. combing, the ancient method of fiber preparation (e.g., 13).

The warp-weighted loom was typical of the north Mediterranean but was not the only loom known in Europe. Simple two-beam looms almost certainly existed (as in the Near East), while preserved textiles in Bronze Age Denmark required a large 3-bar loom for their tubular warps. “Excavation” of the strata in Greek vocabulary demonstrates clearly that the Greeks knew nothing of any large loom when they entered Greece in the Bronze Age, borrowing the necessary technical words from the locals, while their own native vocabulary was sufficient only for weaving on a narrow band loom (Barber, 1991, 260–82, for exhaustive analysis). Bands continued as an extremely important product, little thought of today but discussed at least briefly by Cleland (ch. 3, 30) and Lovén (ch. 13, 139). Answers to why they were used again can come from learning to weave and plait such bands and discovering firsthand what they do when sewn onto other textiles, as Lillethun did when demonstrating the crucial role of bands in causing the famous Minoan bodices to function as helpful bust supports (“The Recreation of Aegean Cloth and Clothing,” in K.P. Foster and R. Laffineur, eds., METRON: Measuring the Aegean Bronze Age, Aegaeum 24 [Liège 2003] 463–71).

As a whole, the book is of considerable use to anyone dealing with ancient textiles or gender roles. Much discussion that links textiles and cult involves women because women have typically, traditionally, dedicated what they themselves made and used all their lives: cloth, clothing, and textile tools. The reasons for their cult dedications, seen throughout the volume, have typically been and still are to ask for help or to return thanks for help already given. Most famous to classicists is the small peplos (not the big quadrennial one) woven yearly by Athenian women to dress Athena’s life-sized cult statue, bearing depictions in saffron and purple of the battle of the gods and giants: women’s thank offering to Athena for saving Athens long ago and a heartfelt plea (and reminder) still to keep them and the city safe.

E.J.W. Barber
Cotsen Institute of Archaeology

Book Review of Textiles and Cult in the Ancient Mediterranean, edited by Cecilie Brøns and Marie-Louise Nosch

Reviewed by E.J.W. Barber

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 123, No. 2 (April 2019)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1232.barber

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.