Date of this Version
Published in Maria Mossakowska-Gaubert, ed., Egyptian Textiles and Their Production: ‘Word’ and ‘Object’ (Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Periods) (Lincoln, NE: Zea Books, 2020).
The site of El-Deir is situated north of Kharga in the “Great Oasis” of the Egyptian Western Desert (fig. 1). The site was occupied between the 6th century BC and the 6th century AD. A complex history emerged with the influence of many cultures: Persian, Greek, Roman and early Christian. Archaeological finds in both El-Deir and the oasis itself (the site of Dush and the temple of Darius in Hibis, a city north of Kharga) confirm that the Great Oasis was a wealthy region. This is also substantiated by texts from Ain Manawir and Dakhleh. The presence of an artesian aquifer, a great economic asset, further underpinned the prosperity of the area, which was a crossroads for numerous routes from the earliest dynasties.
There are currently three different sources of textiles on the site (fig. 2): the six cemeteries (five polytheistic and one Christian), the workshop of the embalmers, and the Roman fortress with adjacent temple. Most of the textiles have been found in a funerary context. The study of the textiles takes place within an oasis, a circumscribed setting with a specific geography and climate, and over a long continuous period. Such conditions are favourable for emphasising traditions and changes. Before briefly mentioning the material from El-Deir, we feel it is important to underline that comparisons with other textile studies are difficult. The majority of the necropoleis of the site are Ptolemaic and very few studies have concentrated on this period. In consequence, any possible comparisons must be made with recourse to Pharaonic textiles. On the other hand, the examples of textiles retrieved from the soundings in the fortress can be easily placed due to studies conducted in the Eastern Desert. Likewise, material from the Christian cemetery finds parallels in the numerous sites in Egypt that date to the Byzantine era. Technical and aesthetic criteria of the textiles from the site are important for the study of the social status of the buried individuals and provide an assessment of the local standard of living. The study of textiles can also help in reconstructing, at least partially, the textile industry of the oasis. Textiles can also shed new light on religious, cultural and economic life. Lastly, they can serve as a comparative tool for other sites. How does one deal with the diversity and quantity of textiles found in such a specific oasis site? Four hundred pieces of textile were selected in the field, entered into a database and then analysed. An essential step in the first instance was to choose, on-site, representative textiles according to quantity and quality, archaeological context, per individual, per tomb or en masse. These were in the great majority mere fragments, the site having been looted many times in the not too distant past. Once the textiles had been sorted, the second step involved a technical examination stretching from fibre to fabric, in order to shed light, for each, on the characteristics, the techniques used to transform them and, when possible, the tools used to do so. Only a few examples, which illustrate the diversity of the site, will be presented in this article, while focus shall remain on the raw material. We have chosen to present, one by one, the three textile fibres found on the site: linen, cotton and wool.
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