Centre for Textile Research


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Published in Maria Mossakowska-Gaubert, ed., Egyptian Textiles and Their Production: ‘Word’ and ‘Object’ (Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Periods) (Lincoln, NE: Zea Books, 2020).

doi 10.32873/unl.dc.zea.1084


Copyright © 2020 Barbara Köstner


Silk samites from Late Roman and Early Medieval Egypt are well-known objects in museum collections all over the world. One group of fragments, the so-called Akhmim silks, show a mechanically repeated floral pattern. More than 100 examples with this design are known; the fragments bear striking similarities in design and technique. Were they woven in the same workshop? If all or at least a large number of pieces could be traced back to several batches of production, this would lead to further insights concerning the economics of early silk weaving. A detailed analysis of two exemplary pieces reveals features that are not seen at first sight: small mounting errors or faults during weaving can be followed warp- and weft-wise. Together with the technical details these “flaws” are a fingerprint of the textile that is unique and visible in all fragments woven within the same warp on the loom. In addition, the weaving faults provide details about the weaving process and the advanced looms that were used. This paper offers an approach towards the identification and characterisation of woven-in irregularities and a perspective on the possibilities they offer to research on complex fabrics.

Among the many different fabrics that were discovered in the Roman to Early Medieval necropoleis of Egypt around the turn of the 20th century was a remarkable amount of silk textiles. In 1891 the Swiss collector and art historian Robert Forrer published his catalogue Römische und Byzantinische Seiden-Texilien aus dem Gräberfelde von Achmim- Panopolis, dedicated solely to the luxurious and mostly patterned silk textiles found in Akhmim. Further silks from Akhmim and other find-spots in Egypt were published in early excavation reports, catalogues of collections, general overviews on so-called Coptic textiles or the history of silk textiles in particular.

Today the pieces are distributed around museums all over the world, particularly in the major art and textile museums and private collections. A broad, multi-disciplinary approach towards these textiles is necessary to answer the emerging questions on origin, production, distribution and use of these special fabrics.