Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.


Copyright 2002 by the author(s). Used by permission of TSA.


Silk in ancient Africa? Most of us think of ancient Africans as members of a tribe, living by subsistence farming or herding, in villages of grass houses. But Nubia, the ancient Kush, located along the Nile in southern Egypt and the northern part of the Sudan, (Fig.l) was inhabited by an African people who, by 1800 BC, had developed their own high civilization. The Kushites were suppliers of ivory, ebony, gold, ostrich feathers, animal skins, and slaves to ancient Egypt and elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. In exchange they received a wide variety of manufactured goods.

By the fourth century AD the center of Kushite power had moved from much farther 9 south to the northern part of Nubia. Although the Kushites at that time were illiterate, the economy of their kingdom was based largely on trade with Byzantine Egypt. Animal products, ebony, gold, and slaves were sent north, and in exchange, luxury manufactured goods were traded into Nubia. Among the bronzes, glass vessels, carpets, and wine imported into Nubia, we also find silk.

Late Classical Period: 300-500 AD.

The earliest silk specimens found so far in Nubia are dated between 300-500 AD. Two examples come from Qustul (Fig. 1), a royal cemetery whose barbaric splendor stunned the archaeological world when it was discovered in 1931. The many- chambered tombs were constructed like houses, with rooms full of furnishings. The most surprising finding was the large number of human and animal sacrifices, a practice abandoned in Egypt for 3000 years. The wealth and power of the royal family was evident from the amount and quality of jewelry, silver horse trappings, silver and bronze vessels, tools, games, bronze tables, tripods and folding chairs, lamps, leather work, glass, weighing instruments, and textiles.

We have no structural descriptions of the two Qustul silks, only their colors. One was red and yellowish, the other was black and the same yellow color. However, the silk filaments were analyzed and were found to be from a wild moth, producing a silk similar to Tussah silk.