Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC


Copyright © 1990 by the author(s).


For years archaeologists have commented on the occurrence of typically Aegean patterns on the ceilings of a fair number of Egyptian tombs, while musing that they could not see how such patterns were reaching Egypt. Certainly Minoan and Mycenaean potsherds had been found in fair numbers in Egypt; but the designs on the Egyptian ceilings were not the ones used by Aegean potters. To me, however, the particular patterns and layouts seemed strongly reminiscent of weaving —a craft I was quite familiar with, unlike most archaeologists, because my mother was a weaver. If the source of these ceiling patterns were indeed pieces of imported cloth, it would explain why the archaeologists could see no mode of transport, since the cloth itself has not survived.

Indeed not a scrap of patterned textile has survived in the Aegean area from the Bronze Age: Greece is one of the worst places in all of Europe and the Mediterranean for the preservation of textiles. So what do we have to go on? For one thing, we can examine what they show themselves as wearing. And what gorgeous textiles they are! In fresco after fresco we see handsome all-over polychrome patterns, the favorite being interlocked shapes like trefoils and quatrefoils.

On the one hand, most archaeologists have assumed, if they thought about it at all, that the scrumptious fabric designs in these frescoes were far beyond the weavers of the day, and hence that the Bronze Age fresco painters had invented the designs to make their pictures look pretty. And of course no such cloth has survived to prove the case either way, because no cloth has survived at all from Minoan Crete. We have, however, an independent source of evidence about what people were capable of weaving—namely, the more general history of European weaving—and it tells us that Europeans of lesser cultures nearby had already been weaving fancy cloth for millennia.

We know from various sorts of archaeological and palaeobotanical evidence, for example, that flax had been in use for textiles throughout southeastern Europe since the 6th millennium BC, and that wool and woolly sheep had been introduced from the Near East shortly before 3000 BC (the end of the Neolithic). At about this time we are lucky enough to get some fragments of patterned cloth from various other parts of central and southern Europe—from the Swiss pile dwellings, the Megalithic passage graves of East Germany, and the pile dwellings of northern Italy. Most of these textiles are patterned with supplemental wefts: one splendid example is the famous Neolithic linen "brocade" from Irgenhausen, in Switzerland, which analysis shows must have been executed in a minimum of 3 colors, possibly more.