Date of this Version
From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC
The Department of Eastern Art in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, holds what is undoubtedly one of the largest single collections of block-printed textiles produced in India, but exported to Egypt as part of the medieval Islamic Indian Ocean trade. These textiles, all now mere fragments, are of particular interest for two reasons. Firstly, fabrics of this type give us the earliest surviving examples of Indian weaving, although single fibre fragments have been found at the Indus Valley site of Mohenjo-Daro, dating to the second millenium B.C. , and we have numerous Vedic references to dress and textiles, as well as pictorial evidence of sumptuous garments from the Ajanta caves (5th-6th century A.D.). Secondly, the presence of the fragments in Egypt is evidence of trade links which have an ancient origin.1
The textiles in the Ashmolean Museum were all acquired by the Egyptologist P.E. Newberry (1869-1949), for his own private collection. He was the first Brunner Professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, and afterwards he held the Chair of Ancient Egyptian History and Archaeology in Cairo from 1929 to 1933. Apparently he had a particular interest in historical textiles. His collection came to the Ashmolean in 1946. Apart from the fragments under consideration here, there is an equally big collection of Islamic embroidered textiles, and the museum's Department of Antiquities holds textiles which are Late Antique or Coptic.2 Newberry had worked with Sir Flanders Petrie and Howard Carter and had first-hand excavation experience, but his large private collection was almost certainly acquired exclusively from dealers during his years in Cairo.
The extent of Newberry's interest must have been considerable. While most collections of Indo-Egyptian textile fragments can be numbered in tens rather than hundreds, the Ashmolean's holdings are vast by comparison: there is a total of 1225 block-printed fragments. The size is matched by quality and variation of design; virtually any pattern known in this kind of textile is well represented, and there are pieces which are probably unique.3 However, the collection is not widely known, and until very recently (May 1990) it could not be used as research material, as the fragments had not been properly accessioned into the Department's holdings, hence had no number or" other means -of identification which made them available as a reference. Furthermore, the fragments were stuck onto cardboard sheets with glue and were stacked into boxes, quite at random and ordered by size alone.4