Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles as Primary Sources: Proceedings of the First Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Minneapolis Institute of Art, September 16-18, 1988


Copyright © 1988 by the author(s).


Some time ago I embarked on a "short little project" to find out what I could about Bronze Age Aegean textiles, which I had come to suspect were more elaborate and more important than anyone was giving them credit for. I knew the project could not take very long, and would not take more than maybe ten pages to write up, because virtually nothing in the way of textiles has survived from Greece—even in the Classical period, let alone the prehistoric era. But my father, who was a physicist, had instilled into me a question that changed everything: namely, "(If I can't get at it by the direct route,) how else can I get at it?" Fourteen years and 800 pages of "how elses" later, I had more or less wrapped up my "little project"—soon to be published as a fat book. It is the story of what strategies and methods I had to invent or discover, to squeeze out the answers to my original questions, that I have been asked to talk about here.

My project had begun when I noticed a) that some typically Aegean artistic motifs were turning up in Bronze Age Egypt without visible means of transport across the Mediterranean— patterns that looked to me like textile patterns; and b) that the earliest archaic Greek art had sprung up with some clear Mycenaean traits, but with no visible means of transport across more than 400 years. These traits, too, looked to me as if they had their origins in textiles.

Archaeologists and art historians, however, pooh-poohed the idea of fancy cloth. After all, people then could not have known how to make such fancy fabrics: we all know that the Greeks were used to wearing plain "classical" white; that they had just climbed out of a cave, sartorially speaking—like Herakles, running about in nothing but a lion-skin—; in fact, that they barely knew how to weave! So my problem was, could I back up my case? After all, virtually no textiles had survived, and indeed, Greece is one of the very worst places for the survival of ancient textiles, because the climate alternates between very dry and very wet each year.

Most people who work with the history of textiles are used to looking at reasonably large pieces of cloth. But the prehistorian is lucky to get scraps the size of your thumbnail. The reaction of most scholars to such crummy little artifacts is either to toss them on the dump heap, or barely to mention them in a footnote, thinking that there is no information value in such scraps. And as long as you only look at one or two of them, that's true. I found, however, that the information value of these tidbits increases almost endlessly as you widen the context. It is rather like looking at a pointilliste painting by Van Gogh: if you get up very close, all you see is dots—lots of little dots that don't mean anything. But as you move farther away and get a broader view, you begin to see meaningful patterns in them. In just this way I learned I had to increase the context—increase it geographically, in time span, and in the scope of the questions.