British Museum blog

A new look at ancient Egyptian textiles

textile fragmentAmandine Mérat (Curator) and Emily Taylor (Museum Assistant), British Museum

We have recently taken the opportunity to audit, document and re-house the textiles dating to the 1st millenium AD – around 1,800 in number – that are looked after by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan (AES). The main aims of this project are the re-organisation and distribution of the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic textiles into a coherent and accessible storage system, along with the improvement of their documentation by adding photographs, technical analysis, iconographic and cultural information.

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870).  Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870). Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

As in many museums today, the British Museum’s Egyptian textiles collection is mostly composed of fragmentary pieces, acquired through excavation and purchase in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, decorative elements considered as spectacular or aesthetically pleasing were often cut out from large pieces when discovered, as only the most vibrant and colourful pieces were wanted by European collectors. However, this meant that they were also cut off from their archaeological contexts. It was for this reason that, with the exception of two great sets of textiles from excavations at Qasr Ibrim and Wadi Sarga, we decided to reorder the Museum’s collection not by provenance or date – as these are rarely known – but by technique. Indeed, a close visual examination of technique, and drawing on knowledge of their cultural background, allows us to determine the possible original function of many of the textiles, essentially fragments of garments and home furnishing originating from burial contexts.

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

We began our audit by classifying the textiles by their primary weaving technique – tapestry, brocade, embroidery etc. This process helped us to work out how much storage space was required for each group, taking into account the fragility of the textiles, but also the need for easy access and the possibility of new items joining the collection at a later date. Each primary group was then sub-divided, on the basis of shape or iconography of the textiles.

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Drawer by drawer, the technical and iconographic analyses for each textile were completed by Amandine Merat, the curator responsible for the project. Some pieces had already been studied by Hero Granger-Taylor in the 1990s; in those cases, her detailed notes were checked and annotated where necessary. However, a great majority of the textiles had never been analysed before. For these, the fibres were identified, measurements were taken, techniques carefully analysed and a complete description of the piece and its iconography was made. Original function of the textiles and dating were re-attributed where necessary.

Once the technical information was recorded, the textiles were photographed by Emily Taylor. A general shot of front and back was taken, an arrow included to indicate the direction of the warp of the fabric. Detailed macro shots were then taken to record any small details or highlight interesting elements of design, use or technique. The textiles were then re-housed in acid free tissue, and melinex sleeves where possible, and then placed on Correx boards within their storage drawers to enable ease of handling.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

All relevant information was recorded in a spreadsheet by our volunteer Ruiha Smalley, before being standardised and uploaded into the British Museum’s collection database, through which it will soon be available to the public via the collection online.

The post was updated on 24 June to correct a date in the first sentence. The textiles date to the 1st millennium AD, not BC.


If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, , , , , , , , , ,

Receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 11,508 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

Robert Burns was born #onthisday in 1759. Will you be addressing a haggis this #BurnsNight? Born #onthisday in AD 76: Roman emperor Hadrian. This marble bust was found near Tivoli, outside Rome
#history #sculpture Edouard Manet, sometimes called the first Modernist and last Old Master, was born #onthisday in 1832. 
This print, Les Courses ('The Races'), shows Manet's drawing at its most vigorous. The viewpoint is dramatic; the observer is placed in the centre of the racetrack awaiting the horses' imminent stampede. The railing slopes away at an unnerving angle. The lower right-hand corner dissolves into furious scribbling, with the lithographic crayon used on its side as well as its point.

Manet was a keen racegoer, often attending with his fellow artist Degas, whom he met while Degas was copying Velazquez' Infanta Maria Margarita in the @museelouvre 
#artist #Manet #history The exhibition #IndigenousAustralia will celebrate the cultural strength and resilience of both Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders, exploring the remarkable story of how an ancient civilisation has endured and whose story is still unfolding today. This spectacular turtle-shell mask is from the Torres Strait Islands and is used in ceremonies. 
Tickets are now on sale for #IndigenousAustralia – our new major exhibition opening 23 April britishmuseum.org/indigenousaustralia We're delighted to announce a new special exhibition: #IndigenousAustralia. Opening 23 April, this will be the first major exhibition in the UK to present a history of Indigenous Australia, drawing on remarkable objects to highlight 60,000 years of continuous culture
#exhibition This object will feature in our next major exhibition, to be announced tomorrow! Can you guess where it is from?
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 11,508 other followers

%d bloggers like this: