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.


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

London, a world city in 20 objects: Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kangaChristopher Spring, British Museum

Tremendous celebrations greeted the news in Kenya, his father’s homeland, of Barack Obama’s election, on November 4 2008, as 44th President of the United States – and of his re-election for a second term in November 2012. Thousands of kangas bearing his image were proudly worn throughout the land. The inscription in Kiswahili reads: ‘Congratulations Barack Obama. God has granted us Love and Peace’. This kanga is on display as part of a special temporary exhibition at the British Museum looking at the textile traditions of southern and eastern Africa.

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga

Kangas are rectangular printed cloths, each with their own inscription written in the same place in every design; they are sold and worn in matching pairs and are principally a woman’s garment in eastern Africa, though often worn singly by men at home and by Maasai men in public.

A combination of inscription, overall design, and the ways in which a kanga may be worn make it a remarkable medium of communication. Kangas may be used to demonstrate a woman’s stance on global issues, her political allegiance and even her alignment with a collective vision for the future.

Kangas reflect changing times, fashions and tastes. They provide a detailed chronology of the social, political, religious, emotional and sexual concerns of those who wear them. Their patterns and inscriptions also vary according to the age of the wearer and the context in which the cloth is worn. Kangas provide ways of suggesting thoughts and feelings which cannot be said out loud, and of relieving suspicions and anxieties. They move between the realms of the secular and the sacred, playing a central role in all the major rite-of-passage ceremonies in a woman’s life, yet also are used for the most mundane of functions.

The rectangular form of today’s kanga, with a continuous border, a central image or pattern, and an inscription in Kiswahili, has changed considerably from early prototypes. The first kangas were created in the late nineteenth century by sewing together six printed handkerchiefs, lenço, which the Portuguese had traded to eastern Africa for centuries. Soon hand-stamped versions on a single piece of cloth replaced the sewn lenço, and these in turn were superseded by factory-printed textiles, while all the time the form and patterning of kanga were evolving. The most successful designs and inscriptions are those which will appeal most to women, so manufacturers depend heavily on the advice of their female African customers. There was little doubt that the Obama kanga would be a best-seller.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 14 February 2013.

Barack Obama’s Kenyan victory kanga is on display in the exhibition Social fabric: African textiles today until 21 April 2013.

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Filed under: Collection, London: a world city in 20 objects, , , , ,

My artistic practice


Nicola Jarvis, artist and hand embroiderer,
Royal School of Needlework

Nicola Jarvis was one of the ‘unknown’ embroiderers who worked together to construct the lace for Kate Middleton’s wedding dress. In this guest blog post, she explores how anonymous craftspeoples’ identities can create a sense of mystery and magic.

My artistic practice is a work in progress that has been evolving ever since I could hold a pencil. During this journey, I trained as a hand embroiderer at the Royal School of Needlework in the early 1990s. Over the last two decades I have worked on numerous commissions for the Royal School and contracts for a multitude of companies and private individuals. Most of these jobs have involved making stitched items or artworks for which, after payment, I received no further acknowledgement for my craftsmanship. This has become the norm for me, and my colleagues working in the same industry.

To create a well-crafted object through an intimate relationship with the materials and process of making constitutes much of the job satisfaction.

The history of material culture is made up of hundreds of thousands of anonymous craftspeople that have made objects as a livelihood, to enable their survival and that of their families, with no thought of recognition for what they do.

'c17th Summer Sampler’, silk and gold thread (2011)

'c17th Summer Sampler’, silk and gold thread (2011)

I am currently in Delaware, USA, at the Winterthur Museum attending an international needlework conference where 230 delegates are examining and discussing the work of English and American embroiderers over the past 400 years. Some of the makers’ identities are known revealing fascinating stories of where, why and how their needlework was made. Others remain hidden and it is only through detailed study of their craftsmanship that we may construct our own narratives. I think this mystery creates much of the ‘magic’ that surrounds an object with a potent mix of unanswered questions and possibilities.

When I began my training at the Royal School of Needlework, it was the mastery of skills and process of making embroidery that was of utmost importance to me. When working the lace for the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress, 20 years on, this was still the case.

I played a small part in a process that involved a large team of highly skilled needlewomen realising a very beautiful textile in the history of object making. Our stories and relationships are bound up in that dress, made with a commitment to, and a passion for, our craft. The individual and/or joint identities are not imperative, rather the collective energy and mastery of the materials and techniques is what will always be valued and celebrated.

Nicola’s embroidery short course at the Museum starting on Sunday 6 November is now fully booked, but take a look at other events in the Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman programme.

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Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.
Book tickets now

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, , , , , ,

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