When Napoleon Bonaparte's soldiers took souvenirs home with them from the late eighteenth-century Egyptian campaign, modern interest in the archaeological remains of late antique textiles was ignited. Serious collectors and early archaeologists turned their attention to these artifacts around the turn of this century, unearthing tens of thousands of examples that are now in museum and private collections worldwide. Early exhibitions inspired artists like Matisse and designers like Mario Fortuny. In fact, these artifacts have never really lost their appeal: as recently as last year, Gianni Versace found inspiration for his last line of designs in the "Glory of Byzantium" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Another set of discoveries, of late antique textile patterns painted on papyrus -- an ancient form of paper-- have been published only since 1990. These patterns permit a fresh approach to studies that have been limited by the damaged and fragmentary nature of many of the textiles themselves (see the case below). Moreover, a wealth of late antique written documents (like the letter quoted below), as well as current developments in studies of fashion, identity, gender, and culture, allow us to read these artifacts as expressions of social identity, individual personality, and taste.
"Aeschines had already been interred three days when his niece came to visit his tomb for the first time. Custom, you know, does not permit girls to attend funerals once they are engaged to be married. However, even then she was dressed in purple, with a diaphanous veil over her hair, and she had decked herself with gold and precious stones that she might not be a sign of evil omen to her betrothed. Seated upon a chair with double cushions and silver feet, so they say, she railed against the untimeliness of the misfortune, on the grounds that Aeschines should have died either before her wedding or after it, and she was angry with us because we were in grief. ...Next week she is preparing to display herself crowned with fillets, and with a towering head-dress like [the goddess] Cybele."
"We are in no way wronged by this, except in the fact, patent to the whole world, that we have relations with very bad taste."
Letter of Bishop Synesius to his brother, late 4th to early 5th c. CE
Museum collections of late antique textiles are chiefly composed of discoveries made during the early part of this century at cemeteries preserved in the dry sands of Egypt. Those early excavations were often quite unscientific, as whole cemeteries were uprooted, and few records were kept. Much of our documentation for these early projects comes in the form of etchings made for popular publications. Very rarely, entire assemblages -- comprised of the corpse, its clothing, and other grave goods -- were kept together for later study. More typically, textiles were simply cut off of the bodies, and, quite often, only the most well preserved and elaborately decorated portions were deemed good enough for collecting. In fact, many early excavators were antiquities dealers who later sold the pieces to private collectors and museums. A significant portion of the Kelsey Museum's collection was acquired through such routes. The pieces displayed here illustrate the range of strategies employed to create marketable goods out of whole garments that had often deteriorated due to contact with rotting flesh and changing humidity levels.
Decorated textiles were expensive, labor-intensive productions. Not discarded until threadbare beyond utility, they were included in tombs and graves among the range of the best things in life, treasured as heirlooms, reused as hand-me-downs, and resold for cash.
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