As a graduate student in art history at Bryn Mawr College planning to write a dissertation on late antique textiles, I was thrilled when I heard about the Dumbarton Oaks Museum’s collaborative research project on their collection of more than two hundred textiles of the Byzantine Collection’s holdings. These include examples from the Byzantine, Sassanian and early Islamic periods, a time now referred to as “late antiquity” in Egypt.
Though many of these objects have been part of the collection since the Blisses endowed their Byzantine Collection in 1940 to Harvard, the textile collection has not yet been systematically published. Now, inspired by recent publications such as Sabine Schrenk’s catalog of the Abegg Stiftung’s late antique textile collection and Antoine De Moor and Caecilia Fluck’s “Clothing the House: Furnishing Textiles of the 1st Millenium AD from Egypt and Neighboring Countries,” Dumbarton Oaks is preparing a catalog and exhibition of the collection.
The plan is to focus on furnishing textiles, which we define as cloth used for any purpose other than dress. Curtains, wall hangings and napkins are all furnishing textiles. Concentrating on late antique textiles’ usage is a new and innovative approach. Since these textiles began to surface in excavations in the late 19th century, scholarship has generally focused on dating and attribution of the textiles to production centers. In recent years, however, scholars have started to question textiles’ functions in late antique society. Schrenk’s catalog, for example, organized the objects not by suspected date or motif, but function such as wall hanging, curtain or tunic.
Attributing function to a late antique textile is no easy task. Due to poor preservation conditions and early modern dealers’ predilections for cutting up late antique textiles, the objects are usually quite fragmentary. To complicate things even further, textiles were often reused in late antiquity over and over again. A part of a curtain could have ornamented a tunic in secondary or tertiary use. Schrenk relied on size, shape and sometimes texture to categorize the Abegg Stiftung’s textiles. She prudently categorized many textiles as “decorations from tunics or cloth” because she was unable to make a definitive designation.
At Dumbarton Oaks, we are attempting to build upon Schrenk’s innovative work and question whether there are further distinctions between furnishing and dress textiles. Over the course of my internship, research assistant Betsy Williams and I have examined almost every textile in the collection, looking for evidence of use. We have noted hems, selvedge, thread counts, thickness and weave structure. We are wondering whether there was any sort of correlation in late antiquity between technical features and use. Were stronger textiles with thicker warps used more often for furnishing? Were textiles with higher thread counts used more often for dress? These are questions that cannot be easily answered. We hope these grand questions and preliminary research will start a conversation between art historians, textiles conservators and other specialists that may one day lead to more precise answers about the functions of late antique textiles.