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What Textiles Can Tell Us About Life In Ancient Rome

By: Grahame Johnston - Updated: 7 Feb 2013 | comments*Discuss
Textiles Archaeology Ancient Rome Roman

Clothing and other textiles are of great significance to the survival of human beings. Even in the height of the Roman period textiles enjoyed a key role in society. Everybody, from emperors to slaves wore some form of clothing and used household fabrics for every day purposes.

Archaeology experts often examine methods of ancient textile production in order to gain insight into an ancient culture that has long passed into obscurity. Although archaeological discoveries have yielded frescos, paintings, mosaics, and vases depicting the craft of weaving, as well as the actual implements used in the trade, it is the textiles themselves that bring the most joy to any textile specialist.

Examining Ancient Roman Textiles

Ancient textiles, found in good condition, and other fabrics that have survived hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years, often provide the most helpful information about the ancient Roman textile industry. When archaeology experts examine extant textile remains their findings assist in understanding the methods and materials of Roman textile dyeing and manufacture, and also provide much indirect evidence about many other aspects of ancient Roman culture.

Why Old Clothes Rot Away

Clothing, in ancient times, was almost always made using organic materials. The nature of these materials means that they were difficult to preserve to the present day. Most wore out, were eaten by insects or animals, rotted in damp conditions, or simply deteriorated under natural conditions. However, a good quantity of ancient fabric actually survives to the present.

To appreciate and fully comprehend the difficulty in dealing with textile evidence, one needs an understanding of how textile materials survive through antiquity, and the subsequent processes of analysis used by specialist archaeologists.

How Wet and Dry Conditions Help Textiles Survive

Exceptional climatic conditions, specifically extremely wet or exceptionally dry environments are needed to preserve textiles. Very dry, salt-laden conditions, like those typically found in deserts, where only slight bacteria activity is present, is an ideal environment for textile preservation. Extremely dry conditions can amazingly preserve both the original colour and the fabric's unique characteristics including its size, shape, and weave pattern.

In complete contrast to this, yet yielding the same result, is extremely sodden conditions, such as in lakes, peat bogs, and stream beds that preserve organic textile remains due to the constant presence of moisture suppressing the action of humic acids and minimising the oxygen required for attacking bacteria to live. Dry conditions lend a tendency to yield near perfect archaeological specimens while wet conditions, especially peat bogs, are likely to distort the artefacts.

Four Major Textile Types

Firstly, archaeology analysts must attempt to determine the textile's base material. The four major types of fabric are wool, linen, silk, and cotton. By intimately examining the fibres, using microscopes, the archaeology investigator is able to learn much about the material. Linen fibres have a natural tendency to twist when wet and generally have been historically spun to the left while cotton fibres are spun to the right. Wool, on the other hand, has no natural twisting tendency and can be found spun either clockwise or counter-clockwise although collective data seems to indicate that there is a correlation between place of origin and the direction of spin.

For example, ancient Egyptian manufacturers spun their wool to the left. Therefore, if archaeologists discover clothing made with right-twist wool in Egypt they can assume it is an imported garment in ancient Rome. Also, if the spinning style is confirmed to be foreign and is comparable to a definite technique known elsewhere, researchers may feel confident to assume that the fabric is from that specific place. Archaeological evidence like this is used to help track ancient trading routes and consolidate specific trading patterns as well as the influences that such trade played in Roman cultural development.

Genetic Examination Of Woollen Textiles

A further and more technical identification process for woollen textiles and clothing is genetic examination. Unique breeds of ancient sheep and goats permit analysts to determine origin of fibre.

Scientific analysis of archaeological textile remains has shown that ancient sheep breeds had a dark brown coloured fleece, often with a paler underbelly. Farming practices caused the white gene to become dominant and shepherds successfully bred predominantly grey and white fleeces. Scientists scrutinizing the colour of a specific fleece are sometimes able to calculate the period as well as the origin of the animal breed.

Pattern Examination In Ancient Roman Textiles

Better understanding of weaving methods in ancient Rome can be obtained by examining the particular pattern in which a textile is woven. Weave methods are most easy to identify in wool.

The analysis of ancient textiles can provide an extensive amount of direct and indirect information about Roman culture. Remnants of clothing provide unchallengeable evidence illuminating fashions and costume preferences for all classes. Inferences about climate change in ancient times can be cautiously drawn based on the styles and use of garments found. The interaction of foreign cultures with ancient Rome is reflected in ancient textiles through importation and export.

Textile analysis was generally overlooked in the past because many early archaeology was solely concerned with unearthing valuable artefact that would make them either rich or famous. Archaeological preservation methods will continue to improve and scholars in this field feel confident that as many more textiles are discovered then more information about ancient Roman culture will be conveyed through them.

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Excellent article with insightful ways of looking at textile history. thank you!
caty - 7-Feb-13 @ 1:29 AM
Better understanding of weaving methods in ancient Rome can be obtained by examining the particular pattern in which a textile is woven. Weave methods are most easy to identify in wool.
Rado rep w - 17-May-11 @ 5:10 AM
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