Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #17

This month we turn our attention to Bolton in the UK and Egypt, as we look at textile evidence from one settlement, Qasr Ibrim, which was occupied for a number of periods from the 8th century BCE to 1812. I am really pleased to introduce Sarah Hitchens, who is investigating the surviving textile evidence and its relation to Bolton for her PhD. Here she tells us more:

Qasr Ibrim:

A Brief Overview of Its Tools and Textiles

My name is Sarah and I am a PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool. The project I am working on is a collaboration between the University of Liverpool and Bolton Museum to contextualise the ancient Egyptian textiles in the Bolton collection at regional and interregional levels. As part of the project, I am looking at the textiles from Qasr Ibrim, Egypt, in conjunction with the textile processing implements discovered at the site in order to better understand textile industry.

Bolton Museum and Art Gallery | Art UK
Bolton Museum

History of Bolton and Egyptian Cotton

Bolton is a town located in Greater Manchester. It was a medieval market town that produced and sold various different types of textiles. After the mechanisation of the textile industry in the late 18th to early 19th centuries, the town saw a period of rapid expansion. By 1860 the town had become a centre for fine cotton spinning, relying primarily on raw cotton imported from America. The cotton industry was interrupted by the ‘Cotton Famine’ in 1862-3 as a result of the American Civil war and the embargo placed on the exportation of American cotton. This led to the sourcing of new cotton from Egypt. The new relationship between British and Egyptian merchants laid the foundation for Bolton’s Egyptomania and its Egyptian collection.

Cotton doll’s dress. Photograph by Sarah Hitchens ©Bolton Museum
Cotton and wool bag. Photograph by Sarah Hitchens ©Bolton Museum

Beginnings of a Textile Collection

Dr Samuel Taylor Chadwick, a wealthy medical doctor who died in 1876, left a bequest of £5000 for the building of a free public museum. The Chadwick Museum, named after its benefactor, opened in June 1884. At around the same time, the Chadwick museum or a private donor, made a subscription to the Egyptian Exploration Fund (EEF), which had started excavating in Egypt. Bolton received the first Egyptian objects, textiles from Flinders Petrie’s excavation at Tanis, in November of that year.

The only known photograph of William Midgley
William Midgley – taken from: https://www.boltonlams.co.uk/w-w-midgely-son

William and Thomas Midgley

William and Thomas Midgley, father and son, were the first curators of the Chadwick Museum. They were textile specialists who undertook additional work for archaeologists wanting their ancient textile fragments analysed. While curator, William Midgley researched and published several articles on cotton including his methodology. It is clear from his publications that he took a scientific approach to the study of ancient textiles. He devised a methodology that was used in the analysis of modern textiles. He studied the number of warp and weft ends to the linear inch, yarn count, number of hanks in a pound, diameter of the fibres, structure of the weave, noted single or double yarns, yarn twist, and selvedges. Midgley also created microscopic slides and took photographs of the magnified samples. After analysis, the Midgleys then selected specific pieces to keep in Bolton before distributing the rest of the material to other museums.

After William retired, Thomas Midgley continued his father’s work on Egyptian textiles. The 1920s and 1930s saw a large demand for the analysis of Egyptian textiles. In 1928, Thomas analysed over 4000 textiles from Karanis, a Greco-Roman town. In return, Thomas got to select and keep around 300 textiles that were added to the Chadwick collection. By Thomas Midgley’s retirement in 1934, the Egyptian collection consisted of textiles from numerous different sites. In 1956, the Egyptian collection was moved to a new central museum, the Bolton Museum, and the original Chadwick Museum building was torn down. The Egyptian textile collection, however, continued to grow throughout the 20th century, with the most recent and largest acquisition in 2007 – which was the majority of the Qasr Ibrim textile collection. This Qasr Ibrim collection is the incredibly large and well preserved group of archaeological textiles that I am currently researching.

Qasr Ibrim: Geography and History

Qasr Ibrim is a multi-phase settlement site that covered the Napatan (8th-3rd century BC), Meroitic (1st century BC- AD 350), Ballaña (AD 350-600), Early and Later Medieval (AD 600-1500), and Ottoman (AD 1500-1812) periods. The site’s earliest phase of occupation is not known. In ancient times, it was part of Lower Nubia, a region separate from the Egyptian state. Today, however, the site is located in present day Egypt about 70 km north of the Sudanese border. Unlike most ancient settlements in Egypt or Sudan, Qasr Ibrim was not situated on or near the Nile floodplain. Instead, it sat roughly 70m above the Nile on a rocky promontory separated by two deep wadis. For much of its history, Qasr Ibrim was a commercial, manufacturing, and religious centre. Throughout its long history, it underwent great political and religious changes until the site was abandoned in 1812.

Excavations at Qasr Ibrim were part of the Egyptian Exploration Society’s (EES) contribution to the UNESCO Nubian salvage campaign whose mission it was to investigate and/or rescue important archaeological sites and monuments under threat from the building of the Aswan High Dam. Large scale rescue missions took part in both Egypt and Sudan and included the removal of temples such as Philae and Abu Simbel to new locations in Egypt, Sudan, and elsewhere. Excavations within the walls of Qasr Ibrim started in 1963 and continued until the early 2000s when rising water levels made it too difficult to continue. Today, unfortunately, the site of Qasr Ibrim looks very different. Due to the building of the Aswan High Dam, the site is now a small island in Lake Nasser with almost all of the original site and the surrounding area submerged by water.

Qasr Ibrim today

Qasr Ibrim’s position high above the Nile floodplain and its geographical location in Lower Nubia created the perfect conditions for the preservation of both organic and inorganic remains as it was not subject to the Nile’s annual floods, and the area received little to no rainfall. Tens of thousands of textiles were discovered at the site in addition to hundreds of implements used in textile production. Most tools and textiles are from midden deposits with some textiles coming from the intact burials of bishops discovered in tombs around the cathedral. The large quantity of well-preserved textiles and tools discovered within the settlement make Qasr Ibrim a unique site. 

Qasr Ibrim: Its Tools and Textiles

Nearly all stages of textile processing were discovered at Qasr Ibrim, from raw materials to finished products. Elizabeth Crowfoot and Nettie Adams did the original analysis of all of the Qasr Ibrim textiles. They analysed tens of thousands of textile fragments each season and created a special recording system for the textiles in order to systematically record and analyse them. However, due to the large quantity of textiles discovered, only a small fraction of the excavated material was kept. The selected textiles were then divided between those kept by the Ministry of Egyptian Antiquities and those that were then sent to the UK. The textiles were split between the British Museum (BM) and the Bolton Museum with the majority of the collection going to Bolton while most of the tools remained at the BM. The textile processing implements and textiles that form the basis of my research came from the 1960s to 1980s excavations, after which it became illegal to take objects out of Egypt. Any textiles and tools excavated after this period remain in Egypt.

Wooden spindle whorl attached to a spindle, with thread. Photograph by Sarah Hitchens © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Tools

The tools are primarily from the settlement’s Ballaña to Ottoman phases of occupation (AD 350 to AD 1812). The majority of the implements are spindle whorls. These are made from wood, stone, ceramic, and clay. Wood is the dominant material for the Ballaña, Early Medieval, and Later Medieval periods. However, the majority of the Ottoman whorls are ceramic. From the number of spindle whorls with complete spindles that have a hook at the distal end nearest the whorl, it is clear that the high-whorl drop spindle spinning method was used at Qasr Ibrim. A small number of card weaving tablets, loom weights, needles, shuttles, and weaving combs were also discovered.

Due to the arid environment, the wooden whorls are well preserved. The majority of the wooden whorls are complete or mostly complete and most of them have retained their circular shape. A number of whorls also have spindle fragments within the perforation. Many of the spindle fragments have holes in their distal ends for the insertion of a metal hook. Over 10 complete or nearly complete examples of spindles with whorls were excavated. The wood used for the whorls is believed to be ebony, however, a lighter coloured hardwood such as acacia was likely used as well. Wood identification is a specialist subject and was beyond the scope of this research. Most of the wooden whorls are made from the central hardwood and pith portion of a branch or tree trunk which is evident from the tree rings visible on the bottom surface of the whorl.

Ceramic spindle whorl. Photograph by Sarah Hitchens © The Trustees of the British Museum
Wooden spindle whorl. Photograph by Sarah Hitchens © The Trustees of the British Museum

The majority of the wooden whorls are lathe turned with chatter or tool marks as well as saw marks visible on the implement’s surface. Use-wear marks are also visible on many of the wooden whorls around the bottom edges where the polish has come off. The bottom perforations are also larger and more distorted than the top perforations due to the repeated insertion of a spindle.

The most common form of decoration found on all wooden whorls from the Ballaña to the Ottoman period are incised concentric circles. However, other types of decoration such as painted patterns, inlays, and carved petals or incised radial lines have also been found. The more unique forms of decoration are often found on whorls dated to the Ballaña period. Many of the wooden whorls, in addition to a few ceramic whorls, are also covered in a black substance that might be a sort of polish.

As mentioned above, a number of ceramic and sandstone whorls were also found at Qasr Ibrim. The majority of the ceramic whorls are made from reused potsherds with only a few being handmade. The ceramic and stone whorls were manufactured in a similar manner. Both were hacked to a rough shape before the sides were ground down to create a more circular form and the top and bottom of many of the potsherds were also ground flat. It is interesting to note that some of the ceramic whorls were also covered in the same black substance as the wooden whorls. It is as yet unclear what the substance is and what its purpose might have been. It may have prevented the fibres from catching the surface of the wood or prevented the wood from drying out-neither of which would apply to the ceramic whorls.

Spindle whorl from above. Photograph by Sarah Hitchens © The Trustees of the British Museum
Spindle whorl from the side. Photograph by Sarah Hitchens © The Trustees of the British Museum

Despite the similarities in the spinning implements, there is such variety in the Qasr Ibrim spindle whorls that it is difficult to create an all-encompassing typology, despite the fact that the whorls are very similar in size and shape. The wooden whorls do not change much over time and are very consistent in size and shape. Most of them could be described as domed shaped while the ceramic and stone whorls are primarily disc shaped.  

The spindle whorls have an average height of 15.6mm with an SD of 5.1mm, an average diameter of 45.8mm with an SD of 9.4mm, and a mean weight of 16.5g with an SD of 7.8g. The wooden whorls are remarkably consistent throughout the Ballaña to Ottoman periods with no discernable differences or patterns when comparing height, diameter, or weight across the different periods. This is also true when comparing height against diameter, height against weight, and diameter against weight. This may change as I continue my analysis of the tools, but for now it appears that the textile workers at Qasr Ibrim found a tool that allowed them to spin and produce the different types of yarns that they required.

Unfortunately, little can be said about the excavated loom weights as little information is published about them. However, most of the loom weights are dated to the Ballaña period with very few dating to the Early and Later Medieval periods suggesting that the warp-weighted loom was not the primary loom in use during the Medieval period. 

Ceramic spindle whorl. Photograph by Sarah Hitchens © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Textiles

The second part of my research is looking at the excavated textile fragments in conjunction with the textile processing implements. My research is building upon the work done by Elizabeth Crowfoot and Nettie Adams. The textiles in the Bolton Museum come from the Meroitic, Roman, Early Medieval, Later Medieval, and Ottoman deposits. There are over 2400 textile fragments from Qasr Ibrim in the Bolton collection of which I selected 242 textiles to study.

The textiles in the collection range from very small fragments to complete pieces of cloth and garments. Most of the fragments are too small to be able to discern their original uses. This is especially true for the earlier periods, although some identifiable garments such as parts ofaprons or loin cloths have been identified. This changes toward the end of the Medieval period and especially the Ottoman period. Many bags, children’s clothing, collars, dolls clothes, hats, a face veil, a sleeve cuff, and other examples of sewn textiles are seen throughout the Ottoman period collection. Cloth was a valuable commodity and textiles were often reused and remade multiple times before being thrown away when they could no longer be used.

The textiles are made from a variety of different fibres and colours and range from coarse to very fine. The objects found in the settlement reflect the nature of everyday life as well as the changing sociopolitical nature of the site. Cotton, wool, linen, and silk were used and introduced at various times throughout Qasr Ibrim’s long history. S spun cotton native to the region was the primary fibre of choice for the Meroitic and most of the Ballaña period. Much of the cotton was undyed with either dark or light blue decorative elements. This changes in the Medieval period when wool is introduced and experimented with. When wool was first identified, it was often only used in the weft and not in the warp. More colourful textiles as well as textiles made from different fibres are seen throughout the Medieval and Ottoman periods. 

The types of weaves across all of the Qasr Ibrim periods are quite standard. The most common weaves are tabby, half-basket, and basket with tabby being the most common. Textiles with embroidery, pile weave, tapestry, and various twills were also present. Interestingly, not all textiles are a single weave, some textiles are made up of a combination of different weaves that can include various combinations of tabby, half-basket, basket, tapestry, and pile weaves.

Using a handheld microscope in addition to ImageJ, a computer program, I am measuring the yarn diameters and spin angles of the yarns within the woven textiles. This, hopefully, will allow me to better study the different types and qualities of yarns produced and used at Qasr Ibrim. This is assuming that most of the yarns were spun at the site and given the quantity of spindle whorls and textiles found, it is clear that a textile industry existed at Qasr Ibrim. This is still an ongoing project and I look forward to sharing my results in the future.

Neck opening from garment. Multiple textiles, cotton and potentially silk. Photograph by Sarah Hitchens ©Bolton Museum
Hat. Photograph by Sarah Hitchens ©Bolton Museum

I would like to thank Sarah for sharing an overview of her research to date. I think this is a really exciting project and I can’t wait to hear more! I’ll be asking Sarah to give us an update when she’s finished her PhD. I can also recommend a visit to Bolton Museum’s Egyptian Gallery. It was recently done up and is excellent. Details can be found here: https://www.boltonlams.co.uk/museum.

Next month (Dr) Jessica Grimm will be closing 2021 with Medieval Goldwork Embroidery. Join us then.

Further Reading

Adams, N.K. (1992). Clothing and Textiles of Ottoman Egypt: Examples from Art and Archaeology. Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings 556: 81-90.

Adams, W.Y. (1996). Qasr Ibrim: The Later Medieval Period. London: Egypt Exploration Society.

Adams, W. and Adams, N. (2010). Qasr Ibrim: The Earlier Medieval Period. London: Egypt Exploration Society.

Adams, W. and Adams, N. (2013). Qasr Ibrim: The Ballana Phase. London: Egypt Exploration Society.

Alexander, J. (1988). The Saharan divide in the Nile Valley: the evidence from Qasr Ibrim. African Archaeological Review 6: 73-90.

Alexander, J. and Adams, W. (2018). Qasr Ibrim: The Ottoman Period. EES Excavation Memoir 113. London: Egyptian Exploration Society.

Crowfoot, E. (2011). Qasr Ibrim : the textiles from the cathedral cemetery. London: Egypt Exploration Society .

Gohary, J. (1998). Guide to the Nubian Monuments on Lake Nasser.

Rose, P. (1996). Qasr Ibrim: The Hinterland Survey. Excavation Memoir 96. London: Egyptian Exploration Society..

Rose, P. (2011). ‘Qasr Ibrim: The last 3000 years,’ Sudan & Nubia 15, 3-9.

Vliet, J. . (2013). Qasr Ibrim, between Egypt and Africa: Studies in cultural exchange, NINO Symposium, Leiden, 11-12 Dec. 2009. Leiden: Nederlands Inst. voor het Nabije Oosten.

Wild and Wild (2008). ‘Cotton: the new wool. Qasr Ibrim study season 2008. ANT 46:3-6.

8 thoughts on “Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #17

Add yours

    1. I’ll let Sarah know. I’ve told her that I want her to write an update when she’s further on with her work so maybe she could include that sort of information then


      1. I’ve mentioned this to Sarah and she said that she’s moving on to measurements next so she’ll keep us posted.
        I agree, it would be very interesting to see how they compare.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. The black polish could be fashion rather than function. If dark wood was the most popular whorl, then you might want something that looks like it.


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