ancient textiles – The Kelsey Blog

ancient textiles

Ugly Object of the Month — February 2022

By Suzanne Davis

Hello, Ugly Object Fans, and welcome to February—a month of celebration. This is Black History month, and the theme for 2022’s celebration here at U-M is Black Joy. Carrie and I are super excited about the many events celebrating the lives and achievements of Black people of all backgrounds, and if you’re here at U-M and want to join us in attending some of these, you can see a list on U-M’s Black History Month webpage.

Thanks to St. Valentine’s Day on February 14, this is also a month when we focus on love; love of romantic partners, family, friends, favorite foods, and funky craft projects. The latter is what we are showcasing in this blog post—it is an extra special collage made of ancient textiles, cut and pasted to make a fantastical chimera-like creature that looks (sort of) like a horse in ancient war armor. I call him Franken Horse.

Wool textile fragment(s) from Roman Egypt, 5th to 6th centuries CE, possibly earlier. 22 x 21.5 cm. Purchased in Egypt from Phocion Tano. KM 94443.

Franken Horse is an exciting mash-up of two different tapestry-woven textiles. The beige wool background of the piece is ornamented with a vining floral design in dark blue, red, green, and yellow wool. This fragment has a large, irregular loss in the center, and into this, another fabric has been sewn. This second fabric has a dark blue ground decorated with small, fat cross shapes in pinkish-red, green, yellow, undyed linen, and light blue. Each shape has a central boss of a contrasting color, either red or yellow. This piece has been placed so that it appears to create the body of an animal, with an element of the background fabric appearing as the creature’s head (and this thing has a horn, like the armor for a warhorse would have). Although both fabrics appear to be ancient, their conjunction is the work of a more contemporary creative hand; they are stitched together with modern thread. Overall the effect is bright, highly patterned, and strangely attractive. You kind of can’t stop looking at it.

This textile comes from the collection of a famous twentieth-century Cairo antiquities dealer, Phocion Tano, and it tells us a little bit about what early antiquities collectors were interested in, namely color and exciting designs. If you feel as much love for Franken Horse as we do, you are in luck: he is on view now in the Kelsey in Focus mini-exhibition, Ancient Abstraction in Textiles from Late Roman Egypt. If you are willing to brave the frigid February weather, you can see him in person on the first floor of the Upjohn Exhibit Wing here in Ann Arbor, where is he is in good company with two of his abstracted horsey textile friends. To be frank, any of the three would qualify for this series but, in our view, Franken Horse is the winner by at least a nose. You won’t be sorry you visited.

Can’t make it to the museum? You can also visit virtual versions of this and all previous Kelsey in Focus exhibitions on the Kelsey website.

Ugly Object of the Month — August 2021

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

Hello, Ugly Object fans! Although many Kelsey objects have seen better days—and we love them all dearly, because not every ancient object can be the prettiest, oldest, biggest, or best smelling—it’s hard not to have fleeting favorites. This month I’m really feeling it for a sad little scrap of cloth that looks like the tentacled remains of a decaying jellyfish and smells of ancient garbage dump.

Sprang fragment in visible light. Height 17 cm. Roman period, late 2nd–early 4th century C.E. Excavated at Karanis, Egypt, 1925. KM 13862.

You can’t deny that the colors are nice, though, right? And they should be, because our friend, scrotty little jellyfish rag, was once a stylish accessory for a well-dressed woman’s up-do; it is what’s left of a sprang “cap” from Karanis, Egypt. To see how the sprang weaving technique was used to create the Greek hairnet precursors to the sprang caps / ponytail and bun covers of Roman Egypt, check out this super fun video by professional hairdresser and amateur experimental archaeologist of ancient hairstyles Janet Stephens.

As previously discussed in this blog, the Roman Egyptian decorative world was highly colorful, and this little scrap of a cap is no exception. As part of a larger NEH-funded project to study color in the Kelsey Museum’s collections, I’m looking at dyes on textiles from Karanis, and this is one of the first objects I’ve spent time with.

Using a technique called multi-band imaging (also much discussed in this blog!), I’m able to tell that the dark blue dye used in this cap came from indigo, while the green dye is a blend of indigo and a yellow colorant, possibly weld. The bright red and the bright orange, meanwhile, are from a dye made of madder root. If you’re an archaeologist or conservator who wants to know more about how MBI (sometimes called MSI) can be used to study textiles, please see this excellent open-access article by conservation scientist Joanne Dyer and her colleagues at the British Museum.

Sprang fragment, infrared reflected false color image. In this image, an indigo-based dye is indicated by the bright red appearance of the yarns that are blue in the visible light photograph above, while the pink appearance of the green yarns indicates indigo plus a yellow colorant. The bright golden yellow of the red yarns, meanwhile, is characteristic of madder.

Sprang fragment, ultraviolet-induced visible luminescence image. Madder root dye is indicated by the bright pink luminescence of the yarns that are red under visible light.

Ugly Object of the Month — March 2019

By Suzanne Davis, Curator of Conservation

In last month’s Ugly Object post, we explored some of my feelings about the interior decorating schemes of Roman Egyptians. But while I could not happily collect their colorfully painted god and goddess figurines, I would acquire this month’s Ugly Object in a hot second. For me, this sprang bag only just barely qualifies as something we could legitimately write about in this blog feature, and then only because it is so moth-eaten and frayed.

red and green woven bag
Sprang bag made from dyed wool. Egypt. 1st–4th century CE. H. 30 cm. KM 11666.

Made with red, green, and cream-colored wool, this bag is truly a special item. It is featured in our current exhibition, Ancient Color, because it’s so colorful. I enjoy the bold color choices, but I’m even more impressed by the many beautifully executed construction details.

In describing non-woven archaeological textiles at the Kelsey, we often use the word “sprang” to refer to looped or twisted yarn construction like we see in this bag. But unlike our “sprang” socks, which were made using a single-needle technique that is similar to knitting, this bag was made using a twisty, warp-only technique that is sort of like braiding and sort of like weaving.

This bag was made by a master sprang craftsperson. The red, green, and cream yarns interact to create complex patterns, but there are also very cool structural details that contribute to a sense of depth and ornament.

close-up of woven bag
Detail of the border of the sprang bag.

At the top of the bag — as I hope you can see in this detail of the top left corner — the yarns are bundled and held in place with twisting at top and bottom to create an openwork effect. The colored yarns are then carefully twisted to create a highly patterned border along the top edge of the bag, before the green and cream yarns begin a pattern of alternating cable-like and chevron designs.

Here is a closer look at how the green and cream yarns are gathered and twisted as one unit to create what I’m calling a cable-like effect, since this is similar in appearance (and structure) to a cable in knitting.

sprang bag detail
Detail of two “cables” in the sprang bag.

If we sold replicas of this bag in the Kelsey’s gift shop, I’d pick one up today. This bag is both exceptional and exceptionally fragile. It’s very rarely on view, so I encourage you to come see it for yourself now at the Kelsey!

Ugly Object of the Month — April 2017

CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

April’s Ugly Object isn’t an object per se. It’s a specimen — a shell — and it was excavated at Karanis during the 1924–25 field season. It’s rather small and unprepossessing. But to me this shell is a thing of beauty. Why? It is a murex shell, and was once the likely carrier of shellfish purple (or Tyrian purple), one of the most valuable dyes in antiquity. Pliny wrote at length of the Roman passion for purple, and described in detail the extraction and processing of the color from a gland found in the throat of the snail. The dye produced a range of purples from magenta to purple-black. One can imagine the vast numbers of snails that would have been needed for a dye vat large enough to color the yards and yards of textile used in the elite fashion industry of Rome. Pliny cites an observation by the 1st-century BC biographer Cornelius Nepos that a pound of dye would have sold for 100 denarii — about half of the annual salary of a professional soldier. This was some seriously valuable stuff.


Murex snail shell KMA 3712, Graeco-Roman Egyptian galleries, Kelsey Museum

Tyrian purple, like many other natural colorants, has now been chemically synthesized. We can buy a shirt or sweater in purple or any other color today at very little expense, which makes it hard to relate to the craze that drove people to seek out the murex snail on Mediterranean beaches. I can’t think of a color today that screams “bling” the way purple did in the ancient Roman world. Can you?

You can spot the murex shell in the Graeco-Roman Egyptian galleries on the first floor of the Kelsey’s Upjohn wing.

References to the text of Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (Historia Naturalis) Book IX, Chapter 63 are from a translation by John Bostock, M.D.  London: George Bell and Sons, Covent Garden. 1890.

An open letter to ancient people

SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator of Conservation

Dear Ancient People,

I am writing this letter in response to my recent work on your textiles for the upcoming Kelsey Museum exhibit Less Than Perfect. I am writing this letter because I love you. I do. Please believe that. Your textiles are lovely. Super beautiful. But they are also frankly just crooked as heck, and they are a huge pain to exhibit because they absolutely will not hang straight. Seriously, folks, could you not sew a straight seam? Did you even try?

You guys built canals and aqueducts and enormous buildings. You kept time with complicated water clocks and annual calendars. You dyed fibers using complex chemistry and spent hours doing meticulous embroidery. But you couldn’t sew straight? Am I really supposed to believe that? Really???

I have just spent many hours of my life trying to accommodate your wackadoodle craftsmanship and show it to best advantage. This was not fun or easy. What’s past is past. I get that. There are no do-overs. But friends, if this is your A Game, it needs work. I’m just saying. When you were like, “Whatever! That’s good enough! I mean, who cares if this is perfect? Who’ll notice?” That would be me, y’all. I noticed, and I do not thank you.

Sincerely yours,



August Cons Post Photo
Exhibit preparator Scott Meier comments on my attempt to make this textile hang level. It is longer on one side than the other and has wonky seams. So yeah: It’s less than perfect.

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