This large and impressive textile, our Object of the Week, is a fragment from a Coptic Egyptian garment and features complex geometric and foliate designs. Thanks to exceptionally dry conditions, many types of artifacts made from perishable materials that would not survive elsewhere are common finds on Egyptian archaeological sites. Between the late 18th and early 20th Century great numbers of ancient Egyptian textile fragments from all periods were retrieved by local Egyptian treasure hunters and artifacts dealers for sale to foreign visitors, by foreigners conducting their own ad-hoc “excavations” and by archaeologists, often excavating using methods that would by today’s standards be considered little more than treasure hunting.
While textiles of all types, from the most humble garments to the most elaborate, and from every period of Egypt’s long history have been preserved in the dry environment, Coptic textiles are a class unto themselves. In common parlance, use of the term “Coptic” here refers both to the time period from which these textiles date – corresponding to the roughly 300 year period of Byzantine rule in Egypt – and the Christian culture that created them, as the Coptic Church, still very much alive today in Egypt, gives its name to both the ancient and modern Coptic culture. This uniquely Coptic textile style continued on in Egypt long after the Islamic conquest of the 7th Century AD.
Many Coptic textile fragments, and in some cases entire garments, have since found their way into museum collections. This has somewhat reduced the number of high quality examples available on the legitimate art market. But many fine examples can be acquired from the major London and New York auction houses and reputable antiquities dealers in Europe and the North America.
This example is tapestry woven in black (now appearing purple) with red details on a cream ground, with two parallel strips of mostly foliate and geometric patterning, including remains of a few figural elements contained in lozenges. The fragment has been professionally mounted on a linen backing and very neatly framed and is suitable for hanging. It was acquired on the Swedish art market in December, 2009 and was formerly in a late 19th – early 20th Century Cairo collection. It dates from the 5th to 7th Century AD, and has the following dimensions: 27.9 x 17.8 cm (11 x 7 in.); 17 x 13.5 inches with the frame For related examples, see the Rietz Collection of Coptic textiles in the California Academy of Sciences, online catalog numbers CAS 0389-2421 and CAS 0389-2416.
For those interested in acquiring this object, you may do so on our Etsy site here – https://www.etsy.com/listing/262372123/framed-coptic-egyptian-textile-fragment
There are excellent print and online resources for the student or collector of ancient Coptic textiles. The Coptic Tapestry Albums & The Archaeologist of Antinoe, Albert Gayet by Nancy Arthur Hoskins, is a very accessible, lavishly color illustrated guide to the collection amassed by the controversial French psuedo-archaeologist Albert Gayet in the late 19th Century. It describes Coptic textile production techniques as well as offering insight into how collections of these objects were built in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Online, in addition to the Rietz Collection mentioned above, we recommend the Indiana University Museum’s small but excellent online collections – http://www.iub.edu/~iuam/online_modules/coptic/cophome.html.