Textiles in Antiquity
Compared with their counterparts in ceramics and metal, textiles from the ancient world are often hard to come by. The conditions required to preserve textiles are often very specific; amongst the few parts of the world that meet the requirements is Egypt. A hotspot of archaeological interest, Egypt’s hot, dry climate is renowned for having preserved ancient artefacts seldom found elsewhere such as papyrus manuscripts and textiles.
The Copts and the ‘Coptic Period’
The terms ‘Copts’ and ‘Coptic’ refer to the Egyptian branch of Christianity which distinguished itself from the Roman and Byzantine churches after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, though its ancient usage can also be in reference simply to native Egyptians. The Coptic Christian community in Egypt has remained a significant minority into the modern day.
Textiles from the Coptic Period
Coptic textiles display a mixture of Christian, secular and even Greco-Roman motifs. Early motifs from Classical mythology gradually gave way to Christian themes such as images of saints, while other common motifs inspired by the natural world such as animals and plants remained consistently popular across the period. Pieces were also commonly woven with decorative medallions, stripes and plaid patterns.
Coptic Linen and Wool
A distinctive feature of Coptic textiles was the intermingling of materials; coptic textiles used both linen and wool, the former for the base and the latter for the decoration, creating a visually pleasing contrast. Because most Coptic textiles survive only as fragments, it is not always possible to identify their original purpose. However, from what we can tell, the majority of Coptic textile fragments seem to have come from garments or tapestries, suggesting a rich and colourful visual environment.