Friday, 29 August 2014

Silk in the Bronze Age Aegean

I've finally got an excuse to make one of these:

Veiled virgin:73 x 100 = 300 euro
Picture of a girl wearing a veil from Akrotini, image found here.

The question is, what was it made of?  Scholars usually interpret the orange dots as carnelian beads, but the fabric is something of a mystery.  It's a lot finer than any linen I've ever seen.  In fact it's so fine and transparent that it looks like silk to me, and I'm not the only one who thinks that.  Scholars like Elizabeth Barber and Marie-Loise Nosch suggest that although wool and linen were the most common fibers in the Bronze Age Aegean, silk may also have been used.

There is evidence of silkworms on Santorini from the middle of the second millennium BCE (see Panagiotakopul et al, 1997, A lepidopterous cocoon from Thera and evidence for silk in the Aegean Bronze Age).  Insects resembling silk moths are common in late Bronze Age Aegean iconography, though we don't know for sure if they are meant to be silk moths or, if so, whether the images have anything to do with textile production.  Linear B text evidence is inconclusive; Panagiotakopul et al discussed some Linear B fragments that may refer to silk, but equally they may refer to linen.

Certainly there is no reason to think silk moths couldn't have survived in the Aegean.  Prior to the Thera eruption Santorini did have the right kind of climate and vegetation for cultivating silkworms and/or harvesting wild silk (Asouti, E., 2003, Wood charcoal from Santorini (Thera): new evidence for climate, vegetation and timber imports in the Aegean Bronze Age).

Further east, Cyprus had a highly sophisticated textile industry and was producing wild silk as early as 2000BCE, along with a range of other fibers including cotton and hemp - you can see photos here.  Cyprus was very definitely part of the Minoan and Mycenaean trade networks.  So was Egypt, and there is evidence that silk was used in Egypt from around 1000BCE.  The evidence from Cyprus and Egypt is particularly interesting to me because it consists of actual fibers, and this is always the major problem when researching Aegean textiles.  Unlike Egypt, the Aegean has what are probably some of the worst conditions in the world for textile preservation and there are no surviving textile fragments from Minoan or Mycenaean settlements.

In summary, it looks as if wild silk was available in the Bronze Age Aegean.  However, it's not clear how widely available silk was, who was using it, and whether it was being produced commercially in Greece.  It would certainly have been a luxury product, and would have been less common than linen and wool, but it's not unreasonable to conclude that pictures like the veiled girl may represent garments made of silk.

No comments:

Post a Comment