The Roman House at Hopkins | Creating Comfort: Furnishing Textiles in Roman Domestic Spaces

Fragment of a Tapestry Hanging

By Betsy Bevis

Accession Number: ECM 6283
Measurements: Length: 10 cm, Width: 24 cm
Material: Wool
Culture/Date: Roman, 7th – 8th c. CE?
Provenance: Egypt, On loan from Eton College Myers Collection

This fragment of a wool tapestry wall hanging includes the border of two roundels separated by a stylized palm leaf on a red ground.

Few traces of the motif at the center of the roundels have survived, but the two border zones are preserved. Outlined in white, the right outer border consists of stepped geometric shapes on a blue ground, while the inner border depicts a black serpentine vine on white. Two leaf shapes – pink teardrops with yellow centers, and trefoils with three black dots – alternate in pairs along the extant length of the vine. Little of the left roundel survives. What remains is enough to suggest that the borders of this roundel followed a similar pattern, an outer zone of geometric shapes on blue and an inner, vegetal, zone.

In the lower right corner of the fragment, a small black leaf is the only trace of the motif at the center of the roundel. Tree-of-life motifs were popular designs on late Roman textiles, and this may be a trace of that type. It is also possible that this shape could be part of a highly abstracted human figure, which was also a common subject in this late style.

The style of the borders and the presence of a stylized palm leaf, a common motif in Sassanian silks, indicates that this is a late piece. The Sassanian Empire, which controlled the Middle East and central Asia from the mid-third to the mid-seventh centuries CE, was a trading partner with the eastern part of the Roman Empire in this period as well as a significant military threat. The Sassanian Empire briefly took control of Egypt between 618 and 621 CE, which increased the influence of Sassanian art in Egyptian material culture, as can be seen in this textile.

The light threads and delicate weaving technique suggest that this may have been a decorative textile that was hung against a wall rather than used as a curtain for a door or window. A door curtain, by nature of its location, will receive a significant amount of wear as it is pushed back and forth on its hanging rod by traffic. In many instances tapestries are woven at ninety degrees to the orientation at which they are meant to hang, meaning that slits that are not sewn closed can weaken the overall structure of the textile. A delicate, lightweight tapestry like this fragment would have been a poor choice for a door curtain.

For overall composition: Abegg-Stiftung 2192 (Schrenk and Knaller 2004, Textilien des Mittelmeerraumes, 75-76.)

For roundel borders: Victoria and Albert Museum T.794-1919