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


By Betsy Bevis

Fragment of a tapestry hanging, On loan from Eton College Myers Collection, ECM 6283

Furnishing textiles – rugs, curtains, cushions, bedcovers, and table linens – were ubiquitous in Roman houses and were an essential part of creating beautiful and comfortable domestic spaces. While textiles like the ones from the Eton College Meyers collection shown in The Roman House at Hopkins were used throughout the empire, they have decayed in much of Europe. These fragments were preserved due to the desert conditions of Egypt. Rugs and cushions softened hard surfaces, while curtains created privacy and directed access to different areas of the house. Because textiles were quite valuable in the pre-modern world, they were recycled when they were too worn to perform their original function. Rag patchworks were used for humble tasks like cleaning and diapering infants.

Then as now, placing a cushion on a chair or hanging a curtain might seem like simple, unimportant tasks, but textiles strongly influenced individual perceptions and enjoyment of domestic surroundings. For example, in many Roman houses solid doors were used largely for exterior entrances and rooms that needed to be physically secure (such as storerooms). Therefore, Romans often used curtains rather than wooden doors to create more permeable barriers in interior doorways.

Unlike mosaics and wall paintings, textiles rarely survive in situ in Roman domestic environments, even in Egypt. Instead, it is often necessary to examine other media to explore how textiles were used in a domestic setting. The sixth-century CE mosaic from the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy represents a late Roman palace with curtains hung in the arcade along the front of the building. From this example we can see two complementary uses of curtains. First, the curtains in the central arches frame the space below and draw attention to these doorways as available entrances to the palace. Second, the curtains in the smaller arches to either side create a flexible, but visually emphatic barrier that helps direct the viewer to the doorways framed by the central curtains. Because these are curtains rather than doors, this arrangement is temporary, highlighting the flexibility of Roman domestic space.

All of the curtains depicted in this mosaic are embellished with brightly colored motifs similar to the textiles on display in The Roman House at Hopkins. The bright red, orange, pink and green of these designs can also be seen in the fragment of a tapestry wall hanging ECM 6283. The composition of the designs on the mosaic curtains is also similar to some of the Eton College textiles. For example, the decorative motifs of the central curtain use radiating areas set within squares and scrolling vines decorating long bands, like the decorative panels of ECM 6301 and ECM 6305.

How were late Roman textiles made?

Most types of cloth are made from two sets of threads. Warp threads are vertical and held taut by the loom, while weft threads are horizontal and pass over and under alternate warps. In most forms of weaving, the weft travels the entire width of the warp. The small blue fragment of rag patchwork, ECM 6342, was created with this simple type of weaving.

In contrast, tapestry uses colored threads that are woven in and out of the warp only where that color is needed for the intended design. This creates an image made up of discrete areas of color. These colored threads can be linked together around shared warps to join the design into a single fabric, or intentionally left with a slit between them to be sewn closed after the cloth is removed from the loom. ECM 6283 is an example of a textile that is created entirely in the tapestry technique. In this fragment it is possible to see weft threads that do not remain at ninety degrees to the warp, but shape designs by angled and curving paths. These “eccentric wefts” are characteristic of tapestry weaving from late Roman Egypt.

The three large curtain fragments (ECM 63006301 and 6305) are examples of the most common form of decoration on late Roman textiles. Inset tapestry is a hybrid weaving technique that combines a simple woven ground with colorful decorative panels woven in wool tapestry. The leaf-shaped medallion near the lower edge of ECM 6300 clearly illustrates how a tapestry motif could be woven into a larger cloth. By looking closely at this part of the fabric, it is possible to see that the weave of the purple tapestry design is coarser than the weave of the cloth surrounding it. To create an inset design in a larger textile, the weaver would temporarily tie sets of three or four warp threads together and treat them as one for the area of the tapestry design. The delicate geometric pattern in the center panel is created by a single white thread that lies on top of the purple tapestry panel and wraps around individual warps. This “flying shuttle” technique is also a hallmark of late Roman tapestry weaving from Egypt.

How did furnishing textiles end up in graves?

In the second and early third centuries CE many Roman Egyptians still made use of mummification practices that recalled the earlier customs of Pharonic Egypt, as can be seen in the papier-mâché mummy masks from the Eton College collection on display elsewhere in the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum. Over the course of the third century mummification became less common, especially among the Christian population of Egypt. As Christianity spread over the course of the fourth century CE mummification fell out of use. Instead, people were buried quickly after death in simple graves, dressed in several layers of tunics and wrapped in a shroud. Even though the bodies buried in this way were not mummified as we usually think of in earlier periods of Egyptian history, the dry conditions of the desert helped preserve both the bodies and much of the textiles they were buried in.

The practice of burying people in layers of textiles combined with the dryness of the Egyptian desert is the reason for the survival of so many fragments of both domestic textiles and clothing dated to the fourth century and later. Curtains and bedcovers are some of the most common surviving domestic textiles because their size made them easy to be recycled as shrouds.

If these were large textiles, why do we only have pieces of them?

ECM 63006301 and 6305 are large wool tapestry decorations cut from linen curtains. Many late Roman textiles survive only as individual decorative panels — like these — that have been cut from larger textiles. This was done for several reasons.

Many of these textiles were excavated from large cemeteries in Egypt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries CE, during a period of intense popular interest in Classical and Egyptian archaeology. Late Roman textiles from Egypt became popular collector’s items in Europe because of their bright colors, interesting designs, and excellent state of preservation. Coptic textiles inspired European popular culture in forms as diverse as theatrical productions, fashion, and hobby embroidery. (Musée Dobrée 2001, Au Fil du Nil, 177-182.) This popularity in turn fueled the further excavation of late Roman cemeteries. For example, in the winter of 1900-1901 French archaeologist Albert Gayet excavated the tomb of a wealthy young woman named Thaias, in the necropolis of the city of Antinoopolis. The funerary ensemble, the mummy of Thaias and especially the textiles she was buried in became the focus of a museum exhibit and a series of dramatic public presentations and popular publications through which Gayet hoped to attract patrons to fund further excavation. (Bénazeth 2006, “From Thais to Thaias,” 69-74.)

The science of archaeology was quite new at this time, and so the excavation of these cemeteries was often haphazard and badly recorded by modern standards. While some of this excavation was simply looting for the tourist trade, even excavators with an academic interest in the ancient world often distributed late Roman textiles as gifts to donors and supporters. Because many of these textiles were very large and contained many separate areas of decoration, they were often cut apart for easy transport and distribution, with little surviving record of their original provenance.

In addition, although the dryness of the desert environment preserved the many late Roman textiles and the bodies they were buried with, that preservation was not perfect. These bodies still decayed until the sand could dry them. Therefore, many textiles from late Roman burials are stained and partially deteriorated, especially where they had been in contact with the abdominal area of the deceased. Large decorations like the ones in these drawers were often near the margins of textiles and so survived better than motifs near the center. Rather than attempt to clean an entire cloth, the decorative panels like these were often simply cut from a damaged background.