World’s Oldest Textiles
Image: Woollen tunic, 700-800 AD. © Bolton Museum and Art Gallery.
While Tutankhamun: Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh continues to draw crowds at London’s Saatchi Gallery, it’s worth remembering that Bolton Museum and Art Gallery has one of the world’s most important Egyptology collections on permanent display. Because of its links with the cotton trade, Bolton's Museums have always had strong Egyptology collections. The current collection houses many objects spanning thousands of years of Egyptian culture, including some of the world’s oldest surviving textiles.
The first two curators of the Chadwick Museum in Bolton, William Midgley (curator 1881-1908) and his son Thomas Midgley (curator 1908-1934), were specialists in the study of ancient textiles. In some cases, they provided excavators with an assessment of the textiles found at a particular site in return for a share of the finds. As a result, Bolton’s ancient textile collection has a known archaeological context which makes them especially significant for study.
Image: Osiris shroud fragment © Bolton Museum and Art Gallery.
The most spectacular examples of textiles in the Museum’s collection date to the Coptic period, from about 300AD onwards. With the spread of Christianity in Egypt came a change in burial customs. Instead of being elaborately mummified and wrapped in bandages, people were buried within a few days of death, and dressed in their finest clothes, preserving them intact for their discoverers. Baggy wool and linen tunics with clavi (stripes) of tapestry-woven decoration were worn by men and women, and silk began to be imported from Asia.
Image: Tiraz tapestry fragment, c. 11th-12th century AD. © Bolton Council. The museum's collection spans thousands of years and also houses textiles from the Early Islamic Period.
Bolton Museum owns one of the oldest fragments of Egyptian textile discovered, over 7,000 years old. A recent project has re-examined the linen, revealing new information about the way it was made. Ancient textiles are damaged by exposure to light and changes in temperature and humidity. The museum’s textile collection is kept in stable conservation-approved storage, and only a small proportion is on display at any time. It can be viewed by appointment, and is used by researchers from around the world.
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