EGYARN: Unravelling the thread: textile production in New Kingdom Egypt (1550-1070 BCE)

By Chiara Spinazzi-Lucchesi

The EGYARN project proposes an innovative view of the textile production of New Kingdom Egypt, especially in the Theban area, as several sites around the capital have yielded exceptionally rich archaeological evidence. The goal is to understand how and where textiles were produced, which were the main non-domestic textile production centres, and how they were connected with other institutions and private workers. In addition, by means of careful analysis of study cases, like Gurob and Deir el-Medina, social contexts and economic aspects linked to the production of textiles will be investigated. The project will create a comprehensive and up-to-date information base, so as to understand the details of New Kingdom textile traditions and locate them in the Late Bronze Age production landscape between the Mediterranean basin and the southern reaches of Nilotic Africa. 

Answering these questions will require an interdisciplinary approach, using different types of sources and methods, to achieve the following objectives:

Provide a new perspective on New Kingdom social and economic organisation, by understanding how textiles were produced, using which tools, by whom, for whom, and why through:

  • Revising the textile chaîne opératoire, with a detailed analysis of flax procurement and preparation;
  • Investigation of the threads and textiles produced, using experimental archaeology;
  • Understanding the wood craftsmanship of spindles and whorls;
  • Identifying the main actors in textile manufacture: how domestic and non-domestic production interacted;
  • Providing an understanding of the place of the New Kingdom textile tradition in Mediterranean and African Late Bronze Age landscape;
  • Define the Ancient Egyptian textile workshop;
  • Build a European collections database of New Kingdom tools and textiles stored in European museums.

Technical analyses: The project will analyse textile tools (spindles, whorls and parts of looms), fibres and a selection of textiles to understand what kind of objects and what fabric types were in use during the New Kingdom. Examination of the techniques and tools used in Egypt will clarify the textile culture and its connections with neighbouring areas.

Identification of wood: Egypt is one of the few countries in the world where wood is preserved in archaeological contexts. Spindles and whorls were mainly made of wood and it would be extremely interesting to discover which kinds of wood were in use in Ancient Egypt, how they were worked and where they came from for understanding natural resources availability. Analyses of wooden spindles from Kahun, Amarna and Deir el-Medina (kept in the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy) have shown that a mixture of local and non-local wood was in use. However, no information is available for a key site such as Gurob, where the presence of a royal harem could have influenced the material employed and the quality of the craftsmanship.

Experimental archaeology: Tests will be used to clarify specific steps of the chaine opératoire to offer a better comprehension of dubious passages. Testing exact replicas of Ancient Egyptian spindles will help our understanding of the quality of threads and textiles that could be created with ancient tools. Preparation of flax fibres may shed light on the procedures adopted by Egyptians to make them spinnable.

Textual sources: Although archaeological finds constitute the primarily research focus, written sources may be exploited for maximum comprehension of textile production mechanisms in Egyptian society. This will be relevant during the Deir el-Medina case study, where a small community of workers lived and received textiles from the state administration. The huge amount of textual sources (ostraka and papyri related to everyday life and administration of the village) that survived at the site will be decisive for understanding how workers’ wages with textiles can be reconciled with archaeological textile tool finds, which institutions were involved in textile distribution, who produced textiles and for whom.

Social and economic organisation of textile production: Combining results from archaeological and textual sources will reveal the organisation of the textile industry. Textual sources can shed light on who produced threads and textiles (men, women or both), what was their social status, and for whom their production was intended (e.g. own family, local market or temples). The organisation of flax cultivation, the main fibre in the Ancient Egyptian textile industry, may help us to understand how fibre procurement occurred. Textiles, tools and contexts will provide information about domestic and large-scale production and contribute to answer to the following questions: what differences were there between domestic and non-domestic production? Were textile tools the same in domestic and non-domestic contexts? The aim of this research is to replace textile implements in their archaeological locations in order to understand how textile production was integrated into the Egyptian urban landscape, within an individual settlement as well as on a broader regional scale.