Friday, July 31, 2015


Margarita Gleba, Judit Pásztókai-Szeőke (ed.), Making Textiles in Pre-Roman and Roman Times. Peoples, Places, Identities. Ancient Textiles Series Vol. 13. Oxford; Oakville: Oxbow Books, 2013. Pp. 244. ISBN 9781842177679. $60.00.

Reviewed by Annette Paetz gen. Schieck, Deutsches Textilmuseum Krefeld (

Version at BMCR home site


Not too long ago, textile research in archaeology was carried out by a very small group of scholars, spread all over the world. They seldom had the chance to meet like-minded colleagues and work on joint projects. Fortunately, this situation has changed within the past years, triggered by the founding of the Centre for Textile Research (CTR) at the University of Copenhagen, and pan-European research projects such as DressID, funded with the support of the European Commission (2007 to 2012).1

This volume is one of the many results and part of the great output fostered by these activities. Both editors are members of the CTR and spokespersons of the DressID researchers group dealing with the production and trade of textiles in the Roman Empire. As such, they initiated the international conference on Work and identity: The agents of textile production and exchange in the Roman period at Hallstatt (Austria) in 2009, wherein lies the the origin of this book.2 Nine of the papers are published in this volume, supplemented by four articles broadening the scope of the topics.3 Beside the preface by Margarita Gleba, an introduction by John Peter Wild, five maps, and an index, the volume contains 13 papers with individual bibliographies. All of them are in English.

The editors arranged the papers in chronological order, which at the same time allows for a regional grouping. The sections deal with: Pre-Roman Italy (two papers); Pre-Roman and Roman Noricum and Pannonia (three papers); Roman Italy and southern Gaul (two papers); Roman Egypt (three papers); Pre-Roman and Roman Asia (one paper), and Roman Pompeii (two papers).

In his introduction, Wild provides a short history of textile research in archaeology, sums up the contents of selected contributions and sets the overall question: who were the producers and traders of textiles in Roman times? – a seemingly simple question which, in the course of the papers, proves to be difficult to answer.

Pre-Roman Italy

Margarita Gleba's article on "Transformations in textile production and exchange in pre-Roman Italy" starts with transformation processes of pre-Roman societies in Italy. Small villages evolved into urban centers; this change also affected textile production changing it from subsistence production to that of non-essential luxurious goods, demanded by the elites. This caused technological changes in areas such as animal breeding, standardization of tools, introduction of new tools, techniques and textile qualities (twill, tablet weaves); production modes, labor organization and specialization; and the exchange of material, tools and knowledge. These changes were inspired by expanding intercultural contacts in the 1st millennium BCE.

Sanna Lipkin's paper on "Textile making in Central Tyrrhenian Italy – Questions related to age, rank and status" focuses on Iron Age burials in Latium vetus and Etruria. She investigates large numbers of graves and relates osteological data to grave goods. She is able to determine that females of all ages were textile workers, at least on a basic level. She believes that sets of multiple tools characterize females as skilled textile specialists; tools made of simple materials were mere working items, whereas those made of precious materials marked the high social status of their owners.

Pre-Roman and Roman Noricum and Pannonia

Karina Grömer worked on "Discovering the people behind the textiles: Iron Age textile producers and their products in Austria." She correlates ancient textile finds with textile tools, settlement structures, grave contexts, and pictorial sources of Austrian Iron Age in the Hallstatt (9th to 5th Century BC) and Dürrnberg periods (6th to 1st Century BC). The finds reveal social structures and the division of labor according to gender: spindles and textile tools were found in graves of females of any age; other tools, such as needles and shears that could also have been employed in leather processing, were found in graves of both sexes.

Kordula Gostenčnik writes on "Textile Production and Trade in Roman Noricum" from 15 BC to 600 AD. She focuses on the sites of Old Virunum, Municipium Claudium Virunum, and the Municipium Flavia Solva. Gostenčnik investigates textile tools in settlements, and relates them to a few iconographic sources, textiles, and written sources on lead tags possibly used in a fullery. From the huge amounts of textile tools found at Old Virunum, she concludes that many inhabitants earned their living in textile business, being organized by merchants and traders from Aquileia, Italy. After the town was abandoned and the inhabitants founded the Municipium Claudium Virunum, textile production was of little relevance to them.

Ivan Radman-Livaja deals with "Craftspeople, Merchants or Clients? The Evidence of Personal Names on Commercial Lead Tags from Siscia" by investigating the written records of 1200 lead tags found at Siscia, southwestern Pannonia, dating from the 1st to the early 3rd century AD. The labels were reused several times, being tied to bundles of textiles when handed over to the fullers for cleaning, redyeing or mending. They carry names, most likely of clients and fullers, and instructions for the treatment of the textiles.

Roman Italy and Southern Gaul

Lena Larsson Lovén writes about "Female work and identity in Roman textile production and trade: A methodological discussion." According to epigraphic and iconographic sources, women were involved in all stages of textile production. The industry overall drew on the labor of both sexes; however, wool spinning was exclusively done by women. Comparing these results with pictorial sources, the author shows that men were given attributes defining their profession, while women were depicted with spindle and wool-basket, which was part of a semiotics of the moral values of a good housewife. Lovén states that modes of commemoration depended on status, gender ideologies, and moral values, and may not depict reality.

Jinyu Liu discusses archaeological, ltiterary and epigraphic sources in order to gain information on "Trade, Traders and Guilds (?) in Textiles: the case of Southern Gaul and Northern Italy (1st–3rd Centuries AD)." She focuses on textile products, on half-finished textiles and finished garments, stating that a medium quality of wool and woolen textiles were produced in the region to supply the city of Rome and the military. Inscriptions by wool- workers attest to the organization of textile workers and traders in guilds, comparable to those in medieval times.

Roman Egypt

In "Textile trade in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea," Manuel Albaladejo Vivero deals with a document of the mid-1st Century AD written by a ship-owner living in Roman Egypt, who exported tunics, cloaks and textile goods from Arsinoë, Fayum, to eastern Africa, the Persian Gulf, and India. There he purchased spices and pearls, focused on silk textiles from China, and traded them to Rome via Egypt. These luxurious goods flooded the Roman market in Julio-Claudian times.

Kerstin Droß-Krüpe relates the Periplus Maris Erythraei to contemporary written sources: Strabo, Pliny, dedications, graffiti, papyri, and ostraca also originating from Egypt. In her paper on "Textiles and their merchants in Rome's Eastern trade," she focuses on types of traded goods, especially qualities of textiles. She also deals with intercultural contact engendered by the perspective of gaining great profit by trading luxurious goods. The documents tell about mobility fostered by lucrative trade; socio-cultural identity; female Egyptian traders; Egyptian merchants at Aden, as well as those from Aden and India living in Egypt, leaving written messages in Tamil.

The paper by Sophie Gällnö investigates "(In)visible spinners in the documentary papyri from Roman Egypt." On the basis of four Egyptian papyri, she argues that textile production and textile trade were a major economic resource in Egypt. Yet spinners, who produced masses of yarn to be woven, are not mentioned in the documents, which leads her to conclude that it was women who carried out the professional spinning work at home, being hidden from the public eye, since working for money was not accepted in society.

Pre-Roman and Roman Asia

Isabella Benda-Weber's paper "Textile production centers, products and merchants in the Roman Province of Asia" combines archaeological finds and written sources in order to define Asian centers of textile production, their traditions, their products as well as producers and merchants, and their organization in guilds. She stresses the importance of Asian textile traditions such as murex purple dyed wool as being the origin of Roman status symbols. Its use continued into Byzantine times, when it was found in the most noble gowns.

Roman Pompeii

Miko Flohr, in "Ulula, Quinquatrus and the occupational identity of fullones in early Imperial Italy," investigates the building structures of fullonicae in Pompeii and combines the results with information provided by wall- paintings, graffiti and written records. Flohr traces the occupational identity of crafts persons, their religious rituals and the symbols they used to communicate identity, the owl. He takes the frequency of depicting the owl as a marker of the degree of identification. By studying three types of workshops, he suggests different degrees of workman's identification, depending on the size of the workshops, and along with this, occupational specialization.

The final paper was provided by Jens-Arne Dickmann, dealing with "A 'private' felter's workshop in the Casa dei Postumii at Pompeii." It was rebuilt after the earthquake of 62 AD as a fuller's or felter's workshop producing shoes and gloves throughout the year, to be collected and stored in a small shop, which was located in the same building. The shop may have opened seasonally, most likely only in winter.


Through this collection of articles, the reader gets a wonderful insight into the production and trade of textiles and their sociological meaning in the ancient societies of the Mediterranean and central Europe. The authors present a wide range of archaeological material and most of them draw on further sources, such as textile finds, tools, depictions and written records. The topics of the papers are researched in depth by their authors. In a most convincing way they demonstrate that textile research in archaeology affords interdisciplinary and unconventional approaches when aiming at reconstructing the structures of ancient business activity.

This book is an inspiration to those dealing with sociological aspects of the field, as well as craft and workmanship, trade, and textile research in antiquity. It contains rich empirical materials, but also considers problems of method. It therefore fosters the discipline of textile research in archaeology in a holistic way. The papers make very clear that there is still a lot to be discussed in this field and that further progress will result from collaboration across the international community of textile researchers. For instance, the book inspires to deepen the research on females in textile production throughout antiquity. Several authors discuss the presence and meaning of textile tools in female spheres. Interpretations vary from: markers of status, symbols of moral values, domestic production for family purposes, domestic but professional production in secrecy. These interpretations reflect ancient positions in different regions and times, but they also reflect the research traditions of those who interpret the sources. Another conference would be a perfect occasion to investigate these aspects.


1.   Clothing and Identities – New Perspectives on Textiles in the Roman Empire (DressID). The project was initiated and managed by the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museums at Mannheim, Germany. Participating institutions were the CTR Kopenhagen (Denmark), KIK-IRPA at Brussels (Belgium), the Universities of Sheffield (Great Britain), Valencia (Spain) and Rethymnon (Greece), as well as the Museum of Natural History in Vienna (Austria).
2.   See Preface by Margarita Gleba.
3.   By Jens-Arne Dickmann, Lena Larsson Lovén, Sophie Gällnö, Ivan Radman-Livaja.

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