Searching for more examples of Romano-Coptic socks can lead to many surprises. A quick mention here, a random unidentified image there, the numbers go up as information is found and the numbers go down as disparate pieces are matched together. This is one of those cases where the numbers went down.
Searching through old catalogs of the early Egyptian collectors, I ran across a mention of a “knitted” Coptic sock in A Catalog of the Egyptian Antiquities in the possession of F. G. Hilton Price, Dir.S.A. As it was published in 1897, I was fairly certain that this reference was actually to a nalbound sock as the differences between nalbinding and knitting were not well known in the late 19th century.
“89. Sock, knitted in various coloured wools, with a receptacle formed for the great toe. Length 9 in. Coptic period. Ahmȋm.”A Catalogue of the Egyptian Antiquities in the Possession of F.G. Hilton Price. Page 14 (page 36 of the scan), Number 89.1
Not too long before that, I had run across an image of the bottom of a two-toed nalbound sock that had been saved without any identifying information. Tracking the image down led me to Dr. Margret Maitland, Principal Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean, and Head of the Mediterranean, Africa, Americas, and Oceania Section in the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, but no further information on the image.
Then, in October of 2018, I ran across another photo in my Twitter feed. It clearly was the other side of the same sock. And yet, still no identifying information; although it was obvious the sock had clearly undergone conservation since the original image.
By November 2018, my search had turned up a then recent entry for A.1911.315 into the National Museums Scotland’s Online Catalog. At the time, there was only one image of the sock available. However, the catalog entry did note that the sock was from the Hilton Price collection. So where I had thought I might have two socks to add to the corpus, I only had one. The numbers go up and the numbers go down as images show data pieces are not a match, that a mention is not actually nalbinding, or as in this case matches are made between separate mentions. (I am currently tracking around 110 separate items in the Romano-Coptic corpus, but the numbers go up and the numbers go down.)
As I was preparing my presentation, Charting the Nalbinding of the Nile, I reached out to Dr. Maitland to request permission to include a photo of this sock. She was kind enough to forward me twelve beautiful photographs to use in my research. These quickly made it into the online catalog for public viewing as well.
This lovely sock was one of the items to be included on display in World Cultures, Ancient Egypt Rediscovered, a new gallery that opened in February 2019. It was also reported in the news as one of the five most unusual objects in the three new galleries. See: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-47129600 and https://www.list.co.uk/article/107153-five-of-the-most-unusual-objects-from-the-national-museum-of-scotlands-new-galleries/
It is actually possible to see the sock on display, even now while the museums are closed, via a Google Arts & Culture tour: Google Museum View – Ancient Egypt Rediscovered Gallery. (Note: I set the link to take you directly to the sock case instead of the gallery entrance.) You can tour the entire National Museum of Scotland in the same way.
There are, as of this writing, 19 images of the sock available online in the the National Museum of Scotland’s catalog entry for this sock: https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/collection-search-results/?item_id=404856. Several of them are quite close up. The sock clearly shows ridges evidencing a middle, not top edge, connection between rows (excluding in the back and forth short row construction of the heel). This is similar to, though likely not exactly the same connection as, the stitch described as being used in the 13th century nalbound fragment from Müsen, Germany;2 mentioned as it is a mid connection most likely familiar to nalbinders. It is also at least similar to, and quite possibly the same as, the stitch used in five Coptic socks currently located in the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland.3 These are a Mammen/Korgen/Müsen base stitch with an M1 connection: UOO/UUOO M1.4
One might say the sock is inside out, although we do not know which side the maker and wearer intended to be the “right” side. The exterior of the sock is showing the technical back of the fabric as made. Most prominently this is noticeable in the ridging as the ridges of a mid connection are formed on the technical back as worked. The direction of the spiral start on the toe also indicates that the current exterior is the technical back as nalbinding is conventionally worked from left to right and the toe is spiraling right to left. Of the four socks using a visually similar stitch in the Museum der Kulturen, four show the ridges on the outside (two adult split toed socks, one undivided children’s sock, and one undivided incomplete children’s sock) and one has the ridges to the inside (undivided children’s sock).5
On April 7th, 2020, the BBC Scotland posted a ‘One Night in the Museum’ video on their YouTube channel that features the sock for the first minute. It shows some lovely closeups of the toes.
On May 7th 2020, we get an excellent article, The Lost Sock, from Miriam McLeod, the conservator, on the conservation process preparing it for display. https://blog.nms.ac.uk/2020/05/07/the-lost-sock/?fbclid=IwAR3FI85o1Xf-H9rnpBfzPFcrDbmV9x7BfkVQMmL7drideQoSboVjJooRMxs
It includes several additional images taken during the conservation process.
Visitors to the Ancient Egypt Rediscovered exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland occasionally post additional photographs of the sock online as it is now on display. The one below was an exceptionally fine example posted as a response to a tweet of another sock from the Romano-Coptic corpus currently found in the British Museum.
My sincerest thanks to Jennifer Blaikie who posted the link to the “The Lost Sock” blog post where I would come across it and to Kirsten Donaldson Wheal who posted it where Jennifer would run across it. It gave me just the push I needed to finish up this post. If you, dear readers, happen to run across interesting nalbinding tidbits, I’d love to hear about them.
- Hilton Price, Frederick George. A Catalogue of the Egyptian Antiquities in the Possession of F.G. Hilton Price. London: B. Quaritch, 1897. Page 14 (page 36 of the scan), Number 89.
http://catalog.hathitrust.org/api/volumes/oclc/16500440.html (BW scan) or
http://dlib.nyu.edu/awdl/sites/dl-pa.home.nyu.edu.awdl/files/catalogueofegypt00pric/catalogueofegypt00pric.pdf (Color scan)
- This stitch description has yet to be independently verified. However, it is the stitch most likely recognized by nalbinding craft workers as being a mid connection. Mid connections are unfortunately never specified as to taken from the left or right, but either is possible and distinguishing important. More information on the Müsen fragment is available in:
Böttcher, Gudrun. “Nadelbindungstechnik: Mittelalterlicher Textilfund in Müsen – Nachbildunsversuch” in Experimentelle Archäologie: Bilanz 1991 Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Nordwestdeutschland. Beiheft 6. by Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde und Vorgeschichte. Oldenburg: Isensee, 1991. ISSN: 0170-5776
- There are very few published photographs of the Museum der Kulturen’s collection of nalbound socks. The largest collection is in this article: Flury-v. Bültzingslöwen, Regina, and Dr. Edgar Lehmann. “Nichtgewebte Textilien vor 1400 / IX. Teil.” Wirkerei- und Strickerei- Technik: Fachzeitschrift für die Fabrikationspraxis und Betriebstechnik der Wirkerei- und Strickerei-Industrie 1955 (5): 38-41.
- Böttcher, Gudrun. “Nadelbindung – Koptische Textilien un Museum der Kulturen Basel und un Stadtischen Museum Simeonstift, Trier” in Archaeological Textiles Newsletter, No. 39 (Autumn) 2004.
There is another fragment extant that appears to be in this stitch in Finland. It is described in Vahter , T . ‘Tuukkalan neulakinnas’, Finska Fornminnesforeningens Tidskrift X L, 1934: 236-243. See also: Vajanto, Krista. “Nålbinding in Prehistoric Burials – Reinterpreting Finnish 11th–14th-century AD Textile Fragments” in Sounds Like Theory. XII Nordic Theoretical Archaeology Group Meeting in Oulu 25.–28.4.2012. Edited by Janne Ikäheimo, Anna-Kaisa Salmi & Tiina Äikäs. Monographs of the Archaeological Society of Finland 2, 21–33. ISBN 978-952-67594-7-0 (PDF) ISBN 978-952-67594-6-3 (hardback)
- The Museum der Kulturen posted a blog post about our visit to see the collection in January of 2019. https://www.mkb.ch/de/blog/2019/q1/sockenforscher.html While the blog post focuses on another sock in the Museum der Kulturen collection, the images do include a few of the socks mentioned in the background.
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Awesome sock! Eat your hearts out, you modern sock knitters with your fancy-schmancy self-striping yarn!