On Monday, May 20th, 2019, I was honored to be allowed to examine the cross-knit nalbound fragments found in Dura-Europos, Syria and now housed in the collections of the Yale University Art Gallery as inventory numbers 1933.483 & 1935.556.
The fragments are dated to pre-256 CE as that is when Dura-Europos was sacked and never re-occupied. As described in Yale’s online catalog, they are both of wool, though the ribbed fragments are of a finer gauge than the patterned fragment. The patterned fragment is currently a kind of beige with some possible staining. The ribbed fragments are also currently primarily beige, but with stripes of red, yellowish tan, blue & purple, and hints of green. Inv. # 1935.556 is actually composed of two separate fragments. They are stored unfixed to their backing boards in glassine wrapping to protect them from the light.
Time will be needed to process the data collected, analyze it, and prepare it for publication in appropriate venues. However, early indications are that there is likely evidence that will tie these examples even closer to the broader Roman Egyptian corpus.
I would like to extend my warmest thanks and appreciation to Dr. Lisa Brody, Associate Curator of Ancient Art at the Yale University Art Gallery for her assistance and gracious hospitality giving me the opportunity to examine these exceptional fragments in their collection.
Additional sources that discuss the Dura-Europos finds: (to be updated)
Rutt, Richard. A History of Hand Knitting. London: B T Batsford Ltd, 1987 ISBN 0713451181; reprinted Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1989 ISBN 0-934026-35-1, Library of Congress Catalog Number 87-46353; pgs. 28-30.
Pfister, Rudolf and Bellinger, Louisa. "The textiles: Knitting," Rostovtzeff, M.I., et al. The excavations at Dura-Europos Final Report IV, Part II. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945, 54-5.
The most famous of the Dura-Europos fragments is the beautifully stitch patterned cross-knit nalbound fragment, Inv. No. 1933.483, in the Yale University Art Gallery, showing a opposing leaf pattern bordered by repeats of a pomegranate like shape. Its original function is unknown, but the conservation efforts made the three remaining integral lacing loops visible. (Update 1/7/2020: The patterned fragment has evidence that confirms what remains is that of the heel cup/ankle shaft of a sock.)
The particular fragment pictured above initially caught my eye back in the late 1990’s. I had gotten my first copy of Richard Rutt’s A History of Hand Knitting. The chart he included for a knitted simulation did not match the image of the actual object provided on page 30 with the precision that I desired. I spent many many hours pouring over that image and charting out stitch by stitch the nalbinding pattern the year I was in Taiwan (1999/2000). I also spent a good bit of time consolidating a list of references to track down and discovered that the Academia Sinica library had an amazing Humanities and Ethnography collection. This collection included a copy of R. Pfister and Louisa Bellinger’s 1945 article on the “knitting” in The excavations at Dura-Europos Final Report IV, Part II which included a black and white image that was clearly post cleaning/conservation.
My class handout I initially created in 2000 included not only diagrams of the possible increases and decreases and my chart for the specific pattern found in Inv. N0. 1933.483, it also included my initial attempts at using the images of the Dura-Europos fragment to illustrate the specific increases and decreases used in extant Roman Era cross-knit nalbinding. It continues to be a favorite piece for this purpose as it includes so many examples thereof in the formation of its stitch patterning.
In 2004, I was honored to present “Nalbinding or Not?: Some Structural Differences between Nalbinding and other Textile Techniques” at a DISTAFF session during the 39th International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The patterned Dura-Europos piece proved to be an excellent example for demonstrating what cross-knit nalbound increases and decreases looked like in an actual object and how they differed from the corresponding shaping of a knitted object.
Here is a copy of the handout from my presentation.
The cross-knit looping structure can be produced by two different techniques, either cross-knit nalbinding or crossed/twisted knitting. They both produce a fabric of the same basic structure. However, they are worked in opposite directions. The clues as to which technique produced the fabric are in the shaping (increases/decreases), pick-ups, and mistakes. The preferred spiral working direction also differs between the two.
More information regarding the stitch patterned fragment, Inv. N0. 1933.483, along with a downloadable full size image is available on the Yale University Art Gallery’s site. The record for the two “ribbed” fragments, Inv. No. 1935.556, that were also found at Dura-Europos is available here. The electronic records were created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect their current knowledge about the objects, thus they are still listed as having been knitted.
The Yale University Art Gallery also has a permanent exhibition on the Dura-Europos excavations and as part of that has a very nice online feature outlining the historical background and excavation history with images and maps of the excavation: http://media.artgallery.yale.edu/duraeuropos/
I would like to thank the Yale University Art Gallery for providing such excellent photos in their online collections. I am also very much looking forward to, and very grateful for, the opportunity to view the fragments in person later this month. They continue to play a pivotal role in the study of the nalbinding technique and the structures it produces.
On January 21st, 2019, I was honored to give a presentation entitled Charting the Nalbinding of the Nile (click on title to view recording: 30 minutes) at the Textile Archaeology of Egypt and Sudan’s (TAES) seminar on “Current Research in Textile Archaeology along the Nile” at the Centre for Textile Research in Copenhagen. They recorded the presentations and posted them online. A direct link to mine is located here. This presentation focused on the over 110 extant nalbound artifacts, primarily socks, that have been found in Romano-Coptic Egypt and surrounding areas. They are now located in museums throughout the world.
This presentation was intended to be an introduction to the breadth of information that can be gleaned from examining the corpus as a whole: the diversity of nalbinding variants, the colors and shapes of the objects, their shaping and construction, the find locations up and down the Nile, along the Eastern desert and in the Western Oases, etc.
Abstract: Extant Romano-Coptic nalbinding from the Nile Valley and surrounding regions provides one of the most statistically significant populations of such material, consisting of over 100 specimens. The technical variant used in approximately half the objects is misleadingly called Coptic or Tarim stitch. A preferred established term is cross-knit looping and personal examination of the Tarim basin finds has not revealed its presence there. The misnomer derives from the misinterpretation of a brief note in a broader work, compounded by unawareness of the variant’s oldest known occurrence from the Nahal Hemar cave. The term Coptic stitch reflects a greater understanding of naming conventions for nalbinding variants. However, recent research indicates that multiple finds labeled as Coptic actually date to the Roman and Late Roman Eras. The nominal association with the Coptic Era is additionally misleading because half of the designated corpus displays a range of more complex variants. This paper addresses the terminological imprecision, confusion about underlying fabric structures, and effects of provenance irregularities. It also presents an initial collation of available images and mapped locations of the Egyptian finds as part of a comprehensive catalog of nalbound objects prior to 1600 currently being compiled.
This post was specifically to collate posts regarding the presentation. However, I plan to write up a bit of my experiences leading up to the deciding to do the presentation and the preparation therefore in a future post. I also want to write up one on the trip surrounding the seminar and presentation as I was lucky enough to arrange several visits with museums to see extant items in their collections (reports on which will be forthcoming in their appropriate venues).