Medieval Nubian Nalbinding in Sudan

I’m very excited to start this year off by calling your attention to a particularly spectacular and significant pair of nalbound socks. While the known corpus of finds out of Egypt continues to expand as growing interest encourages examinations of those random boxes and unopened drawers that have been languishing, next to nothing was available about nalbinding further up the Nile. And now, not only do we have our first known piece of medieval nalbinding found in Sudan, it’s a pair of compound nalbound socks decorated with intarsia.

These beautiful blue wool socks with yellow and green accents, KH 18868, are currently on display in the “Hidden Textile Treasures in the collections of the Sudan National Museumexhibition which opened in Khartoum on October 24, 2019 and will run through May 2020. The green crosses on the fronts and yellow crosses on the backs of the ankle shaft are worked as an integral part of the fabric.

The exhibition is curated by Dr. Magdalena Woźniak, as part of her broader Nubian Textiles project.1 I had the honor to meet her last January at the TAES seminar in Copenhagen. She brought this pair to my attention after my presentation, Charting the Nalbinding of the Nile, introducing a broader understanding of the wide variety within nalbound finds from Egypt and surrounding regions. In particular, the embroidered crosses on the two socks2 found at Deir el-Dyk caught her eye given the intarsia crosses of this pair.

These Nubian socks were found on the feet of an adult woman buried in the medieval Christian cemetery in Semna South.3 Dating to around the 11th century AD is based on the type of burial and the last architectural phase of the Christian church that was built there in the 9th-11th centuries AD. 4

This extraordinary pair of socks constitutes one of four unique fabrics that were allowed to be transported to Poland for conservation as part of the project.5 Conservation complete, they returned to Sudan in time for the exhibition opening and are now housed in sealed and properly lit display cases for preservation.

Another small picture of the conserved socks on display is included in IKŚiO PAN’s exhibition announcement (in Polish). The further linked description pdf (also in Polish) includes two closer photos, one pre- and one post-conservation, showing the technical front and technical back of one of the integrally worked crosses. (See also link and link). We are currently working on an article with further details.

This will be one of many articles I will be working on this year. Last year, I was honored to have the opportunity to examine a large number of other examples of extant objects. However, the travel required, and life’s demands, meant that I did not have much time to analyze and write up the data I acquired. I look forward to being able to bring together more data regarding historical nalbinding.

Also, a huge thank you to all those that brought me information on finds new and old this last year.

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NOTES:
1. Part of the “Nubian Textiles: craft, trade, costume and identity in the medieval kingdom of Makuria” project, the exhibition was prepared by the Instytut Kultur Śródziemnomorskich i Orientalnych Polskiej Akademii Nauk (IKŚiO PAN) [Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures of the Poland Academy of Sciences] in cooperation with the Sudanese National Museum and the Section Française de la Direction des Antiquités du Soudan (SFDAS) [French Archaeological Unit Sudan Antiquities Service].
2. One sock is now held in the British Museum; EA72502. The other, III 3356, is located in the Museum der Kulturen, Basel. See also: Gayet, Albert. Le costume en Egypte du IIIe au XIIIe siècle Palais du costume, Exposition Universelle de 1900. Paris: E. Leroux, 1900. https://archive.org/stream/lecostumeenegyp00frangoog#page/n112/mode/1up Accessed January 1, 2020.
3. Further information regarding the excavations is available in Žabkar, Louis V. and Joan J. Žabkar. “Semna South. A Preliminary Report on the 1966-68 Excavations of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute Expedition to Sudanese Nubia” in Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 19 (1982), pp. 7-50. Published by: American Research Center in Egypt DOI: 10.2307/40000432 Accessed January 2, 2020.
Also, the SFDAS has a link to this very nice pdf that outlines the history of the region and shows Semna on a map.
Rilly, Claude. The Sudan National Museum in Khartoum: An illustrated guide for visitors. Translated by Solène Marion de Procé. SFDAS 2013. https://sfdas.com/IMG/pdf/livretmuse_etenglight.pdf Accessed January 1, 2020.
4. Personal correspondence: Dr. Magdalena Wozniak, October 2, 2019.
5. http://centrumnubia.org/en/projects/nubian-textiles/conservation/ Accessed January 1, 2020.