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Kelsey in Focus: Installment #3

Palm fiber and wood fans from Karanis, Egypt. 4th–5th centuries AD. U-M Excavation, 1924–1925. KM 3390, 3479, 3480.

Keeping Cool in Roman Egypt: Fans from Karanis

The hot and arid environment of ancient Egypt led to the development of many strategies for keeping cool. Architecture maximized shade and cut off direct sunlight, jars placed in stands allowed water to cool through condensation, and hand-operated fans were used for personal cooling. These three fans come from the Michigan excavations at the Graeco-Roman site of Karanis, in the Fayum region of Egypt. Their size and structure indicate they would have required someone to operate them, most likely a servant. Although intended for cooling, these fans also served as signs of luxury and status.

These and six other fans of this type in the Kelsey’s collection are all made of wood and palm fiber. They were excavated from the latest archaeological levels at Karanis, from before the site was abandoned in the later 5th or early 6th century CE.

Illustration of the cross pattern woven into the pennant of KM 3390.

The fans shown here are all of the "pennant" type, sometimes known as "Coptic" fans. Such fans appeared in later Roman and Byzantine Egypt, a time when Christianity became the dominant religion in Egypt. One of the fans has a subtle pattern woven into its pennant that may be a Christian cross, while the other two  have an "X" woven into their pennants in a contrasting color, more likely simple decoration than Christian symbol.

Terry G. Wilfong, Director and Curator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology