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Uses of Karanis Textiles Examined in Fall Exhibition

“The Fabric of Everyday Life: Historic Textiles from Karanis, Egypt,” curated by Thelma K. Thomas, opens September 28, 2001. The essay below situates the exhibition in its historical and Kelsey contexts.

Historic textiles of the Roman period and later antiquity (first century BC through seventh century AD) are rare in many parts of the world, in large part because these artifacts are composed of fragile organic matter that survives only in special environmental conditions. Early in the modern period, around the close of the eighteenth century, Western travelers discovered that the dry sands of Egypt preserved textiles in relatively large quantities.

Typically, these cloths are the shrouds and other grave goods of cemetery settings, so they yield interesting information about the need for cloth in the afterlife. The firstand many of the largestmuseum collections of late antique Egyptian textiles are comprised of acquisitions from cemetery explorations that could be called, at best, unscientific. Consequently, the attribution of a late antique Egyptian textile to its place of discovery is, all too often, mere speculation based on sketchy tips provided by a dealer (who might have mingled textile lots from various sites or mentioned a well-known site to enhance the prestige of his merchandise) or on comparisons to textiles from the few sites with some archaeological documentation.

The Kelsey Textiles from Karanis

It is these concerns of preservation and attribution that distinguish the Kelsey’s 3,500 Roman-period and late antique textiles from Karanis, Egypt, found in the 1920s and 1930s. The dry climate in which they were discovered provided the conditions necessary to their survival, and all the pieces are securely attributed to Karanis. Indeed many of them can be assigned to specific locations within the site, thus yielding precious information about the use of cloth in the settings of daily life.

Karanis was founded in the late Ptolemaic period (mid third century BC) in Egypt’s fertile Fayoum basin, which was being developed for its agricultural potential. The town grew during the Roman period (beginning in the first century BC) to reach the height of its prosperity in the second half of the third century AD, at the beginning of the period called “late antiquity.” Most Karanis textiles should probably be assigned dates during the Roman period and late antiquity.


The town was discovered around the turn of the twentieth century, when excavators were searching for papyrian ancient form of paper on which were written letters, inventories, official contracts and prayers, and works of literature—all highly prized by scholars of Egypt’s later Greek and Roman periods. Karanis did indeed yield great quantities of papyri, but the site was also extraordinarily rich in other artifacts, from large architectural complexes to tiny beads. In fact, F. W. Kelsey, the Museum’s founder and organizer of the Karanis expedition, seems to have dubbed the site “the Pompeii of Egypt,” recognizing the rarity of so complete a glimpse of Roman Egyptian town life.

A computer component of the exhibition “The Fabric of Everyday Life” will allow Museum visitors to look up key excerpts from texts about cloth written on papyri from Karanis. These documents provide information available in no other form about, for instance, the textile industry and the monetary values assigned to particular textile goods. Most of these papyri are housed in the University of Michigan Papyrus Collection and are accessible online via the Advanced Papyrological Information System (APIS) at

Modern Documents

In addition to ancient papyri, a number of modern documents have proved useful in organizing the exhibition on Karanis textiles. One is a 1934 article from The Ann Arbor Daily News (fig. 1), which conveys the sense of excitement that the Karanis expedition generated when it was underway by quoting archaeologist Enoch Peterson: “From a dead and buried city we have learned of the life of a living people.” The article also declares that “the excavations carried on at the site of Karanis over the past 10 years have given us both an accurate and complete account of the life there; the houses the people lived in, the streets where they walked or rode on donkey back, the furniture they used, the paintings that adorned their walls, the clothes they wore, the household objects of wood, pottery, glass, faience, bronze, and bone, the harness rope and basketry.”

In the catalogue for her 1983 exhibition, Karanis: An Egyptian Town in Roman Times, Elaine Gazda celebrated this aspect of the site in more considered, less breathless prose: “The town of Karanis occupies a unique place in the annals of Egyptian and Graeco-Roman archaeology. Although no more than a rustic agricultural village in the Fayoum oasis, it looms large for us because it provides a microcosm of life as it was lived by ordinary people under Greek and Roman rule.” “The Fabric of Everyday Life” continues to explore this information about daily life, but it is unique in its focus on the textiles. Another useful document for understanding the Karanis textiles is Lillian Wilson’s Ancient Textiles from Egypt in the University of Michigan Collection (1933), which provides catalogue entries for about 1 percent of the textiles from Karanis and is based in large part on an unpublished study by the English scholar Thomas Midgley. Both studies identified findspots when known, but neither exploited this information for what it might say, for example, about the social settings in which particular kinds of cloth were found. Aside from coins that might provide a specific date—another rarity for late antique textiles—the other items that were found with cloth artifacts have usually been overlooked. “The Fabric of Everyday Life” will make use of reconstructed assemblages and their typical contexts—interior rooms, courtyards, and rubbish heaps—to reveal important insights into cloth manufacture and mending, as well as the practices of use, reuse, and ultimately rejection of a textile.

Museum Resources

Archival photographs are also crucial to what has turned out to be an expedition into “museum archaeology” in preparation for this exhibition. Such images provide visual evidence that complements the sometimes spotty written records and mapping efforts for these excavations, which were never published in their entirety. Some of these photographs record discovery sites for which there are no maps or written records; others record textiles that were not acquired by the Kelsey and that, in all probability, no longer survive (e.g., fig. 2) .

One archival photograph (fig. 3) organizes a selection of textiles found during several years of excavation, thus recording their condition upon discovery. This information is extremely useful because, although the textiles have been cleaned since their acquisition, no records of any treatments were kept. “The Fabric of Everyday Life” will display a small but representative selection of textiles in conjunction with archival photographs relevant to their interpretation.
Yet another important context for the research represented in “The Fabric of Everyday Life” has been important exploratory work by longtime Kelsey Museum volunteer Ann Van Rosevelt in identifying assemblages with cloth. In addition, my own surveys of the Kelsey textile collection and the Karanis archives have benefited immensely from a massive reorganization of the archives and reconfiguration of the Museum’s database. My survey of the textiles, begun in the late 1980s, has been greatly facilitated by their placement in the early 1990s in the spacious cabinets of the Museum’s Sensitive Artifact Facility and Environment (SAFE) (fig. 4).

The Textiles Themselves

In the Karanis textiles themselves, visitors to “The Fabric of Everyday Life” will encounter plain, worn fragments with little visual appeal (fig. 5). Upon examination and reflection, however, these pieces exert an extraordinary power to evoke past lives. Once, these rags were part of clothes that were worn next to the skin, rugs that were walked on, or bags that carried life-sustaining food. They are thus extremely “intimate artifacts,” as one archaeologist calls them. The exhibition will attempt to foreground that sense of intimacy, in part by asking viewers to think of analogies for the use of cloth in their own lives.

The exhibition will also present ancient images of textiles as a way to reveal conceptions of them quite different from the plain examples found at the site. For example, one particular set of images from Karanis, iconic wall paintings, envisions special textiles worn by divinities (fig. 6). These sacred devotional images represented for the inhabitants of Karanis a quality of cloth that they did not expect to encounter in their everyday lives.

A Team Effort

This exhibition project is a team effort. Consultants Mark Nielson and Steve Hixson are coordinating exhibition design. Preparator Dana Buck is making the design tangible. Conservator Brook Bowman has prepared and vetted the textiles and other objects for display and is assisting with exhibition design. Robin Meador-Woodruff responds promptly and graciously to my special demands for photography. Although many volunteers and students have worked with me on this project, special thanks go to Kelly Goodknecht (Kalamazoo College), research assistant extraordinaire, who organized vast amounts of information from the archives, the database, and the registry, and to Melanie Grunow (IPCAA), who is programming the touch-screen computer for the exhibition. Finally, the project owes a great debt to Ann Van Rosevelt for her many contributions over the years to the preservation and study of these textiles.

—Thelma K. Thomas