Bolton Library and Museum Services

Ancient textiles

The hot dry sand of the deserts either side of the Nile preserves organic materials such as wood and cloth almost indefinitely. As a town whose prosperity depended on the textile trade, Bolton was especially interested in collecting samples of textiles. These could be displayed to illustrate the history of weaving, and also studied by designers trying to improve their products.

Fringed piece of plain linen. From Tell el Amarna, c. 1350BC Bolton Museum 1922.4.2

Fringed piece of plain linen. From Tell el Amarna, c. 1350BC Bolton Museum 1922.4.2

The first two curators of the Chadwick Museum, William Midgley (curator 1881-1908) and his son Thomas Midgley (curator 1908-1934), were specialists in the study of ancient textiles. In some cases, they provided excavators with an assessment of the textiles found at a particular site in return for a share of the finds.

As a result, Bolton’s ancient textile collection is one of the most important in the world. Many of the pieces are beautiful to look at, but they also have a known archaeological context which makes them especially significant for study.

Ancient Egyptian textiles

Fragment of a blue wool overtunic decorated with a tapestry-woven clavus. From the Fayum. c. 500-700AD Bolton Museum 1929.4.26

Fragment of a blue wool overtunic decorated with a tapestry-woven clavus. From the Fayum. c. 500-700AD Bolton Museum 1929.4.26

Egyptian linen has been renowned since antiquity for its quality, but few well-preserved garments survive from before about 300AD. This is due partly to the technique of mummification: bodies were wrapped in bandages, often made by tearing up old clothes. Textiles from the Dynastic period are usually made of plain linen; brightly coloured clothes were the preserve of the very wealthy.

The most spectacular examples of textiles in the Museum’s collection date to the Coptic period, from about 300AD onwards. With the spread of Christianity in Egypt came a change in burial customs. Instead of being elaborately mummified and wrapped in bandages, people were buried within a few days of death, and dressed in their finest clothes, preserving them intact for their discoverers. Baggy wool and linen tunics with clavi (stripes) of tapestry-woven decoration were worn by men and women, and silk began to be imported from Asia.

The Egyptian textile collection today: stored and studied

Fragment of linen. From the Fayum, c. 5000BC Bolton Museum 1929.56.109. Photograph by Jana Jones

Fragment of linen. From the Fayum, c. 5000BC Bolton Museum 1929.56.109. Photograph by Jana Jones

Ancient textiles are damaged by exposure to light and changes in temperature and humidity. The museum’s textile collection is kept in stable conservation-approved storage, and only a small proportion is on display at any time. It can be viewed by appointment, and is used by researchers from around the world.

Bolton Museum owns one of the oldest fragments of Egyptian textile discovered, over 7,000 years old. A recent project has re-examined the linen, revealing new information about the way it was made.