Study methodology

As in most fields of current archaeology, textile archaeology, too, is in need of an interdisciplinary approach. A number of disciplines such as classics, ancient history, history of art, epigraphy, papyrology, linguistics, chemistry, biology, geology, archaeobotany and archaeozoology, can be combined in the study of all aspects of ancient textiles. With such an interdisciplinary approach, it is possible to understand ancient textiles more accurately and through them, past human societies in general.

The interdisciplinary approach requires more than the study of ancient textile remains: the analyses of ancient texts, art iconography, archaeobiological evidence and excavation contexts, along with the integration of the results of experimental archaeology and ethnological observation, are all  important in viewing ancient textiles from many different angles. Not just as artefacts, but as products and “embodiments” of cultures and societies.

The historical study of the written sources is among the most prominent research tool for the comprehension of several aspects of ancient cloth production. Information regarding technology, trade, the organisation and scale of production, and the social aspect of the textile industry can be found in these texts. Art iconography often completes the data derived from texts, while it offers a visual representation of ancient textiles and garments.

The recent development of scientific methods allowed for laboratory analyses to be applied  in the study of ancient textiles. These analyses aim to help us answer specific research questions, such as the identification of the plant or animal origin of textile fibres, as well as the geographical origin of the raw materials. In many cases optical microscopy and scanning electronic microscopy have been successfully applied in order to identify the raw materials of ancient textile remains. A very recent scientific development achieved tracing of the geographical origin of the fibers, through the detection of strontium isotopes on ancient textiles remains. Moreover, the technology of three-dimensional scanning allows for the early tracing of textile remains in the interior of ancient vessels, so that destructive accidents during the conservation of vases can be avoided and rescue of the textile remains can be achieved.

On a different level, research hypotheses formed by the results of conventional archaeological investigations can be tested by applying experimental archaeology. This approach allows us, on one hand to investigate the functional parameters related to ancient tools and on the other hand to create reconstructions of ancient tools and textiles. Ethnology is another tool in our disposal to test hypotheses, but it is also the source of a wealth of comparative material related to traditional, pre-industrial textile technologies and economies.

The combination of all the above mentioned methodological tools has opened up the field of textile archaeology, it has contributed to impressive research results and is promising for future research. In this interdisciplinary frame, textile archaeology has gained a prominent place and is now considered vital for the understanding of past societies.