|Last night's talk by Christine Wallace, "Textiles through History", was a fascinating look at an area which has sometimes been overlooked in archaeology. This may be because modern techniques have only recently made conservation possible or perhaps the subject has suffered in the past from perceptions that it is a "women's" subject.
The exquisite Tarkhan dress, for example, a finely-pleated linen dress from 2800 BC, was excavated in Egypt in 1913. Put away in a cupboard wrapped in newspaper it was completely disregarded until 1977 when it was finally cleaned and conserved at the V&A's Textile Conservation Workshop. It is one of the oldest examples of an Ancient Egyptian garment on display in the world.
Textiles will of course usually decay over time but may be preserved in a number of contexts. They may be present as a negative impression eg in pot sherds, or when products of metal corrosion are absorbed into the fibres. Charring also preserves wood, basket work and fibres. Must Farm is a significant Bronze Age site where a catastrophic fire has resulted in the charred remains of an entire settlement falling into and being preserved by the silts of the sluggish river over which it was built.
The anaerobic mud of Vindolanda has famously preserved stunning examples of artefacts in materials usually lost over time: wood, leather, a hair-moss wig and some beautiful examples of textiles, have been saved and conserved. Some textile objects speak eloquently of their owners and give us a tangible and poignant link into the deep past. Christine showed us a lovely example from Vindolanda which includes a fragment of woven textile that Christine likes to imagine may be of a birrus Britannnicus, with a very poor darn that may even have been carried out on site by its legionnaire owner.
Global warming is resulting in a widespread melting of areas of permafrost in areas such as Siberia. Ancient textiles preserved by freezing retain their colours and recent discoveries include some startlingly beautiful examples including the Pazyryk carpet which is the oldest pile carpet ever discovered. An exquisite composition in glowing reds, greens and blues it measures 183x200 cm, the pile so intricately knotted that it surpasses even the best quality hand-made modern carpets.