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Archaeology of Textile Production in the Kingdom of Meroe New approaches to cultural identity and economics in ancient Sudan and Nubia

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - TexMeroe (Archaeology of Textile Production in the Kingdom of MeroeNew approaches to cultural identity and economics in ancient Sudan and Nubia)

Reporting period: 2018-03-05 to 2020-03-04

The Sudanese Meroitic kingdom (c. 350 BCE – 550 CE) is well-known for its impressive displays of royal power on the walls of its temples and pyramids, but many aspects of its history, such as its social organisation, economic system, and political mechanisms, still remain in the shadows. In the absence of relevant historical texts, the archaeological study of crafts - especially of textiles - can shed light on these fundamental components of ancient societies in Sudan and Nubia. The study of textile artifacts and production encompasses a great range of key issues, from agriculture and manufacturing techniques, to the organisation of labour and trade, all the way to the definition and communication of social status. The goal of the TexMeroe project was to gain a better knowledge about the Meroitic society through the understanding of the cultural specificities and economic bases of textile production.

The Meroitic weavers developed a unique textile tradition which represents a remarkable synthesis between the traits of both local Sub-Saharan cultures and the Pharaonic and Hellenistic worlds. TexMeroe focused on three different techniques: the openwork lattices, the looped pile weave, and the use of colours and dyes. Used by themselves or combined on the same fabric, these techniques are characteristic to ancient Sudan and define the relationship that existed between craft and cultural identity.
Textile activities also occupied a crucial position in the Meroitic economy, which we picture today as typical of the Sahelian regions with shifting patterns of production between sedentary and pastoral groups, political centralisation and redistribution of goods. The textile industry can be used as a magnifying lens to test our economic hypotheses with new and quantifiable material data. The project studied the production and use of cotton fibre, the distribution of textile tools in the urban landscape of Central Sudan, and the different mechanisms of demands, consumption, and exchange of textiles.
The results shed light on a long chaîne opératoire and a multi-form textile economy, from agriculture to trade, from settlement level to the entire kingdom.

The project was the first comprehensive study of Meroitic textiles encompassing all available archaeological sources (textiles, tools, archaeobotanical remains, and iconography) and considering the full chronological and geographical extent of the kingdom. It filled a gap of knowledge about ancient Sudan and Nubia, highlighting a previously unknown sector of the economy and constituting a new approach in the field of Meroitic archaeology. By focusing on textiles and clothing, the project added a much more intimate and colourful dimension to the Sudanese past and cultural heritage.
TexMeroe was hosted at the University of Copenhagen by the Centre for Textile Research (CTR), a world-wide leader in the field of ancient textile studies.
It was developed along two Work Packages: 1) Specificities of the Meroitic textile tradition – techniques and identities in craft, and 2) Economic landscapes of textile production: from fibres to trade. Research activities included 11 stays in museums and with excavation teams, in Europe, Sudan, and North America, where I was able to analyse and document 235 textiles and 244 tools. All data were recorded through custom-designed databases for archaeological textiles and textile tools. Samples were tested through HPLC-MS chromatography and radiocarbon dated. Together with craft experts, I also conducted several experiments to test and reproduce specific techniques. Data was completed by bibliographical study and training with textile experts and archaeologists.

The main results were:
- An in-depth understanding of specific weaving techniques: the openwork lattices and the pile weave. Each technique and their variation are now illustrated by a large number of specimens, technical drawings, and occasional experimental testing.
- The identification of the use (alone or combined) of red and blue dyes obtained from madder (Rubia) or Lady’s Bedstraw (Galium) and indigotin, most probably obtained from woad (Isatis tinctoria).
- A global study of the symbolism of the colour blue in clothing and personal ornaments, and comparison with other regions in Egypt and Sahelian Africa.
- A detailed overview of the production and use of cotton fibres and textiles in ancient Sudan, based on the combination of archaeobotanical, textile, and textual data.
- The establishment of typological criteria for spindle whorls, the creation of a detailed tool database, and statistics on their technical features and geographical distribution.
- The identification of different scales for textile production, depending on the nature and geography of the settlement: i.e. small domestic production, multi-tasks industrial areas open to the community, specialised or semi-specialised areas within domestic quarters.
- The multiplication of case-studies illustrating the importance of textiles and clothing as social-indicators and the control of (at least a part) of textile production and exchange in centres of power.

Another important aspect of the project focused on scientific and public dissemination. I engaged in 19 publication projects (8 published, 7 accepted manuscripts, and 4 planned in 2020), gave 12 talks in international conferences, seminars and workshops, and also organised two conferences at the University of Copenhagen. I built a solid social media presence addressing a more general audience, creating accounts on Twitter and Instagram, and developing the project’s blog. Finally, I produced a website hosting an online archive of documents and objects from a Nubian grave and a digital exhibit of the textile finds.
The TexMeroe project participated in creating a good momentum for textile studies within the archaeology of Egypt and Sudan. We have now gone beyond the stage of producing expert catalogues to embrace the full spectrum of multi-disciplinary textile studies. In the past, Nubian textiles from selected sites have been published as catalogue entries – single pieces described in highly specialised terms and often isolated from their greater context of production and use. Textile tools were also rarely recovered and fully documented. As a result, textiles were very seldom used in the general historical discourse. TexMeroe followed instead an integrative approach, merging the study of tools and textile finds with archaeological, archaeobotanical, iconographical, and historical data. It led to the study of land-use, of technologies, of craft production and organisation, of elite clothing habits and demands, and of exchange patterns reaching far beyond the limits of the Meroitic kingdom.
I hope that the project managed to showcase the incredible potential of textile studies for a better understanding of past societies along the Nile Valley. TexMeroe’s results can easily be exploited by archaeologists and historians in their own research as well as drawn upon by the interested public in Sudan, textiles offering a new approach to past people: very close to the skin of each individual but still interwoven in far-reaching economic and social systems.
TexMeroe logo_MHasltad graphics
Tools from Sudan National Museum, Textiles from British Museum_EYvanez/Trustees of the BM and SNM