This Week’s Featured Object: A Framed Coptic Egyptian Textile 5th – 7th Century AD

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This large and impressive textile, our Object of the Week, is a fragment from a Coptic Egyptian garment and features complex geometric and foliate designs. Thanks to exceptionally dry conditions, many types of artifacts made from perishable materials that would not survive elsewhere are common finds on Egyptian archaeological sites. Between the late 18th and early 20th Century great numbers of ancient Egyptian textile fragments from all periods were retrieved by local Egyptian treasure hunters and artifacts dealers for sale to foreign visitors, by foreigners conducting their own ad-hoc “excavations” and by archaeologists, often excavating using methods that would by today’s standards be considered little more than treasure hunting.

While textiles of all types, from the most humble garments to the most elaborate, and from every period of Egypt’s long history have been preserved in the dry environment, Coptic textiles are a class unto themselves. In common parlance, use of the term “Coptic” here refers both to the time period from which these textiles date – corresponding to the roughly 300 year period of Byzantine rule in Egypt – and the Christian culture that created them, as the Coptic Church, still very much alive today in Egypt, gives its name to both the ancient and modern Coptic culture. This uniquely Coptic textile style continued on in Egypt long after the Islamic conquest of the 7th Century AD.

Many Coptic textile fragments, and in some cases entire garments, have since found their way into museum collections. This has somewhat reduced the number of high quality examples available on the legitimate art market. But many fine examples can be acquired from the major London and New York auction houses and reputable antiquities dealers in Europe and the North America.

This example is tapestry woven in black (now appearing purple) with red details on a cream ground, with two parallel strips of mostly foliate and geometric patterning, including remains of a few figural elements contained in lozenges. The fragment has been professionally mounted on a linen backing and very neatly framed and is suitable for hanging. It was acquired on the Swedish art market in December, 2009 and was formerly in a late 19th – early 20th Century Cairo collection. It dates from the 5th to 7th Century AD, and has the following dimensions: 27.9 x 17.8 cm (11 x 7 in.); 17 x 13.5 inches with the frame   For related examples, see the Rietz Collection of Coptic textiles in the California Academy of Sciences, online catalog numbers CAS 0389-2421 and CAS 0389-2416.

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For those interested in acquiring this object, you may do so on our Etsy site here – https://www.etsy.com/listing/262372123/framed-coptic-egyptian-textile-fragment

Or our eBay store here – http://www.ebay.com/itm/Framed-Coptic-Egyptian-Textile-Fragment-5th-7th-Century-AD-/131828190208?hash=item1eb1928c00:g:jSEAAOSwnDZT83cC

There are excellent print and online resources for the student or collector of ancient Coptic textiles.  The Coptic Tapestry Albums & The Archaeologist of Antinoe, Albert Gayet  by Nancy Arthur Hoskins, is a very accessible, lavishly color illustrated guide to the collection amassed by the controversial French psuedo-archaeologist Albert Gayet in the late 19th Century. It describes Coptic textile production techniques as well as offering insight into how collections of these objects were built in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. Online, in addition to the Rietz Collection mentioned above, we recommend the Indiana University Museum’s small but excellent online collections – http://www.iub.edu/~iuam/online_modules/coptic/cophome.html.

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Object of the Week: A Superb Byzantine Pottery Oil Lamp

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Many of the ancient oil lamps we offer at Clio Ancient Art are Byzantine, mainly from the Levant (what is now southern Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Israel / Palestine). Unlike Roman hard fired ceramic red slip lamps of earlier centuries, Byzantine lamps tend to be made from low fired pottery and their designs often reflect early Christian symbolism. Our object of the week is the superb Byzantine pottery oil lamp shown above.

This object dates to the 6th or beginning of the 7th Century AD, just before the advent of Islam in the region. It was probably made in that part of modern Israel / Palestine that is often referred to as Samaria. It measures just under 4 inches in length and remarkably well preserved, with very crisp surfaces. It is formed of slightly pinkish buff clay and rests on a flat base. The upper surfaces are decorated in relief with alternating groups of vertical lines and stylized bunches of grapes inside circles. It has a small saddle shaped handle and more grape motifs on the nozzle and wick hole, which also has slight indications of carbon black from use.

On lamps of this type the large circular discus typical of earlier Roman lamps that had served as a kind of “canvas” for decorative images is gone. The decoration here is focused on the shoulders of the lamp. This rule applies to several classes of low fired pottery lamps produced during the very late Roman period, throughout the Byzantine period and into the early Islamic period in the Levantine region. The well preserved surface decoration on this example includes bunches of grapes, an early Christian motif suggesting rebirth. The same motif was widely used earlier in Roman iconography in association with Dionysus, the god of wine.

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This lamp comes from a very large private collection assembled by a United Nations peacekeeping officer serving in Jerusalem in the mid-1960s. At the outset of the 1967 war, the collection was crated up and shipped to the United States, where his surviving relatives only opened the crates in 2012.

If you are interested in acquiring this object, which is modestly priced, you may find it on our eBay shop here (new tab or window) – http://www.ebay.com/itm/Superb-Byzantine-Pottery-Oil-Lamp-/131818636494?hash=item1eb100c4ce:g:rEQAAOxy69JTAkNE

Or on our Etsy shop here (new tab or window) – https://www.etsy.com/listing/265229854/byzantine-pottery-oil-lamp-6th-7th?ref=shop_home_active_18

There are a number of excellent online and print resources for ancient oil lamps, and especially for Levantine examples of this period. In print, we recommend: Rosenthal and Sivan, Ancient Lamps in the Schloessinger Collection, Jerusalem, 1978 (this is an older work and some issues pertaining to exact dates and locations of manufacture are still debated but overall still an excellent reference). Online, we recommend the RomQ Reference Collection (opens in a new tab or window): http://www.romulus2.com/lamps/index.shtml