Ancient material culture is a mysterious but fascinating field
THE NATIONAL Archaeological Museum of Athens (NAM) is itself a grand old edifice. Founded nearly 200 years ago, and located in its present neo-classical premises since 1889, the establishment is home to some of the greatest sculptures, jewellery and other objects of the ancient world. Its artefacts have endured many vicissitudes, including Nazi occupation (when the treasures were hidden underground), neighbourhood riots and austerity.
The Lefkandi textile, found inside a bronze amphora, is the showpiece of a remarkable but little-known burial site on the island of Euboea. It sheds some light on an otherwise Dark Age: what exactly happened between the collapse of a great, palace-based civilisation around 1150BC and the emergence of city-states from 800BC onwards is one of Greek history’s riddles.
But the vast burial chamber found at Lefkandi, where British and Greek archaeologists have been digging since 1981, offers some important clues as to how things were around 950BC. The finds there suggest that the people of the Dark Age, despite being non-literate, never lost their taste for fancy textiles, precious metals and jewels, or the ability to trade far afield. To the untrained eye, the Lefkandi fabric resembles a shag-pile rug, but under the microscope it is clear this was a skilled piece of craftsmanship. There are traces of a shellfish-based purple dye which probably came from the Levant; there is a golden necklace, maybe from Syria, which could have been 700 years old at the time it was placed in the tomb.
Yet for all the power and wealth it exudes, the Lefkandi site has a murky side. Along with the cremated chieftain were the skeletons of four horses and a jewel-bedecked woman. Was the woman, who could have been a consort, a concubine or a slave, sacrificed along with the powerful man she served? Very possibly, says Irene Lemos, a professor of classics at Oxford University—female sacrifice was not unknown in Bronze Age Greece (recall the story of Hecuba’s daughter, Polyxena, the Trojan princess who had to be killed in order to give the victorious Greeks a fair wind back from Troy).
But the community of scholars that studies textiles in ancient Greece has unearthed some more positive evidence about women and weaving. Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that women wove dutifully for their own households while cloth production on a more strategic scale—say for the sails of warships—was a male prerogative. The rituals dedicated to the goddess Athene, in the city bearing her name, reinforce that picture. In ordinary years young Athenian girls would weave a cloak which was ceremonially wrapped around a wooden likeness of the goddess atop the Acropolis. Once every four years, however, there was a grander festival in which a model ship was carried up to the citadel, and men made the sail.
Still, Stella Spantidaki, one of the scholars who has been evaluating the Lefkandi textile, sees a more nuanced picture. As well as providing for their families, she says, ancient Athenian women took their surplus yarn and cloth to the market and hence gained economic power. Ms Spantidaki reels off several literary clues. In “The Frogs”, a comedy by Aristophanes, there is a mention of an Athenian lady who spins linen yarn and then sells it for what she can get. In the bustling pilgrimage centre of Eleusis, an inscription describes a woman who makes a living by turning out felt hats for workers. In the early Christian era, the apostle Paul was hosted in northern Greece by a lady who sells purple-dyed cloth, a luxury material.
The writer Xenophon offers a more ambivalent anecdote. He describes a conversation between Socrates and a friend who complains that indigent female relatives are spongeing off his hospitality. On the philosopher’s advice, the man buys looms and encourages his female kin to turn out cloth, which soon proves profitable. Soon the ladies are scolding their host for being the only member of the household who brings in no income—or so he laments: the women’s side of that saga is never told.
Much is known about the material culture of this elusive civilisation, but far more remains to be discovered. Pieces of cloth such as the chieftain’s cloak can tell both dark and light stories about the people who wore them, and the people who wove them.