Ancient fabrics, press folds, checks and not tartans ...

So there's a show on TV - Scotland: Rome's Final Frontier on BBC Two Scotland on Friday at 21:00 - which is claiming something or other about Tartan being Roman ...

'First tartan' on Roman statue - BBC

The general theory that the presenter Dr Fraser Hunter seems to be expounding is that there's a bit of a bronze statue which might be Caracalla which shows a bit of a man wearing checked trousers, and since Caracalla "styled himself as the conqueror of the Caledonians" (although no Roman conquered Scotland) ipso facto the chap in trousers must be Scottish and so the check must be an early tartan ...

And this is a screen shot of Dr Hunter with the piece in question, a fragment of the drapery of a statue of Caracalla believed to have stood on top of the Arch he built at Volubilis, now in the museum in Rabat (first photo). With a detail below that.

Hmmphh. The show has not been on television yet, so this may be based on press over-generalisation but ... obviously it's phooey. And I'd be rather surprised if Dr Hunter would claim that in an academic article - he's presenting a TV programme, and he's doing a rather good job of appealing to Scottish Nationalism.

There is a small 3rd century AD fragment of fabric known as the Falkirk Tartan Textile Fragment which looks a bit more like a proto-Tartan - but one has to be very careful about calling it a Tartan. Tartan as a term to describe types of weaves had political connotations which neither the Greeks, the Romans nor the early Germans intended in terms of associating themselves with Scottish Nationalism. It was found some half a kilometer north of the Antonine Wall, and can be dated by the coins found with it, the latest of which dates to the 220s AD. See the National Museum of Scotland web site for more information here.

This might also look like an early Tartan, but ... it was found at Qizilchoqa near Hami, which is in the Tarim Basin of the Taklamakan Desert in North-West China (where the "Greek" Sampul Tapestry was found, see here):

So either the Scots went to China really really early on (if Alex Salmon claims this, please don't blame me), a good two thousand years before Marco Polo claimed to, or ... Tartan is an elaborate check and checks are one of the simplest patterns to weave.

Also, the pattern on the Moroccan trousers is a much simpler check. Hero Granger-Taylor has written extensively about these (I remember pointing out her articles to Peter Higgs when he was working on a Hellenistic "tartan"-robed lady from Halicarnassus many years ago); she's pointed out that "There was a vast range of checks produced, from very simple grid forms to complex, almost tartan, designs." For those with JSTOR access I recommend her article The Emperor's Clothes: The Fold Lines in The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art Vol. 74, No. 3, Mar., 1987 (here) from which these two images are taken.

Although the Volubilis trousers clearly show a check pattern, another complication when trying to identify "tartan" patterns on statues is that quite often the various horizontal and vertical lines are not pattern but "press folds" - press folds literally show where a garment was folded when stored, and begin to be depicted as a naturalistic feature in Greek sculpture from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus onwards (the Athena from the west pediment of the Parthenon has three press folds, but these are probably from a later restoration). Above is the Hellenistic "Juno Cesi" in the Capitoine, and below a detail of her press folds (NOT tartan):

Ancient clothes were often little more than a sheet of fabric, and just as with modern bed sheets, they were folded to be stored ... and came out with press folds.

Ancient textiles are a fascinating subject, which I'll return too another time (sounds dull, but Adrian Murdoch followed my suggestion and visited the textile museum in Lyon and loved it).

I'd just like to make one other quick point. Dr Hunter's Roman "Scot" is wearing checked trousers, and this seems to be part of what identifies him as a conquered barbarian. The Greeks thought only barbarians like the Persians wore trousers, and Julius Caesar and co as good Romans wore togas. Except that the Romans did regularly wear trousers - togas were for ceremonies and having one's portrait done - certainly by the Severan period, as shown by the Dura Europas (see here), and probably had for quite some time.

1 comment:

  1. Got it in one, Dorothy! Covering up naked nationalism. Pseudoarchaeology at its worst. And the programme's lightly veiled anti- Empire stance? For Romans read English?
    I re-post a comment I left on ‘Bread & Circuses’ on Dec. 7 - http://adrianmurdoch.typepad.com/my_weblog/2012/12/first-tartan-on-roman-statue-er-no.html

    '[A] word that with its cultural and political connotations is less than helpful'? Exactly. Dr Hunter's been co-opted into the media push for nationalism up here north of yon Imperial Wall. Archaeology's so-o useful for hi-jacking ideas to reinforce a 'history' - even if said archaeology's in N. Africa.
    To my knowledge, it's been posited Boudicca wore something similarly patterned? Does that make her, too, an ancient Pict or Scot? No? I thought not. ...
    To my further knowledge, none of our current travel-rug tartans are accurate. They were a product of a post-Jacobite Victorian enthusiasm.’
    ‘Nuff said!


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