Re-thinking textile imagery through gender: a workshop in Leicester

Amasis Painter, cs. 550-530 BC, black figure terracotta with scene of textile work

The study of ancient weaving and its technology can benefit enormously from the growing interest in the materiality and contexts of textile production in antiquity: a vast array of cross-disciplinary research in the last ten years has brought together historians, archaeologists, philologists, anthropologists, textile practitioners and scholars from natural science in the joint effort to explore the origin, the development, the socio-economic and environmental impact, and the range of use and techniques of textile crafts in the Mediterranean and Ancient Near Eastern civilizations (see this recent state of the art of the work in the field:

A complementary and integral dimension of textiles in antiquity is represented by the range of cultural assumptions, religious implications and symbolic associations that crafts such as spinning and weaving, and their end-products (fabrics, garments, clothes) generate: this is often exploited by ancient literature through myths, poetic imagery, and philosophical argumentation, and takes the shape of figures of thought such as metaphor and analogy (some reflections on this can be found here:

Gender is an especially fruitful interpretative category by which the broad domain of ancient textiles, in its diverse components (craft, production, technology, cultural/moral assumptions), can be approached: from the gendered view of female/domestic vs. male/’industrial’ modes of labour, to the social significance of textiles as dress in the construction of identity and in affirming and perpetuating practices and ideals of status and moral conduct, our idea of how gender acted in the realm of ancient textile activity is necessarily shaped by literary and iconographical representations – and by their conventions.

‘Textiles, Dress and Gender in the Ancient World’ was the title of a workshop (the workshop webpage: I participated in; the workshop was held on April 24th-25th at the University of Leicester, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, and organized by Mary Harlow (University of Leicester) and Cécile Michel (Research Director at CNRS, Nanterre) as part of the programme of the International Research Network GDRI/ATOM (Ancient Textiles from the Orient to the Mediterranean), which gathers several research institutions around Europe (see ATOM webpage: with the aim of facilitating and building collaborative and interdisciplinary research in the field of ancient textiles, with a particular focus on the impact and the development of textile production from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean.

The workshop featured seven papers, spanning a broad chronological and geographical range (from 3rd millennium Syria to Late Antique North Africa), and a keynote lecture by Professor Emeritus Marylin Palmer (Leicester) on the archaeology of framework knitting in Leicester.

The first panel tackled the complex question of trying to match textual and iconographical sources on gendered clothing items from 3rd millennium Mesopotamia. Maria Giovanna Biga (Rome; ‘Textiles, dress and gender in third millennium Syria’, in absentia) presented evidence from the royal archives of Ebla, where a large number of administrative tablets register deliveries and exchanges of textiles, and invite considerations on social- and gender-related types of textiles and clothes – especially particular items donated to noble women and priestess on the occasion of certain rituals. Barbara Couturaud (Liège, ‘Dress, gender, and social status on the figurative inlaid panels of Mari’) brought into the discussion iconography, specifically a corpus of inlays found in Mari and featuring an impressive array of different dresses, garments and accessories, and she showed how the representation and construction of gender is closely related to the visual and symbolic affirmation of social status.

Agata Ulanowska (Lodz, ‘A man and his loom: did men weave in Minoan Crete?’) questioned the traditional narrative about the highly gendered (i.e. female) nature of textile production in Bronze Age Greece and Minoan Crete, and by exploring the iconography of the Aegean glyptic and Middle Minoan soft stone prismatic seals she focused on a particular motif in the seals, in which she sees the association of (possible) stylized loom-weights with human (probably male) figures: this interpretation invites further considerations on the role of men in weaving production, and one the function of the seals in respect to that production.

Magdalena Öhrman (CTR, Copenhagen, ‘A Family Affair: Tracing Textile Production in the Roman Home through Literary Sources’) moved the discussion into the Roman house and Latin literature, letting auditory and sonic/phonic features emerge from both Latin hexametric poetry describing textile work, and from archaeological experimental reconstruction of weaving on the warp-weighted loom: she showed that, by bringing the rhythm and sound of weaving work into their text, male Roman authors display a clear awareness of textile technology, likely derived by them sharing the space of the atrium, where weaving was normally performed by members of the household.

Amy Wale (Leicester, ‘Female dress in the Late Antique world: re-dressing Roman literary tropes’) explored some of the ways through which early Patristic authors employ dress tropes (adherence to or deviance from dress codes as indication of moral integrity) in their work by reframing them for their particular purposes within the new Christian discourse. That the use of literary tropes grounded on the social and cultural significance of gendered clothing practices is well-established throughout Late Antiquity was shown also by Nikki Rollason (Leicester, ‘Accessorising authority: men’s belts and female power in Late Antiquity’), who focused on the gendered symbolic function of belt as a sartorial indicator of a soldier, and therefore as a male dress: military imagery appropriates the motif of the belt as a conceptualization of male authority, and this surfaces as well in the context of Christianity, were the authority is rather spiritual. When belt are worn by women in literary (male) accounts, this often signals that more is at stake.

As for my paper (‘Gender, genre and textile imagery in ancient Greek literature: observations on recognizable patterns form archaic to Hellenistic poetry’), it aroused from a recurring question addressed to classicists working on literary attestations of textile crafts: “What kind of knowledge might the average Greek (or Roman) male intellectual have had about, say, the technology of weaving on the warp-weighted loom? Were Aristophanes, Plato, or Ovid practitioners of the craft? How come that male-oriented literature appropriates an art that was in everyday life the almost exclusive province of women?” A first answer to the question, as other papers in the workshop have shown, and as recent scholarship on textile production in antiquity is progressively bringing to light, is that men were, at least partly, involved in certain kinds of specialized weaving, often in association with cult (as for instance in the weaving of the quadrennial peplos for the Panathenaic festival in Athens). So yes, it is reasonable to imagine that Greek and Roman male authors had enough familiarity with textile technology so as to be able to exploit particular features of the craft for specific literary purposes. My concern in the paper lied within the broad system of the ‘metapoetics of craftsmanship’, which is commonly traced back to a Proto Indo-European repertoire of literary imagery where poetry-making and its performance are conceptualized and illustrated poetically in terms of craft, with weaving playing a prominent role in the record, and encompasses the idea of the poetic artefact as an ordered and skilful construction. In the case of weaving imagery in archaic Greek literature, it seems that literary genre and gender can be made to interact. When dealing with the genre of archaic choral lyric, which was composed for performance by a chorus at specific occasions, placing texts (or fragments of texts, which is what we actually have in most cases) in their performative context (rituals, public festivals, wedding ceremonies, celebrations of athletic victories) is of special import, as well as considering the fundamentally pragmatic dimension of such a type of poetry, which usually has a pronounced deictic element – that is, it draws attention to its immediate context and function, and to the circumstances of its execution by a chorus of singers and dancers. The sub-genre of partheneia, cultic songs composed (by a male poet: our fragments come from Alcman and Pindar) for a chorus of young maidens, presents us with a choral voice (the poetic ‘I’) which seems to convey a distinctive female point of view: the chorus is self-referentially pointing to the beauty of the attire of its components (among which features dresses and other woven or plaited accessories, as garlands or headbands), and in one case (Alcman 1.60-63 PMGF) the choristers describe themselves offering a phāros (likely to be a garment) to a goddess: this might reflect actual ritual weaving that groups of parthenoi performed in particular cultic context. However, when we encounter garlands and headbands in Pindar’s epinician, a sub-genre of choral lyric where a chorus of young men sung and danced songs composed to celebrate victories at Panhellenic athletic games (and where the point of view of the choral persona is eminently male-centered), these have become metapoetic metaphors conceptualizing the poem as an artefact: they are thus integral to, and should be set against, the communicative strategy of the poet, who may want to illustrate the chorus’ performance or dramatize the author’s process of composition, and often makes these two temporal levels interact within the structure of the poem.

This workshop has provided a very good opportunity for me to re-think weaving imagery from the standpoint of gender, and I’m looking forward to more occasions for discussing this interesting topic, and eventually try to incorporate it more organically into PENELOPE.


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