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‘Coptic’ Textiles

‘Coptic’ textiles is the term used loosely to describe 1st millennium AD garments. It is thus possible that some of these items (e.g.EC606) were associated with Islamic Egyptians.

The term ‘Copt’ or ‘Coptic’ was derived from the Greek word for ‘Egyptian’ and used by the Arabs to describe Egyptians who were largely Christian at the time of the Arab Conquest (AD 640). It is still used to describe Egyptian Christians. 

Most of the Coptic textiles in the Egypt Centre consist of the decorated pieces cut from tunics. These decorated pieces were woven with wool into the linen. The wool colour in the earlier pieces is a dark purplish brown. The decorated pieces were often reattached to new garments when the old became worn. 


Such decorated tunics derive from those of the late Roman period. One motif would go over each shoulder and the other two over each knee. It has been suggested that these were so placed to protect the arm and knee joints from harm. The decorated pieces have particular names:

Clavi (vertical bands descending from the shoulders)

orbiculi (medallions)

tabulae (square panels) 


tunic1The extent and arrangement of the clavi had a special significance in the Roman Republic but by the later periods covered here, that significance had disappeared. Many of the motifs have a background derived from Classical art. On the right you can see how some of the motifs were arranged.

At least a high percentage of Egypt Centre’s Coptic textiles seem to have come from the 1906 Rustafjaell sale. We seem to have had lot numbers 368, 370 and 372 and perhaps others (as evidenced by torn of pieces of card separate from objects but indicating these lots). Unfortunately we do not know what sites they are from but most ‘Coptic’ textiles in European museums come from Akhmim, Antinoë and Hawara. Unfortunately very many were taken from unrecorded graves. By this period it was the custom to bury the dead fully clothed. 

Early excavators, such as Petrie were not particularly interested in these textiles. Petrie writes:                                        

Yet a later period had left its remains…In Coptic times…the ground all about the temple, and on a hill near the canal, was used for a cemetery. Though I could not spend the time clearing such remains myself, the people of the place readily grubbed up their forefathers, and disposed of their garments to anyone who would buy them. I thus obtained a large quantity of embroideries and woven stuffs… (WM Flinders Petrie, Ten Years’ Digging in Egypt, London 1892, 126).

 Coptic textiles in the Centre include:

EC824 EC824