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Salon du Tapis d'Orient

The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.

The Epistemology of Attribution Based on Structure

by Steve Price

When and where was this rug made? This is probably the most frequently occurring issue on our discussion boards.

Once upon a time there was essentially a single set of criteria by which the question could be approached. The layout, motifs and palette - those characteristics that were visible from a distance - held the answer. Oh, everyone sort of knew that there was a geographical separation between regions in which pile rugs were made with symmetric (= Turkish, or Ghiordes) or asymmetric (= Persian, or Senneh) knots, but for anything more precise than which side of that line a particular rug came from, we looked at layout, motifs and colors.

In this more enlightened age, we know that structure is a much better way to base attribution than the old way. The numbers of wefts between each row of knots, the plying of the yarn, the materials used in the foundation, the end and side finishes - all of these (and more) became part of the working vocabulary among rug collectors. Their importance to the collector was that they had become the most reliable way to make attributions. The rationale for believing in their reliability is simple: someone who has been weaving rugs since childhood is much more likely to adopt new layouts, motifs and palettes than to change the mechanics of how she weaves.

What are the consequences of this? As widely applied, it is taken to mean that any time you really want to know where something was made, you must look at the structure to find out. A corollary that is often invoked is that it is the only criterion worth considering when there is a conflict between the attribution you might make based on layout, motifs and palette and the one based on structure. This is sometimes extended to the assertion that it is the only criterion worth considering at all.

At the risk of losing whatever respectability I may have among rug collectors, I am going to suggest that these consequences are unjustified. That is, I suggest that layout, motifs and palette may be better attribution criteria than structure. I will argue that the foundation of structure based attribution is layout, motif and palette based attribution and no method can be more reliable than the foundation on which it rests.

Let's look at the development of attribution criteria as a historical progression. We started out with some textiles that we were pretty sure could be attributed to a particular geographic area. Why were we so sure? Usually because the sources of the textiles (generally, merchants in bazaars, although sometimes they were travelers or military expeditionaries) told us that they were pretty sure this is where they came from. That's pretty sketchy, but I think it is a fairly accurate outline of how things began. After awhile we had a number of rugs that had been given a common geographic attribution by several sources; enough so we were comfortable that the attribution was correct. We noticed the obvious: they had a number of common characteristics with regard to layout, motifs and palette. In view of this, we adopted those characteristics as criteria for attribution. We no longer needed the word of the bazaar merchant (or other source) to tell us where similar pieces came from. We could make the attributions ourselves, based on the layouts, motifs, and palettes.

Thus, some years ago, a reasonably knowledgable collector could easily distinguish Turkmen, Caucasian, Turkish, Persian and Chinese rugs from each other. All he had to do was look at them from a distance, even a black and white photo would usually suffice. He could make finer distinctions than that, of course. But the major criteria - usually the only criteria - he used were layout, motif, palette. We still use those criteria, and I think we would agree that they work very well nearly all the time.

What happened next? Well, some inquisitive souls began paying close attention to structure and noticed that rugs whose appearance allowed them to be attributed to the same place (or tribe) had many common structural features. Thus, the structural features could be (and were) adopted as additional criteria for attribution.

Then came the argument that a weaver is much less likely to change her weaving techniques than to change layout, motif or palette. I think this is almost certainly true. The conclusion that this means that structural characteristics are the more reliable criteria for attribution seemed to follow from it. But if the structural criteria were arrived at on the basis of studying rugs whose attributions were based on the layouts, motifs and colors, how could the new basis be more reliable than the old one? I submit that it could not be.

Where does that leave me when something has a structure that is characteristic of one region with design, motifs and palette that are characteristic of another? It leaves me with even more than my usual uncertainty. Such a piece is obviously outside the mainstream from either region, and the attribution is more ambiguous than it would be for a more typical piece. The most likely attribution will be a result of considering a range of factors and arriving at a position in which the probability seems higher for one place than for another, but not so high as to even begin to approach certainty. If I had to describe the piece to another person in relatively few words, I'd probably do so on the basis of the layout, motifs and palette. That way, at least, he'd have a pretty good idea of what it looks like.

This might be an appropriate point to remind everyone that posting statements like, Only a moron would believe that!, do not constitute persuasive argument, however obvious it may seem to the person writing the post that the statement is correct. With that in mind, I invite your comments and opinions.