Posted by R. John Howe on 12-21-2004 10:00 PM:

Coptic Fragment

Dear folks -

I wrote this post two days ago, then lost it, and have just now had the heart to start again.

Last Sunday, I bought a Coptic textile I had looked at for a week in the window of a Georgetown shop that deals primarily in antiquities. I have noticed a certain spreading in my textile interests of late, from its admittedly Turkmen center of gravity. I recently bought an African skirt, plaited rather than woven, and an America quilt, although the latter does have medallions on a red ground that are similar in size to some Turkmen guls.

I can't show you an image of this Coptic piece but, maybe of some that reflect its spirit. Here is a link to a collection of images of Coptic textiles. SelectLst=Category%2C+ObjName%2C+CollectionName%2><br /> +CatNums%2C+Culture%2C+GlobalRegion%2C+Country%2C+<br />Images%2C+CollCtlgID&Culture=Coptic&SelectFromTable=ObjImg&GlobalRegion=%5Bany%5D&PageStyle=Multiple&OrderBy=CatNums&Category=Textiles&CollectionName=%5Bany%5D&xAction=Search&RecStyle=Brief

You will be able to find instances (in the five pages at this site) of particular features in my piece that I describe below.

My Coptic piece is rectangular, 11 1/4 X 14 inches. It is flatwoven, although I have not yet examined it closely enough to tell much about its structure.

Some Coptic textiles exhibit considerable color, but many are mostly tans and dark brown. This piece is of this latter type with dark brown designs on a tan ground with lighter tan or ivory highlights.

This piece has been constructed, which likely accounts for my ability to afford it. Looking at it initially it reminds one of a small yastik or a miniature version of a Turkish village rug.

It has a rectangular field with wide-ish borders all around. These borders have been stitched to the edges of the field making it a constructed piece.

The tan ground field is very densely covered with minute designs in dark brown but also some that are larger. There is a central medallion and four smaller ones. The smaller ones are arranged one on each side and one top, the other at the bottom of the larger medallion. It gives a kind of cruciform impression. The tan ground field is densely covered both inside and outside these circular medallions with designs in dark brown some of which seem to be plants and animals, even humans, but some which may also be simply geometric.

On the outside edge of the field is a narrow dark brown plain border and outside that is an equally narrow border of latch hook designs. All of these designs so far are part of the field and are inside the stitching that holds the borders to the field.

The main border is quite wide and is composed of compartments formed by dark brown divisions that extend in from the outside edge but do not reach the inside. Within the tan cartouche-like spaces in between are clear bird forms, with wings spread, feet pointing down and head turned to the bird's right. The wings of the birds are often ornamented with lighter colored tan thread. The effect of these cartouched borders is similar to that of lappets on yastiks, excepting that these borders are the same on all four sides. They have a curiously spacious feel about them.

The piece is estimated to have been woven in the period from the 5th to the 7th centuries.

I have seen a number of Coptic weavings but (excepting for some remarkable colored ones well beyond my financial ken) this is the first one that I have encountered that stirred me a little. I think it is that it has quite good graphic power. And its complexity is such that new things are likely to be seen for quite awhile.

I am truly sorry that I can't show it to you. Maybe on of these days.


R. John Howe

Posted by Vincent Keers on 12-23-2004 08:03 PM:

Hi John,

Thanks for the link.
Special attention for item 81. It's piled with a V construction......I think.
Coptic textiles show rotating, dancing, running etc. designs. Disney must have seen them.

Love to see what you found.

Best regards,

Posted by R. John Howe on 12-23-2004 09:02 PM:

Coptic Fragment Images

Hi Vincent -

I know nothing at all about Coptic textiles and bought this one entirely on impulse.

As luck would have it, a computer techie associate visited last night and I can again at least take, download and manipulate digital photos. So here are the shots I took today of this piece I bought.

This is what it looks like overall.

This is a closer look in which you can see the field instrumentation, the bird forms in the borders and the tops of the cartouche-like separations that may be plant forms.

On the upper left hand corner and the lower right there are two medallion-like forms in the border area. Not sure what the internal instrumentation is but it seems not a bird form.

This is a shot the right side of which lets you examine a bit the bird forms in the border.

The image below is a close-up of the field.

Finally, I turned one corner over and took a shot of the back. It's not entirely in focus but there are loose threads of the sort that might suggest sumak.


R. John Howe

Posted by Patrick Weiler on 12-23-2004 10:14 PM:



Your photos are rotated 90 degrees to the right. (except the first, which is upside down) My neck hurts looking at them.

Patrick Weiler

Posted by R. John Howe on 12-24-2004 05:10 AM:

Hi Pat -

Yes, some of them are rotated. But the first and the third ones are not.

I took them from above and tried to take advantage of the shape of the screen to provide more complete images in some cases.

But I agree that can be confusing and might result in a stiff neck.


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 12-24-2004 06:25 AM:

Pat -

Since I know you are an alert observer, I've been looking at my images again.

I think you feel that the first image is upside down perhaps mostly because the birds are that way in both the upper and lower borders suggesting directionality.

It may also be that there is directionality in the field (are those "legs" at the top?).

If this is so, it also fooled the dealer from whom I bought this piece. Notice that the label is on the lower right hand corner.

If so you are right and I will supply a image that is "right side up" so to speak.


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 12-24-2004 06:57 AM:

Hi Pat,

Is this one better?



Posted by Patrick Weiler on 12-24-2004 10:43 PM:



This is perfect.
As you know, labels are not always accurate!
I can see now that this is the logo for one of the local sports teams, the Coptic Drooping Beaks.
Great find John!

Patrick Weiler

Posted by R. John Howe on 12-25-2004 08:59 AM:

Dear folks -

I have been reading from the little I have on Coptic textiles.

Most of you will know that the Coptics were "Christian Egyptians," but one book indicates that the word "Kopt" is an Arab rendering of the Greek word (sorry no Greek letters on this machine, I think) for "Egyptian."

The descriptions suggest that many Coptic textiles were wool on linen and that would make sense for my piece.

There is very little in the readings I have on structure, but Marla Mallett offers a little gallery of Coptic textiles on her site (none of these are any longer for sale) and gives some materials and technical descriptions.


R. John Howe

Posted by Unregistered on 12-25-2004 11:48 AM:

Coptic construction

Hello John

At the first look your coptic piece seems to be a construction made with several fragments. Generally the square piece that makes the center of yours is used, as a lonely motif, to decorate a piece of cloth as tunic made of white linnen. This square piece is named "tabula". The oblong shapes in the borders are "clavus".
It seems to me that the borders of your pieces have been cut in a long and narrow decorated weaving that could be found in the lower part of a tunic. We can see some cut motifs, and one corner is "alien", just taken because the narrow guard border matched with the other. This construction could have been made with pieces just after the discovery (XIX°) or more recently. The seams with their "rope" look, could be imitations of the antique technic usually applied to such works.
I think that a meticulous examination of your piece can bring some light on it (weaving direction, kind and material of the seams...).
It is very difficult to date coptic pieces, except by stylistic comparison and it is a very difficult exercise.

One last thing : it was just a minority of antique Copts that was Christian. The greater part of the ornementation of coptic weavings was of Greek and Roman inspiration.

Best wishes

Louis Dubreuil

Posted by Steve Price on 12-25-2004 12:40 PM:

Bonjour Louis

S'il vous plait, overwrite the word "unregistered" in the user name field when you post. Put in your name, in its place. That way your posts will show your name in the headers.

Merci beaucoup

Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 12-25-2004 02:29 PM:

Hi Louis -

I could see that it is constructed.

It seems to me that two corners may be, as you say, "alien" since they both show the same medallion design. Or maybe it was not just the narrow border, but the character of the opposing medallion that guided the choice of the "alien" corner.

I'm perfectly capable of being fooled by such things since I know virtually nothing about them.

The dealer indicated that the pieces are seen to be from the same "era." I notice that the books I have that treat Coptic textiles seem to suggest that most dating is done on the basis of "stylistic" analysis of designs, a pretty shoddy basis, it seems to me, given what we know about doing that with the designs on more recent textiles.

I just liked the graphics.

Carbon dating would, I think, let us pin down approximate ages of the fragments used here (if they are anything like those claimed) but the cost would be prohibitive.

Thanks for the comments and the terminology.


R. John Howe