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Characterization of Coptic Textiles: The Collection of the Textile and Clothing Museum of Barcelona

Ana Cabrera L., Museo Nacional De Artes Decorativas, Madrid, Spain, Summer Fellow 2010/11

During my time at Dumbarton Oaks I focused on one aspect of my dissertation, the artistic aspects and decorative patterns of the Coptic textiles. This was possible owing to the access to Dumbarton Oaks's splendid Byzantine Studies Library, the Index of Christian Art (relevant to identifying the iconographic themes of the textiles under study), the Black and White Collection, the Census of Byzantine Textiles in North American Collections, as well as the textile collection housed at Dumbarton Oaks, which provided a comparative reference for the textiles under study.

All this research is related to my dissertation topic: the Coptic textiles of the Museu Textil y d'Indumentaria de Barcelona. For some time now, the study of the so-called Coptic textiles has undergone a great development, thanks to the studies of important European collections such as Abbeg-Stiftung Foundation of Bern, the Museum für Angewandte Kunst of Vienna, the Musée du Louvre of Paris, and the Museum für Byzantinische Kunst of Berlin. My doctoral dissertation will complement and expand upon these studies by focusing on the Coptic textiles the Museum of Barcelona. This impressive collection of 178 textiles (mostly linen and wool) remains unstudied today.

My dissertation explores, on the one hand, the characterization of textile production techniques and raw materials and, on the other, the historical, socio-economic and artistic contexts. Thus, on top of the customary formal analyses, various scientific analyses are being carried out, including the analysis of dyes and fibers using high performance liquid chromatography, scanning electron microscopy and induced light optical microscopy. The results of this work will help us to better understand the raw materials used in Roman and Byzantine Egypt. The characterization of raw materials enables us to determine the extent of trading networks and the survival of cultural or aesthetic values despite the socio-political changes undergone in Egypt during antiquity and at the beginning of the Middle Ages.

Additionally, I use radiocarbon dating to obtain a precise chronological context for these textiles, going beyond the traditional formal analysis for dating textile styles. Textiles with a clear archaeological context will be carefully considered, as these may enhance the knowledge of the development of these textile styles.

The study carried out at Dumbarton Oaks has permitted me to exchange views with the Dumbarton Oaks Collection curators, Dr. Gudrun Bühl and Dr. Stephen Zwirn. This time at Dumbarton Oaks was of fundamental importance because I had had access to unrivalled resources unavailable in my country, and the opportunity to complete one of the principal chapters of my dissertation.

The Barcelona museum intends to make the results of my work available to the scholarly community and beyond: after completion of the dissertation, information on the textiles studied will be available on the website of the Museu Textil I d'Indumentaria of Barcelona.

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