Category Archives: Virtual Vault

Object highlights from archaeological collections at Brown University.

Natural Imagery on a Kubachi Ware Dish

Object: M039
JIAAW, Minassian Collection

Object M039 is a blue and white Kubachi ware dish decorated with birds, flowers, and other vegetal images. Flowers and plants are a common and universal decorative motif found in many styles of artwork throughout the world, and Islamic art is no exception. As the Islamic empire expanded throughout the 7th Century and onwards, the artistic traditions and techniques of conquered areas were adopted into the empire’s ceramic ware production. 

Early Islamic rulers prioritized promoting high levels of production for both everyday and luxury objects over forcing craftspeople to adhere to a distinctive visual language. Thus, the power and wealth of the Islamic empire was emphasized through its incorporation of Byzantine, Egyptian, Iranian, and Roman traditions that drew from natural imagery. 

Over time, however, Islamic art did develop a distinct aesthetic identity. Two prominent features, geometry and symmetry, are seen in the decoration of Object M039. Here, plantlife is depicted in six uniformly spaced segments on the plate’s inside wall. Meanwhile, a bird proudly displays its feathery wings in the center of the piece, a nod to the importance of birds as symbols of safety and rescue in the Muslim tradition. 

-Jinette Jimenez ‘21

Read more about flowers, plants, and birds in Islamic art and see other examples:

Plant motifs in Islamic art

Plant motifs and patterns were used to decorate architecture and objects from the earliest Islamic period. Plants appear in many different forms in Islamic art, ranging from single motifs to extended patterns, and natural depictions of flowers to plant forms which are complicated and heavily stylised.

Dish | Unknown | V&A Explore The Collections

On display at V&A South Kensington Ceramics, Room 137, The Curtain Foundation Gallery Dish of buff-coloured fritware, ‘Kubachi’ type, underglaze-painted in red, blue, green, yellow and green on white slip, featuring a woodland scene with cypress-tree, two birds and flowering trees and plants. The rim is decorated with panels of scale pattern.

A Flight Through Islamic Culture

Birds played a key role in the understanding of the Islamic religion and culture. Dating back to “The miracle of the birds,” an event which occurred around 570 C.E., birds were seen as saviors of the Islamic religion as they stopped an army of invaders from destroying the Kaaba in Mecca.

Dish with Floral Designs on an Olive Background | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This dish is a member of a group of ceramics known as Kubachi ware. Named for a village in the Caucasus where this pottery was discovered in quantity, Kubachi wares are now thought to have actually been produced in Tabriz. An uneven application of the glaze has resulted in a surface-wide crackle, a typical characteristic of the Kubachi wares.

A Sanctuary for Birds: Muslim Civilisation – Muslim Heritage

Few creatures from the animal kingdom can live alongside humans in urban habitats. One of these survivalists are birds. There was a time when birds were simply welcomed and not worshipped not treated badly. You can still find traces of this admiration today.

http://magart.rochester.edu/objects-1/info?query=Portfolios%3D%22613%22&page=18

Bronze Hairpin

Object: 297
JIAAW, Wagner Collection

The Joukowsky Institute is fortunate enough to have two hairpins, one made of bone and the other of bronze, in its collection. This Virtual Vault entry, the second in a series featuring each of the two hairpins in the vault, is about Object 297, the bronze hairpin.

This object is a thin, pointed bronze hairpin adorned with a flat finial in the shape of a bird. A closer look reveals that the bird was created with a punch pattern and is decorated with hammered circles. While the exact age of this hairpin is unknown, it is old enough for green patina to have developed over time, a sign of the natural oxidation of the bronze material. 

Hairpins that are aesthetically similar to Object 297 have been identified as ancient Roman and Greek artifacts. Although this particular hairpin might not be ancient, its design offers insight into the relationship that ancient people had with nature. In his book Birds in the Ancient World: Winged Words, Jeremy Mynott describes the various ways in which ancient Greeks and Romans interacted and related with birds. Birds were not only resources for farming and hunting, but were treated as pets, agents, and friends. The ancient practice of augury further demonstrates the importance of birds in the ancient world. The Romans especially paid close attention to the calls, movements, behaviors, and appearances of birds to anticipate the likelihood of certain events. In this way, birds acted as omens from the gods, allowing for deities to communicate with earthly people and demonstrate approval or disapproval of their actions. It’s no wonder that birds showed up as decorative elements in ancient wares and jewelry, including hairpins like Object 297.

-Jinette Jimenez ‘21

Read more about ancient birds and see other examples of hairpins:

Greek & Roman Mythology – Tools

AUGURES Deprecated: Function split() is deprecated in /www/www-ccat/data/classics/myth/php/tools/dictionary.php on line 64 [not probably, from avis, a bird, but from a lost word, aug-o, to tell; so “declarers” or “tellers”]. A priestly collegium at Rome, the establishment of which was traditionally ascribed to Romulus.

Roman Bronze Hairpin with bird – 105 mm

Roman Bronze Hairpin with bird as adornment – 105mm Material: bronze Dated: 1st-3rd century Roman Empire Europe Country: France Dimensions: 105 mm Weight: 6.32 g. Condition: good condition. Registered and insured shipping Use the pictures to form your own impression. Origin: The seller warrants that this lot has been acquired in a legal manner.

The Ancient Art of Augury

Patterns exist throughout nature. For people ages ago, such things were considered messages from the gods. Decoding these encrypted communications was at the heart of ancient divination, a common practice of early civilizations. Divination methods in antiquity varied in scope. Nearly anything could be viewed as an expression of divine will and available for interpretation,…

Hair Pin | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met Collection API is where all makers, creators, researchers, and dreamers can now connect to the most up-to-date data and images for more than 470,000 artworks in The Met collection. As part of The Met’s Open Access program, the data is available for unrestricted commercial and noncommercial use without permission or fee.

Early medieval Bronze ancient hairpin with bird – 11*1.5 cm

Very beautiful Bronze ancient hairpin with bird. Weight – 5.08 grams The object is worthy of your attention! Provenance: The seller of this lot hereby guarantees that this object was obtained legally. It was purchased in Rome, Italy in 2011. Bought at an antique market in Porta Portese from the old collection of the 1970s.

Pin with a Dove Finial (Getty Museum)

Pin with a Dove Finial; Unknown; Etruria; 525-400 B.C.; Gold; 7.7 × 0.8 × 0.5 cm (3 1/16 × 5/16 × 3/16 in.); 96.AM.256; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California, Gift of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman; Rights Statement: No Copyright – United States

Bone Hairpin

Object: 333
JIAAW, Wagner Collection

The Joukowsky Institute is fortunate enough to have two hairpins, one made of bone and the other of bronze, in its collection. The next two Virtual Vault entries will feature each of the two hairpins in the vault, starting with Object 333, the bone hairpin. 

Dating as far back as the Neolithic Period (c. 10,000–4,500 BCE), hairpins made of various materials and designs have been used as hairstyle tools as well as status symbols by peoples from ancient Rome and Egypt to the Shang Dynasty of China. While this particular hairpin is not believed to be ancient, it offers a useful starting point to explore the meaning and function of these delicate and fascinating beauty objects. Due to their high rates of survival in archaeological sites, bone, as opposed to precious stone or wood, is the most commonly found hairpin material in ancient settlements. According to the Museum of London, hairpins are one of the most common artifacts that have survived from Roman Britain. Interpreted as indicators of the presence of women, these hairpins have been found in domestic, industrial, and public contexts, including burial sites, waterfront dumps, forts, bath houses, and amphitheaters.

In her article “Ancient Roman hairdressing: on (hair)pins and needles,” Janet Stephens describes how Roman women used hairpins to fasten braids and twists into elaborate hairdos. (p. 116)

 A close reading of classic texts and artwork demonstrates that an ancient hairpin is perhaps not as frivolous as the lost bobby pins of today. In her analysis of the utility of hairpins in ancient Egypt, Joann Fletcher presents hairpins as both functional tools and sacred items that represented women’s connection to goddesses. More than that, hairpins with sharp ends were used by ancient women to violently assert their political stances and autonomy. In both the Roman Republic and in ancient Egypt, Fletcher asserts that the ancient woman used her hairpin as a weapon to avenge her husband’s death, an instrument to pierce her enemies, and, in the case of Cleopatra VII, even a vehicle to take her own life. 

Portrait panel of a woman named Demos, portraying a hairpin, from Hawara, c.AD 80-100 as cited by Joann Fletcher in “The Egyptian Hair Pin: practical, sacred, fatal”

It is almost impossible to decipher the original shape, much less the tiny details, that once graced this bone hairpin due to the breaks and erosion of its surface over time. One could imagine this delicate piece of carved bone being worn, positioned, broken, and later repaired in a variety of fashions and scenarios. Yet, if the women of the ancient world have taught us anything, it is to not limit our imaginations of what an object’s history could entail.

-Jinette Jimenez ‘21

Read more about ancient hairpins and see other examples:

Bone hairpin | Greek or Roman | Hellenistic or Early Imperial | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met Collection API is where all makers, creators, researchers, and dreamers can now connect to the most up-to-date data and images for more than 470,000 artworks in The Met collection. As part of The Met’s Open Access program, the data is available for unrestricted commercial and noncommercial use without permission or fee.

Museum of London | Free museum in London

The Museum of London holds one of the largest and most important collections of Roman hairpins in the world, including over a thousand made from bone (other materials include copper-alloy, glass and stone), the majority having been excavated from the city over the past 45 years.

hair-pin | British Museum

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“Ancient Roman hairdressing: on (hair)pins and needles.”

Ancient Roman female hairstyles were not created by wigs exclusively, as is often asserted. Elaborate Roman hairstyles could be created by sewing with needle and thread as fastener. Article examines the nomenclature, literature, artifacts and

Hair Pin

Penn Museum Object 65-2-10 – Hair Pin

The Egyptian Hair Pin: practical, sacred, fatal

Joann Fletcher Department of Archaeology, King’s Manor, University of York, YO1 7EP, UK. Email: joann.fletcher@york.ac.uk Cite this as: Fletcher, J. 2016 The Egyptian Hair Pin: practical, sacred, fatal, Internet Archaeology 42. http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.42.6.5 Generally regarded as little more than a mundane tool employed in daily life, the humble hairpin occasionally played a rather more prominent role in history than has perhaps been appreciated.

Old JIAAW Mailbox

Though not an official part of the Joukowsky Institute’s collection, this antique mailbox front represents a fascinating part of the history of Brown Mail Services. The object, identified as a Corbin Model 87-A Post Office Mailbox Door, is a special find in and of itself. Once contextualized within its place in the lives of Brown students and staff, the mailbox front reveals how Brown’s ever changing campus facilities drastically alter the college experience of Brown students over time.

A door to the Kasper Multipurpose Room in Faunce House still marked as the Mail Room.

Our story begins in the basement of Faunce House in 2008, when the building was on the cusp of a major renovation. While Brown students today know Faunce as the home of popular social spaces such as the Blue Room, Leung Gallery, and the Underground, an often overlooked door to what is now known as the Kasper Multipurpose Room still bears the markings of what this space once was: the Mail Room. Rows and rows of mailboxes similar to the one belonging to the Joukowsky Institute were uninstalled and put into storage in 2008, where they would remain until 2013 when the Brown Bookstore commissioned custom wooden banks for the mailbox fronts to be sold to alumni.

This clipping from a 2013 issue of the Brown Alumni Magazine depicts the Brown Bookstore’s advertisement of the piggy banks made with the antique mailbox fronts. Alumni could request their old mailbox number to be made into a commemorative bank.

Meanwhile, the renovation of Faunce between 2009 and 2010 saw the relocation of Mail Services to its current home just across the street in Page-Robinson Hall. There, each student received access to their own metal mailbox, whose minimalist design was in stark contrast from the intricate details of the previous mailbox doors that were manufactured by the Corbin Cabinet Lock Company in the early 1900s. The company’s Post Office Equipments Catalogue from 1900 describes the technology behind the brass door, boasting that the “Double dial keyless [locks] are secure, cannot be picked, and an unlimited number of combinations are possible.” Double windows for departmental mailboxes and single windows for students allowed for one to gain a sneak peek of the mailbox’s contents before turning the iconic double dial keyless locks to retrieve mail.

It turns out that the motion of peeping into mailbox windows and entering a combination on the dials has sparked visceral memories of college days at Brown for several alumni. In a Brown Alumni Magazine (BAM) article published in 2013, Brian Lies ‘85 reflected on the daily routine of visiting his antique mailbox in Faunce House,

“Through the tiny window in your box’s ornate door you might see only flimsy campus announcement slips, but occasionally you’d spy something substantial, spinning the twin dials to find—yes!—a handwritten letter or a colored card indicating a package waiting to be picked up. You’d get that dopamine blast that keeps gamblers gambling—the power of infrequent reward.”

Almost 20 years prior in the February 1994 issue of BAM, Maggie Rosen ‘85 wrote about a recurring nighttime dream she had about being a student at Brown again. Between scrambling to figure out her class schedule and buying textbooks, Rosen always dreamt of returning to Faunce House to find her mailbox overflowing with letters, postcards, and flyers advertising campus activities and events. Lies and Rosen show us that the antique Corbin mailbox fronts were an undeniable part of the Brown experience for all students enrolled before the 2009 renovation. Within those four brass walls lay lifelines to home, mass communication from peers, and tickets to opportunities beyond College Hill. Essentially, they were perfect representations of what it is to be a Brown student, simultaneously stretched between the familiarity of one’s roots and the promises of a new life of infinite possibilities all while temporarily being situated right here on the Main Green. 

Yet, the thrill of an unexpected letter or surprise package described by Brown alumni is not as often felt today. Mailroom habits have changed in tandem with new methods of communication. As handwritten letters and care packages began to be replaced by FaceTime calls and Amazon orders in the 2010s, Brown Mail Services was faced with the unprecedented challenge of processing more packages than letters. Soon, the physical student mailbox became obsolete and in the fall of 2015, Brown University students returning to campus were greeted with a newly renovated mailroom. This second renovation saw the digitization of the regular ritual of retrieving one’s mail, with locker combinations being traded in for the swift swipe of a Brown ID. Today, stopping by Mail Services in Page-Robinson Hall is not necessarily a daily task for Brown students. Instead, they receive campus announcements, messages from extracurriculars, and even notifications that tell them when their letters and packages arrive in their email inbox. 

Brown University Mail Services in 2015.

This mailbox front is a symbol of a reality that every Brown alum faces– that our campus is constantly evolving and continues to do so even after we step through the Van Wickle Gates, sometimes to a point beyond recognition. The common experiences of one generation of Brown students can be entirely different from the next depending on the state of Brown’s facilities at the time. The drastic changes of Brown Mail Services throughout the past decade is simply one example of that. 

Though this object represents a particular moment of such drastic change, it also maintains a meaningful connection to the Joukowsky Institute today. Notice the mailbox number printed between the two windows. This is the original Box 1837 that was assigned to the JIAAW upon its inception in 2004. While a physical Box 1837 no longer exists, one can still address a letter there and it will surely find its way to Rhode Island Hall.

Special thanks to: Beth Gentry, Assistant Vice President of Business and Financial Services at Brown, who graciously provided much of the information that this post is based on.

-Jinette Jimenez ‘21


Bibliography

“Corbin Post Office Equipments : Lock Boxes, Both Key and Automatic Keyless Style, Furniture of Any Description for All Classes of Post Offices. : Corbin Cabinet Lock Company” Internet Archive, New Britain, Conn. : The Co., 1 Jan. 1970, archive.org/details/corbinpostoffice00corb/page/12/mode/2up.

Green, Anica. “Mail Services Streamlines Operations, Revamps Look.” Brown Daily Herald, 14 Sept. 2015, www.browndailyherald.com/2015/09/13/mail-services-streamlines-operations-revamps-look/.

Lies, Brian. “Mailbox Dreams.” Brown Alumni Magazine, 2013.

“Philip Corbin: Manufacturing A Legacy for New Britain: Connecticut History: a CTHumanities Project.” Connecticut History | a CTHumanities Project, 24 Aug. 2013, connecticuthistory.org/philip-corbin-manufacturing-a-legacy-for-new-britain/.

Rosen, Maggie. “Mailbox of My Dreams.” Brown Alumni Magazine, 1994.

Cylinder Seal

Object: 448
JIAAW, Wagner Collection

Cylinder seals are small cylindrical objects carved with images and text and meant to be rolled in soft clay to leave an impression of the design. Like this cylinder seal , many were made of stone, but they could also be made from ivory, bone, shell, metal, glass, or ceramic. Many had a hole through the center so they could be worn as a necklace or on a pin – perhaps to keep them close at hand or as a decorative or protective amulet.

The first cylinder seals were probably used about 5,000 years ago in the Near East, around the time writing was invented. They were often used like a signature – rolled onto a clay tablet that already had writing on it (they’ve been found on documents ranging from letters, to receipts, to treaties) – or as a seal on a door or storage jar to announce ownership and ensure there was no unauthorized access to the space or container.
Because these seals were usually made from sturdy material, many of them have remained completely intact even though their use and production dropped off rapidly once papyrus and parchment started to replace clay as the preferred writing material.

-Jess Porter, JIAAW Operations and Events Coordinator

Learn more about cylinder seals and see other examples:

Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum

Cylinder seals are engraved, cylindrically shaped objects – usually made of stone – designed to be rolled into clay to leave impressions. The engraved images, and usually text, are carved in reverse, so that when rolled out onto clay they face the correct direction.

cylinder seal | British Museum

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https://www.penn.museum/collections/object/252546

Strainer Askos

Object LC017
JIAAW, Lewis Collection

Askoi are vessels for pouring small amounts of liquid – probably most commonly oil for refilling oil lamps. They can have one or two spouts and a handle (which often arches over the entire top of the vessel) and come in a variety of shapes. Some askoi are squat, like ours, while others are globular with a shape originally inspired by containers made from animal skins or organs. Many askoi include a strainer and some have a lid (our askos may have originally had a lid covering the strainer holes at the center).

-Jess Porter, JIAAW Operations and Events Coordinator

Explore the variety in askos shapes:

askos | British Museum

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From the Harvard Art Museums’ collections Askos

Identification and Creation Object Number 2007.104.7 Title Askos Classification Vessels Work Type vessel Date 300 BCE-100 BCE Places Creation Place: Ancient & Byzantine World, Europe, Gnathia (Apulia) Period Hellenistic period Culture Greek Persistent Link https://hvrd.art/o/175002 Physical Descriptions Provenance Part of original McDaniel gift of 1943.

Apulian Red-Figure Askos (Getty Museum)

Apulian Red-Figure Askos; Unknown; Apulia, South Italy; 360-350 B.C.; Terracotta; 17 × 16 cm (6 11/16 × 6 5/16 in.); 96.AE.114; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Villa Collection, Malibu, California, Gift of Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman; Rights Statement: No Copyright – United States

Terracotta askos (flask with a spout and handle over the top) in the form of a duck | Greek, Attic | Late Classical | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Canessa, Ercole and Arthur Sambon. 1904. Vases Antiques de Terre Cuite: Collection Canessa, Bibliothèque du Musée. no. 155, p. 46, pl. XII, Paris. Richter, Gisela M. A. 1917. Handbook of the Classical Collection. p. 171, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Beazley, John D. 1947. Etruscan Vase Painting. p.

Askos

Penn Museum Object L-64-226 – Askos

Terracotta Vogelkopflampe

Object: 2
JIAAW, Old Department Collection

This Roman lamp is a terracotta Vogelkopflampe type lamp (or Dressel type 4) made between 90 and 140 CE. The lamp has a typically shallow, rounded body with a triangular spout which allowed for lamps to be efficiently packed into boxes for transportation. The decoration we see on this lamp is also typical – an incised ‘v’ around the center hole and five notches at the base of the nozzle. These five notches are a simplified version of a bird motif that was found on earlier forms of this type of lamp and is where the name Vogelkopflampe, or “bird head lamp”, comes from. On the bottom of the lamp, we find the maker’s mark “C. ATILI. VEST”.

-Jess Porter, JIAAW Operations and Events Coordinator

See other examples of Vogelkopflampe:

Ancient World Gallery

Roman ‘Vogelkopf’-style lamp 1st Century B.C.E. – 2nd Century A.D. Clay Maximum length: 7.5 cm Maximum height: 2 cm Maximum width: 5 cm Description: This Roman lamp belongs to a type commonly known as a Vogelkopflampe. Made of a buff-colored clay, it has a paraboloid shape with a flat base, a slightly curved nozzle and a transverse, pierced handle.

Ancient Lamps – Lamp Details for RIW1

Reference: RIW1 / Cat. No. Period: Roman Origin: Central Italy, probably Rome area 90 – 140 AD Date: Description: ‘Bird head’ lamp ( Vogelkopflampe). Transverse handle. Base marked BASSA Bassus, a recorded maker in central Italy. Manufacture: Mould made. Condition: Hole in base, mould join cracked at nozzle. Cf.

https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/G_1967-1231-4

Kothon

Object 27
JIAAW, Bishop Collection

Object 27 is a kothon (also called an exaleiptron or plemochoe ) from the late 5th or early 4th century BCE. This type of vessel was used to hold cosmetics, oils, or perfumes, either for personal use or in rituals, and was typically made of clay, though a few examples carved out of marble have been found. While the shallow, lidless shape would normally make it hard not to spill the contents of the vessel when moving it, the kothon is designed with an inward curving rim which prevents the liquids inside from sloshing out. 

-Jess Porter, JIAAW Operations and Events Coordinator

See other examples of Kothona:

kothon | British Museum

Description Pottery kothon (also known as an exaleiptron). Painted with black bands and hatches. Curator’s comments pp. 17-22, Pl. V,2 Picard, C., Gardner, E.A., Pryce, F. N., Cooksey, W., Woodward, A. M., Casson, S., Welch, F.B., Tod, M.N. (1918/1919). ‘Macedonia’.

Terracotta kothon (perfume vase) | Greek, Corinthian | Late Corinthian | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met Collection API is where all makers, creators, researchers, and dreamers can now connect to the most up-to-date data and images for more than 470,000 artworks in The Met collection. As part of The Met’s Open Access program, the data is available for unrestricted commercial and noncommercial use without permission or fee.

Ashmolean

© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (image, internal record shot)

Faience Necklace

Object 40
JIAAW, Bishop Collection

Faience first appeared about 6000 years ago in the Near East and its production techniques were refined and widely used in Egypt. While beads were some of the earliest faience objects produced in Egypt, the material was also used extensively on amulets, figurines, and scarabs and inlayed into furniture and walls.

Faience is made of quartz or sand (silica) mixed with alkaline salts, lime, and metallic colorants. While faience comes in many colors, blue/green is the most common and is made using copper. This bright blue color may have been used as a substitute for turquoise or lapis lazuli and, in Egypt, the color was associated with fertility, life, and the sun.

Faience objects were generally made using one of three methods. In the efflorescence method, the faience ingredients were mixed into a paste and then shaped or pressed into a mold to make small objects. Beads were often made using this method, pressing the paste into tubes which were then cut into pieces before firing. In the direct application method, a faience core was glazed with a slurry of ingredients, either by brushing, dipping, or pouring it over the core. The cementation method also used a faience core, which was buried in a glazing powder that melted and reacted with the core to form a glaze during firing. Regardless of the method of shaping and glazing used, these pieces were fired in a kiln to produce the brilliant finish.

-Jess Porter, JIAAW Operations and Events Coordinator

Read more about faience and see other examples:

Egyptian Faience: Technology and Production | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

In ancient Egypt, objects created with faience were considered magical, filled with the undying shimmer of the sun, and imbued with the powers of rebirth. For Egyptians, the sculptures, vessels, jewelry, and ritual objects made of faience glimmered with the brilliance of eternity.

Ancient Technology: Faience Beads in the Garstang Museum

A fairly common object to see in any museum collection or to find during a dig are beads, sometimes in vast quantities. The John Lipscombe Collection, formerly belonging to John Garstang’s daughter, Meroe, and recently donated to the Garstang Museum, is no exception, containing large amounts of faience beads from various Egyptian sites (e.g.

Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum

Jennifer Torres Jennifer Torres is the Collections Technician of the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum. Her primary duties include the rehousing and photography of the museum’s collection. She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Florida, where she received her B.A. in Anthropology and Classical Studies in 2013.

Early Islamic spindle whorls

Object M269
JIAAW, Minassian Collection

Spindle whorls are one of the most common finds in any excavation site or any historical site.  They are associated with spinning yarn, a process that took place after collecting the material and before setting up the loom. Spinning needs a lot of skill and a lot of time, therefore, in many traditional societies, we see photos of little girls spinning and women spinning while doing other jobs at the same time. Spinning and weaving are mostly considered a women’s job, but this is not true for all ancient or traditional societies.

There are many different spinning techniques around the world, but most of them use a spindle. The spindle is used for controlling the twist of the yarn and consists of the spindle shaft, which could be made by a piece of wood or bone, and the spindle whorl. The spindle whorl is important because it sustains the axis of the shaft while spinning. Spindle whorls can tell us a lot about the spinning technique and the type of material that was used.

The JIAAW collection hosts these small objects that attest to spinning in the Early Islamic period (c. 640-900 AD). Probably coming from Iran, these spindle whorls are made of bone and bear incised and painted decoration with motifs that are quite common in early Islam symbolic language.

But, where they were used? These specimens were probably used for the spinning of cotton, which was one of the fibers which people used for the production of textiles during Early Islam. Their use was widespread, following the spread of Islam and the trading networks, from Iran to Spain, and as far south as the Arabian Peninsula and Sudan in Africa. Even though there were commonalities, Early Islamic textiles are very different, as they were produced in different places with distinct pre-existing textile traditions.

The most famous Early Islamic textiles are the tiraz. Tiraz were inscribed textiles; they bore names that were embroidered onto them. They were considered the most elaborate textiles and were given as robes to ambassadors as a symbol of their loyalty to the caliphate, or served as a signifier of wealth and status.

We cannot know whether these specimens were used for the production of simple cotton cloth or an elaborate tiraz. Whatever the case they were part of a labor-intensive and skillful process.

-Gerasimoula Ioanna Nikolovieni, Graduate Student, JIAAW

See other examples of spindle whorls and lean more about tiraz textiles:

Tiraz: Inscribed Textiles from the Early Islamic Period | Essay | The Metropolitan Museum of Art | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Inscribed textiles were highly valued in the early Islamic period and were produced until the fourteenth century in both caliphal and state-run public factories. They were given as robes of honor to courtiers and ambassadors in the khil’a ceremony, where they served as a symbol of individuals’ loyalty to the caliphate.

Spindle Whorl | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Spindle whorls aided in the making of thread by maintaining the momentum of the spindle. This semi-spherical spindle whorl made from pink-tinted bone was excavated at Nishapur. It is incised with two bands of dot-in-circles. Hundreds of spindle whorls were excavated at Nishapur, providing further evidence that the city possessed a thriving textile industry.

spindle-whorl | British Museum

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Early Islamic Period Artifacts from the Shelby White and Leon Levy Center for National Treasures

Spindle Whorl

The information about this object, including provenance information, is based on historic information and may not be currently accurate or complete. Research on objects is an ongoing process, but the information about this object may not reflect the most current information available to CMA.

Spindle whorl

Description Spindle whorl with scalloped edge. Two black lines on one side. Clay: Pale buff, medium hard, polished. Unglazed. Provenance From Tall-i-Bakun, near Persepolis. 1937: excavated by the University of Chicago-Museum of Fine Arts Persepolis Expedition. Assigned to the MFA in the division of finds. (Accession Date: December 13, 1945)