"The Roman Heritage," an exhibit of ancient odds and ends opening at the Textile Museum on Saturday, comprises a hundred fragments, rags as riches.
The centerpiece is a huge curtain, with five almost-whole pudgy cupids and delicate patterns forming the largest late-Roman piece surviving. Another, from the 6th century, depicts a fantasy of the Nile, with papyrus, ibises, sea nymphs and a border of winged horses. Most are smaller fragments, some palm-size, still notable for their intricate designs.
According to curator James Trilling, these were middle-class luxury textiles, preserved by the sands of Egypt. Call them Coptic but know the term is misleading: the curtains, wall hangings, shrouds and tunic pieces on view are neither strictly Egyptian nor related to the Coptic Church. They were worn in Sicily, North Africa, Greece -- all over the Empire -- but were found in Egypt and date to the 4th through 6th centuries A.D. They are among the oldest decorated textiles known. Anywhere.
Just how old is a matter of guesswork. Clues from paintings and photos of mosaics of the period (also on display), and the type of complex geometric designs help establish the period. But there are as many chronologies as there are scholars in the field, says Trilling, and "the scandal of it is there was no dating done at the dig sites."
Because frayed portions were sometimes cut away or parts sold separately by treasure hunters, it's rare to find a complete piece of any size. Holding a delicately interlaced tunic decoration, Trilling sighed, "I'd give my eye teeth to have the whole thing."
Our own tattered wardrobes won't fare even this well. "In a damp climate like this they would rot in 2,000 years," he said, declining to speculate on the future of synthetic fibers.
THE ROMAN HERITAGE -- Saturday through September 11 at the Textile Museum, 2320 S Street NW. Tuesday-Saturday, 10 to 5; Sunday noon to 4.