Monday, February 9, 2015

Roman Buttons

Almost half a lifetime ago, I made myself a Roman tunic to wear as part of a costume for a live-action roleplaying game.  It was meant to be the kind of tunic where the top edge is fastened at intervals, so that bits of skin peep out between the edges.   Because I had no idea how such tunics were actually fastened, I simply sewed the edges together at intervals, and sewed shank buttons on top of the sewed portions for decoration.  

Pretty crude, right?  That's what I thought, and for at least the past 5 years I've been planning to remake the tunic to be more historically accurate.

A few weeks ago, however, I found (or, rather, re-found) a research article which suggests that my tunic may not have been quite as inaccurate as I'd thought.

The article is by Margarita Gleba and a colleague and it's available for free on here. To my embarassment, the article had appeared in NESAT IX (of which I own a copy, and had read), and I had forgotten it.  Here's the full citation:
Gleba, M., and J. MacIntosh Turfa. “Digging for Archaeological Textiles in Museums: ‘New’ Finds in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology,” in Archäologische Textilfunde—Archaeological Textiles. Proceedings of the 9th North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles, 18–21 May, 2005, edited by A. Rast-Eicher and R. Windler, pp. 35-40. Näfels: Ragotti & Arioli Print, 2007.
The article is about turning up textile finds that have gotten buried in museum collections and, therefore, gone ignored.  One of the more interesting finds discussed in Ms. Gleba and Ms. Turfa's article is a set of 44 bronze domed objects, so unmistakably shank buttons that they are described that way in the article.  Thirty-seven (37) of them still have threads in the hole in the shank. Originally, the buttons were found among the personal effects of a young woman whose cremated remains were excavated in Vulci and were brought to Philadelphia in the late 19th century; the tomb from which the items came has been dated to c. 680 BCE.   The buttons are tiny; 5-7 mm in diameter and about 2 mm high. The thread is mineralized (i.e., the original fiber content has been replaced by mineral deposits from the metal), but microscopy indicates that the fiber originally was linen.  In addition, the article  mentions two other tomb finds in the University Museum's possession that included very similar buttons. Ms. Gleba and Ms. Turfa suggest that the buttons may have been used as decoration on clothing, particularly leather, given the thickness of the thread.

I'm not suggesting that the buttons rediscovered at the University Museum were used to fasten a tunic--at 5 to 7 mm, they are too small for such use. However, the fact that these buttons have such a modern form shows that the Romans knew how to make such items, and suggests that they might have made larger ones in the same shape for tunics or other garments.  That's why it's important to remember that absence of evidence is not proof of absence, and subsequent discoveries may show that some clothing technologies believed not to be available in a particular period were actually in use.

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