Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Archeology and knitting meet at Dura Europos

In graduate school one is bound to bump into other craftspeople in general, and knitters in particular. One especially distinguished contact is our former Western European Subject Librarian (a medievalist, no less!), who not only has helped me with research and navigating Yale, but is a wonderful person to get together with and talk about knitting and books and all kinds of things.

Obviously my librarian friend came to mind when reading Nancy Bush's Folk Socks. The History & Techniques of Handknitted Socks. (Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1994) I came across the following texts: "The oldest surviving examples of what has been identified as knitted textile fraghments date from A.D. 256. They were discovered at the site of the ancient Syrian fortress city of Dura Europos ... Three wool fragments found there, now in the collection of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, are made of what appear to be knitted stitches." (p.11) There is an image on p. 12, but here is a better one:
Source: Yale University Art Gallery e-catalogue (accessed March 21st, 2012).

I brought up the possibility of going to see these fragments with her, and another knitting Yale library friend of mine, Missknitter, and brainstormed a bit where these fragments may be kept. I was thinking the Peabody Museum of Natural History, but my librarian friend floated the idea of the Yale University Art Gallery. We agreed that I would scan the relevant pages for her and we would get on to locating the pieces. But lo and behold! Before I could even get to my computer, she had sent out queries, and located the fragments: indeed The Yale University Art Gallery! The super helpful associate curator informed us that "The knitting fragment will be on view in our new Dura-Europos gallery, which we are just about to install. The official opening date for our renovated galleries is Dec. 12, 2012, but the Dura gallery and ancient Mediterranean may well be open sooner, by late summer or early fall." (e-mail correspondence on March 21st, 2012).

Field trip! I am so excited, and amazed at the efficiency of the librarians and curators involved. Amazing people!

The excavations of Dura Europos were conducted by a French-American team of archaeologists (Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters) in the 1920s and 1930s. For an informative tour of the excavations, see the Yale University Art Gallery website on the project.

Maybe I should try to reproduce the stitches in the fragment? It looks like textured knitting with button loops in crochet, no? However, Julie Theaker at Knitty has written an article arguing that the Dura Europos "knitting" is in fact nålebinding! See her delightful 2006 article among Knitty's featured articles here, complete with visual evidence of a pair of socks that very much look like they are knit, but are, in fact nålebinding. I cannot wait to see the pieces in person, and maybe look up some more information on the textile while I am at it...

So, look for updates on Circia Fortuita meets Archaeology!


  1. This textile is actually a piece of nalbinding, not knitting.

  2. Thank you for your comment - sorry it has taken me YEARS to respond. If you read the piece all the way through, you'll find I make the same point as you do and link to a more in-depth case for the Dura Europos find being nålebinding.

    I did go see it, and while the casual eye might think it is knitting, there is no way it is. Unraveling the stitch would be a nightmare. Like nålebinding one would have to retrace each step, loop, and twine...