Red threads & amulets

As we have seen in previous posts, organic materials like textiles and wood survive much better archaeologically in the hot and sandy Egyptian environment, compared to elsewhere in the Roman Empire. In fact, a brief look through the online catalogue for the museum shows that many of the beads from the Roman period still feature the original thread on which they were strung! Thus we have sections of beads that appear in their original order when originally worn as necklaces and other jewellery pieces.

Section of a Roman necklace (UC74089) from Qau, still on its original stringing. Photo: Jo stoner.

What is also apparent is that coloured string or cord was commonly used as decorative bands on which beads and other pendants were suspended, to form necklaces and bracelets. The decorative nature of such threads can be seen in UC27846i (below). In this example from Roman period Lahun, black fibres have been knotted with those coloured a yellowish ochre to form a striking pattern which complements the striped shells used as beads.

Section of two-tone decorative string with shell beads, from Roman Lahun (UC27846i). Photo: Jo Stoner.

Another significant use of colour is the presence of red string in bracelets and necklaces. UC64872 is a thick piece of very loosely spun wool, dyed a vibrant shade of red and strung with a cu alloy disc shaped pendant. The wool has been knotted to form a large loop, big enough for a child or small adult’s necklace.

Thick, red-dyed wool (possibly a necklace) suspended with a cu alloy pendant (UC64872). Photo: Jo Stoner.

The vivid colour is striking; red dyes in Roman Egypt included the mineral ochre, as well as plant dyes from madder (rubia tinctorum), safflower (carthamus tinctorious), henna (Lawsonia inermis), and alkanet (Alkanna tinctoria). An insect-based dye, similar to modern cochineal and using beetles of the kermes genus, was also used to produce a vivid crimson red. By looking at the numbers of red stringed artefacts in the Petrie’s Roman collection, it becomes clear that there is a meaningful preference for this colour. Out of 101 artefacts featuring string, red was the second most popular colour after natural or undyed string. There is also a clear correlation between the use of red dyed string, and artefacts relating to personal adornment. Such colour choices can begin to be explained by evidence from the textual record.

Red materials, both man-made and natural (like dung) appear in spells from the Greek Magical Papyri; descriptions from Pliny the Elder also describes the use of red cloth and flies in magical spells (Natural History, 30.27; 30.30). The late antique Gaulish writer Marcellus Empiricus’ prescribed red wool stuffed into the ear for earache (De Medicamentiis 9.14.37). Other Roman writers reveal that red threads had a specific protective or ‘apotropaic’ role in the early Christian period. A 2nd c. AD description by Clement of Alexandria decried those who worshipped, “dread tufts of tawny wool” (Stromata 7.4), whilst the fourth-century Bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, provides a description of artefacts similar to those in the Petrie Museum:

“[…] what shall we say about the amulets and the bells which are hung upon the hand, and the scarlet woof [spun wool], and the other things full of extreme folly; when they ought to invest the child with nothing else save the protection of the Cross […] while the thread, and the woof, and the other amulets of that kind are entrusted with the child’s safety […]”

(Homily 12 on 1 Corinthians 4.6: PG 61.05)

Fragment of red string, adorned with a moulded lead cross pendant (UC71826). Photo: Jo Stoner.

Therefore it appears that in the early Christian period, red wool was used as an amulet to protect the wearer, especially in the cases of children who were naturally more at risk to death and disease. They were often worn around the wrist, a size which correlates to the examples in the collection.

This use is also reinforced by the presence of amuletic pendants in the form of protective symbols – the use of the cross as such is described by John Chrysostom himself and features above on UC71826. Other examples in the Petrie also use similar symbols, such as the “evil eye” – used to attract the envious looks of others which would otherwise injure the wearer. This is seen as a decorative device on the single bead strung into the red thread of UC51608, below.

Section of spun red thread, with a single “crumb” bead featuring eye-motifs (UC51608). Photo: Jo Stoner.

Thus, the presence of red threads in the Petrie, preserved by the exceptional conditions in Egypt, reveals a social practice known of throughout Egypt and the Greek East from textual sources. Notably many of these artefacts were excavated from Roman cemeteries; it seems particularly appropriate that such protective devices were worn by the dead as they made their final journey to the afterlife.

Roman notebooks

Paper as we know it today was not a product used within the Roman period. So what happened when someone wanted to write something down? A variety of materials were used as surfaces on which to write. Writing tablets inlaid with wax on which texts were inscribed are probably amongst the best-known from the Roman period, conjuring images in the popular imagination of Roman school boys practising their grammar exercises. There are in fact an amazing selection of preserved examples of these from Vindolanda, at Hadrian’s Wall in the north of Britain. However, in Roman and late antique Egypt, other materials were more extensively used, of which the Petrie Museum provides some fantastic examples. These include ostraca (essentially pot sherds – n.b. in archaeology they are “sherds”, not “shards”), as well as the better known papyrus, a material made from the fibres of a reed-like plant.

UC32599. Photo: Jo Stoner

In particular, broken pots and amphorae were a ubiquitous presence throughout the Roman Empire thanks to their use in daily life as containers for a variety of foodstuffs. You need only look at the famous Monte Testaccio in Rome, an artificial hill constructed from Roman pottery pieces, for evidence of this! These pottery sherds also provided a smooth, portable – and free – material on which notes could be recorded, or letters written and exchanged. The Petrie collection contains several hundred examples.

On the example above, the ostracon carries a Greek text that begins, “Soter acting through Ammonius […]”, suggesting the text records some sort of semi-official activity, with the rest of the writing illegible. Greek was the main written language in Egypt after the province became a Hellenistic kingdom under Ptolemies after Alexander the Great’s death. By the Roman period, it was used for a variety of documents, with Latin conversely used mainly for imperial business. This ostracon is representative of the majority of examples found in the archaeological record, with a rough but reasonably regular shape that preserves the striations from the throwing of the original pot.

Reverse of UC32599. Photo: Jo Stoner

The reverse reveals a ridged surface with a black coating of resin or bitumen. This was originally the interior of the vessel, with the coating acting as waterproofing to counteract the natural porosity of the ceramic. Other examples show even greater care in shaping the ostracon, with edges carefully chipped to produce smooth neat edges and a regularly shaped writing area. However, a different example contrasts with these regular shaped fragments; it is still far more “pot” than “pot sherd”.

Fragment of pot with remains of Greek text (UC31890). Photo: Jo Stoner

This fragment of Greek text has been written on the upper body of a clay jug or bottle. The text breaks off, suggesting the note was written on the vessel when it was near-complete. Incredibly the original stopper is still in situ, showing the plug of what appears to be palm fibre, held in place with coarse string which ties around the vessel’s arms. It is topped with a complete plaster seal, showing that the vessel was never opened. The seal still bears oval impressions from a stamp.

Original stopper in situ. Photo: Jo Stoner

This object is extraordinary in that it preserves details such as the jug’s neck closure that would usually be lost as soon as the vessel was opened and used. It also preserves organic details such as stopper material and string position that would deteriorate in anything other than the driest or wettest of conditions. However, perhaps most significantly, this object preserves in remarkable detail its two differing functions – that of container, and that of writing surface. It was likely used as a writing surface when complete, with the text relating to the contents of the jug (the remains of the text seem to refer to “produce”).

Another evocative example of the variety of materials used as writing surfaces in Egypt is a large piece of bone which still preserves some textual remains. Dating from the late Roman period, this object is the shoulder blade of an ox. You can see that there are columns of writing, again in Greek, down the centre of the large flat area. These are a list of names with figures beside them, presumably reflecting a set of accounts of some sort.

The large bone “ostracon” UC59422. Photo: Jo Stoner

As a material, this piece of bone shows evidence of having been smoothed and shaped, with the central ridge of bone filed down and the extant edges made more regular in shape. Such alterations served to improve the writing surface, and presumably made it easier to handle and use. Closer inspection of this bone “ostracon” reveals further details. On the reverse are the remains of more writing, with some characters fainter than others and writing orientation visible in a number of directions. There also seem to be layers of writing, meaning this object was used as a palimpsest.

A palimpsest is a document that contains more than one text, written at different times – the surface is written upon and then expunged of its text at a later date, to be reused again as a writing surface. These are known especially of papyri documents, with ink being washed or scraped off to enable the material to be reused. This example here appears to be exactly this sort of kind of artefact – and certainly the smooth polished surface of the bone would aid the removal of older texts. The owners, having found such a suitable object for recording texts clearly realised it could be fruitfully reused. The production of accounts – either in the form of payments made and received, or even stock takes – likely happened at regular intervals, creating an ongoing purpose for this artefact, whose size and shape was considered ideal for the task at hand.

Details of the reverse of UC59422 – traces of text can be seen towards the left edge, as well as on the right and in the centre. Photo: Jo Stoner

In a pre-industrial society such as Roman Egypt, the use, reuse, and recycling of a variety of materials made perfect sense. Notably in these examples, the materials would have been either free or by-products of other activities, meaning there was also an economic impetus to their reuse, alongside any other practical considerations. These examples also highlight for us the changes that objects underwent across their lifespans, with different functions and values existing either consecutively or simultaneously. The reality of the use of such objects often contrasts with our own preconceptions, and artefacts like these really help to emphasise the rich world of meaning and function that relates to the material culture of this period.