Surviving images of Later Roman soldiers from across the East and Western empires often show them wearing very distinct tunics.
The later Roman tunic was a shirt-shaped garment that tended to have long sleeves and was worn knee length (when belted) by the military.
Images often show a series of patterns and shapes, on the torso, knees, shoulders and wrists, these tunics are correctly referred to as Coptic.
The term is a corruption of qibt (pr kibt ot kubt) it literally means ‘Egyptian’ in early Arabic.
The Copts certainly occupied Egypt and were thought to be a community of indigenous weavers although what distinguishes their garments from the other people in the region was the intricate patters introduced into this industry at the time of Alexander the Great.
Patterned textiles would have been regarded as valuable or prestigious as patterns were generally thought of as labour intensive.
The most recognisable patterns and configurations tend to occur in the later Roman/Early Christian era, (3rd-8th Century AD) during this time the practice of mummification became outlawed and Egyptians started to bury their dead in finely produced tunics, many examples survive as the dry desert conditions are right for the long term preservation of fabrics. (Sadly the climate in North Europe and Britain mean that finds of garments are rare indeed and tend to be fragmentary).
Britannia is lucky enough to have a acquired a fragment of Egyptian Coptic tunic at auction (top right). Made of linen, it has an integral clavi (shoulder pattern) that’s quite distinct.
The Copts used a variety of techniques and patterns, the most common form of weaving is referred to as tabby-weave this is when vertical threads (warp) are interwoven with horizontal threads (weft) other decorative techniques included brocading and tapestry, Coptic tunics tended to be made in one piece on a large loom and then sewn together under the arms and down the sides of the torso providing a seamless effect. Such a garment would have been expensive to produce and there is plenty of evidence that patterns were cut away from worn tunics and stitched onto plain poorer quality garments.
Vertical patterns tended to be called clavi and a roundel pattern was referred to as an orbiculum, other square and hexagonal patterns are often called segmentae. These patterns were sometimes plain and geometric, but could include classical and biblical scenes.
Modern quotes from hand weaving specialists have so far proved too expensive to proceed with as it would involve the construction of a large loom in order to do the job, so we have resorted to applying coptic patterns by the modern method of silk-screening.
Tunics tended to be made from linen (From the flax plant, common in Egypt’s Nile delta at that time) or wool (from sheep). Linen is a strong durable fabric that can be employed in several grades from fine garments through to heavier duty stock for sails on ships (and there is a controversial theory that suggests canvas for tents). Linen doesn’t tend to take dye easily and generally has to be pre-soaked in an acidic substance to help it take the colour (so it is thought that most linen tunics were left undyed). Linen also tends to perish very quickly in the ground (like most vegetable fibres).
Wool was a fairly late introduction after the Roman occupation, this may have been because it was regarded as ritually unclean by the pharaohs. The Romans used wool extensively and as Egypt was a major textile producer at this time production of wool garments increased.
Wool took a dye much easier and tended to be more durable.
Earlier garments tended to have single colour patterns, but in the Byzantine period (5th Century AD) onwards the tunics adapted slightly, becoming larger and more capacious, patterns tended to be very intricate and multicoloured, this tunic is often referred to as the dalmatic.
Silk was used after the 5th Century AD and was thought to be confined to the wealthy.
The Coptic Christian community still survives in Egypt but is a minority, the robes of their priests still reflect the patterns and designs of the early Christian coptic tunics, indeed many vestments of the Catholic, Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches have elements of Copitic patterns their design.
Ancient Coptic Textiles: Tapestry fragments from Eqypt 4th Cent. AD to 10th Cent. Rogers and Podmore Brighton, 1979.
Coptic Art and Archaeology: The Art of Christian Egyptians from the Late Antique to the Middle Ages. MIT Press, Cambridge, 1978.
Carroll, Diane Lee
Looms and Textiles of the Copts: First Millennium Egyptian Textiles in the Carl Austin Rietz Collection of the California Academy of Sciences. California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, 1988.
Coptic Weaves: Notes on the Collection of Coptic Textiles in the Merseyside County Museums
by Margaret Seagroatt
Softcover, National Museums & Galleries on Merseyside, Liverpool Museum, ISBN 0906367018 (0-906367-01-8)
Hondelink, H. (ed.)
Coptic Art and Culture. Shouhdy Publishing House, Cairo, 1990.
Coptic Egypt: History & Guide. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo, 1990.
Coptic Textiles in the Brooklyn Museum. The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, 1971.