The idea that tiny tattered fragments of old carpets is interesting may seem strange to some people. But for students of early carpet weaving, small scraps are practically all that exists.
Textiles are ephemeral; they get used, they fall apart. Visit a museum with a good collection of old rugs and you are not likely to find many dated before 1400AD. There are notable exceptions. A small group of Seljuk carpets found in central Anatolia dates to the 1200’s. And then there is the Pazyryk carpet, the one everyone cites, found in a Sythian burial mound by the Russian archeologist Rudenko in the late 1940’s.
The Pazyryk carpet brings up one of the core questions in early rug history. Dated to around 400 BC, its technology is fully developed. The Pazyryk is woven the same way rugs are made today, but it’s clearly the product of long evolution. So if rug weaving developed slowly over the last 6-10,000 years, where did all those rugs go? The answer is they are gone.
Tantalizing clues exist. Rudenko also found fragments with varied structures and apparently different origins. More recent finds, largely un-published, show that all sorts of rugs were made during the long pre-history of known rug weaving. So when unusual fragments show up – and prove to be nothing like anything you have ever seen before – it’s exciting.
The images below are of a tiny fragment I first saw in the early 1990’s. It was in a Denver collection and had an interesting story. Purchased in Cairo in 1957 it was one of a group of fragments said to have been collected at Fustat, the ruins of an abandoned city absorbed into the southern edges of Cairo. The fragment’s owner told the story of buying it from a dealer in Cairo who asked the sale proceeds be remitted to his daughter, a student in Paris. A copy of the original invoice is below.
Fustat has been the source of many interesting textile finds. At the juncture of major trade routes, textiles of widely diverse origins have been found there. Its dry climate provided ideal conditions for the survival of early fabrics.
The fragment is small (about 4” x 9”) and its design consists of areas of geometric lattice and curvilinear representative elements. It is thin and finely woven, a small segment of ‘four cord’ flat selvage survives, and it has hard glossy wool. As intriguing as the design is, it is the fragments structure that is most unusual.
In rug studies, structure provides a kind of DNA that can be used to help identify rugs and group them by type. The preparation of materials (dye source, the spin of yarns) and how the structural elements are put together, creates a unique signature. Rug weavers learn structural formulas and generally don’t vary them much. But the formulas themselves differ significantly from place to place and so provide a sort of biological key that assists in identification. Attribution is generally based on design and color, but if any doubt exists an analysis of structure is used to confirm initial assumptions.
A rug restorer becomes a student of structure; re-building a loss in a rug requires the precise analysis of weave and materials. When first examining this fragment it was clear I had never seen a rug with this structure before. I could find nothing similar in rug literature either. While it is certainly not unique – others of its type must have existed at some place and time – its origin is unknown. For students of structure I have included a schematic drawing of how this fragment is woven. If anyone has any ideas, please speak up.
Using carbon dating and careful scholarship, work is being done today to map the largely uncharted history of early rug weaving. Over the last 30 years finds in Tibet and the western deserts of China have yielded troves of fragments, some of it material never seen before. The door is slowly opening.