ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian basketry
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potsherd with basketry ornamentation
Potsherd
According to W.M. Flinders Petrie the pattern is evidently derived from that of basket-work
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Ancient Egyptian basketry

Cordage basket; Source: W.M.F.Petrie     Basketry is one of the most ancient crafts. The raw materials were widely available: grasses, above all the tough halfa varieties, sedges, reeds, stalks such as flax, twigs, leaves, most frequently of the date and doum palms, and occasionally leather [1]. The various techniques of intertwining and tying together strands of plant material were quickly mastered once the principles were understood. The range of products included mattings, baskets, bags, and sandals which
... were very closely and beautifully stitched up of rush, and usually soled with leather. A small bundle of rush was wound round by a rush thread, which at every turn pierced through the edge of a previous bundle. Thus these successive bundles were bound together edge to edge, and a flat surface built up. This was edged round in the same way. In basket making exactly the same principle was followed, with great neatness. The rush sandals soled with leather, leather sandals alone, and leather shoes, were all used. The shoes seem to have been just originating at that period; two or three examples are known, but all of them have the leather sandal strap between the toes, and joining to the sides of the heel, to retain the sole on the foot ; the upper leather being stitched on merely as a covering without its being intended to hold the shoe on the foot. These soles are compound, of three or four thicknesses.
W.M.F.Petrie Kahun, Gurob and Hawara, p.28
They also constructed bigger basketry objects such as grain silos made of coiled straw or plaited reeds, and weir-baskets The ubiquitous reed raft was built using similar techniques.
    Basketry preceded and influenced cloth weaving, pottery and carpentry and enabled people to make sturdy containers which were also lightweight, expendable, and affordable. Amenemhet, a medjay policeman living at Deir el Medine under Ramses II seems to have received quite a large delivery of basketry and vegetables
Year 54, month 2 of Shemu, day 24
Medjay Amenemhet: mats 2, baskets 4, sieves 4, repetition baskets 4, sieves 4, bundles of vegetables 5 ...... vegetables 2
Berlin papyrus 6025
    Like most folk art basketry is stylistically conservative, changing little over the centuries. According to Willeke Wendrich who made comparative studies of basketry in a Nubian and an Egyptian region:
It appears that Egypt enjoys a strong regional continuity. Basketry from New Kingdom Middle Egypt (ca. 1350 BCE) has more features in common with present-day basketry from Middle Egypt than with ancient basketry from Nubia. Similarly, there is a clear continuity between ancient and modern Nubian basketry.
    At times, above all during the prehistoric period, wickerwork seems to have served as support for a layer of clay. During the 4th millennium grain stores were sometimes built like this, and some have surmised that pottery was invented - or perhaps rather discovered - when baskets, which had been lined with clay for waterproofing, were accidentally burned leaving behind thin-walled pottery vessels. Coiling was used both in pottery and basketry, but it seems that the first potters used a technique consisting of hollowing and pinching the clay rather than coiling it.
 
Entrance to the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep; Extract - Source: Jon Bodsworth Mattings
    Chairs and stools were rarely used, and most ancient Egyptians sat on the floor, which was, even in palaces, made of stamped clay; and mats to sit on were introduced early. Bed frames were covered with mattings made of plaited strips of material, such as leather or cloth.
    Windows and, at least during the earliest times of the dynastic period, doors were at times be covered with mattings which could be rolled up when not in use. A reminder of these door mattings are stone cylinders above Old Kingdom tomb entrances, simulated rolls of matting.
    Mats were also often hung on walls. They could be decorated by using varying plaiting techniques or differently coloured strands of material.
    Ships, according to Herodotus, had sails made of papyrus matting.
    Mats played a role in funerary practices early on. The corpse was often laid out on a mat, covered with or wrapped in it.
Rush mat; Excerpt. Source: Petrie Museum website; UC7505     The author of the Satire of the Trades described the weaver's trade as follows:
The weaver is in his workshop. He is worse off than a woman; with knees against his chest, he cannot breathe air. If he skips a day of weaving, he is beaten fifty strokes; he gives food to the doorkeeper, to let him see the light of day.
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.188
    According to ancient sources, a worker in Uruk made a 36 square metre mat in six days. The fingers of the ancient Egyptians were probably just as nimble. Some of these mats were rather crude affairs:
Rush mats, like the modern hasira, appear to have been made, as a weaver's beam was found with thread holes 1 inches apart, 28 holes in all. Flat sticks for beating up the thread into place, after the shuttle has passed in the loom, are also found.
W.M.F.Petrie Kahun, Gurob and Hawara, p.28
 
Baskets and bags
    Wooden storage chests were expensive and rare, and household cupboards unknown. The few possessions an ancient Egyptian family had, were therefore mostly kept in baskets. Petrie uncovered at Kahun among other things
a basket with beads and a bronze ring
the set of copper chisels and hatchets, found in a basket
a basket which had contained a small alabaster jar
basket-work which had held the smaller things and rotted clothes.
and Basket made of palm leaves with wooden bottom bar most of the small objects were found in oval baskets of the Nubian type, with woven patterns on the sides, and a ridge lid.
small, flat, square baskets of rope were made, about 6 or 7 inches in height and width. And a band, probably for going round the back of a man in palm climbing, is formed of 14 fine ropes parallel, interwoven with strips of linen cloth, and ending in two thick loops for attaching the rope.
baskets were also made of palm leaf; both of the modern round type with palm rope handles, and of the flat, square form ; the latter is most thoughtfully designed, with a wooden bottom bar, woven rope corners, six fine ropes up the sides to distribute the pressure, retained in place by a cross rope, and ending in a twisted rope handle, the top edge having a fine rope binding,
W. M. F. Petrie Illahun, Kahun and Gurob
 

Methods

Weaving or plaiting

Plaited basketry; Excerpts. Source: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London; (B): UC28048, (C): UC27892     Two or more elements are interlaced, called, using the terminology of cloth weavers, warp and weft. The ancient Egyptians employed a number of such weaving styles, for instance:
  • Check (A) - single strands of warp and weft are interlaced forming a checkerboard pattern,
  • Twilled (B) - weft is passed over more than one warp strand;
  • Twined (C) - two weft strands are intertwined between each warp.
    Weave base constructions were often used in mattings and flexible, bag-like baskets which generally had handles for carrying.
 

Coiling

Coiled basketry; Excerpt. Source: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London; (A): UC7454; (B): UC59040     In coiling cordage is formed of braided or twisted strands of plant fibre, coiled into a two- or three-dimensional spiral and sewn together, resulting respectively in a mat or a basket. Various stitching techniques give the product its look, e.g.
  • Bee-skep coil (A) - the stitches are spaced widely apart without touching each other.
  • Furcate coil (B) - the new stitch splits the stitch in the preceding coil. The result resembles crochet work.
 

Basket styles

Left: Wickerware, basket with lid (UC28009) - Right: A workman's basket made of palm leaves, found at Kahun; Source: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London     Because of their light weight baskets and bags were ideal for carrying dry goods. Peasants transported their corn in them, servants filled them with bread, builders with clay, and foundry workers used them for carrying charcoal and raw metal.
    Many of these carrying baskets were woven and had handles. Sometimes the basket was reinforced to prevent the handles from being torn off or the basket from disintegrating.
    Wickerware, the sturdiest kind of basketry, was probably introduced by Europeans. Ancient remains date mostly to the Roman Period.
Left: Lattice basket (UC59052) - Right: Coiled cordage basket with lid missing (UC59057); Source: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London     Storage baskets were often made of coiled cordage and had lids. Some were found with cords attached to them, possibly in order to hang them from the wall or the ceiling - out of reach of children and rodents.
 

Decoration

Decorations; Excerpts. Source: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London; (A): UC7933, (B): UC59037, (C): UC71256, (D): UC28048     Much of the beauty of basketry is the outcome of good design and craftsmanship, and the best Egyptian basketmakers were masters of the art.
  • Colour was used at times, generally black, white or red (A).
  • Sometimes decorations were stitched on and seem to have had reinforcing properties as well (B).
  • The weaving patterns could be intricate (C).
  • Extraneous objects might be incorporated, such as shells (D).
Lid, Source: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London: UC71414-     But much of the basketry was unadorned. It was utilitarian, made of commonly occurring materials and had a limited lifespan.
    Most people were probably capable of producing simple mats or baskets with a little guidance, even if the results of their endeavours were at times less than beautiful.
 

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[  ] Picture of decorated potsherd from W.M.F.Petrie 1889 Illahun, Kahun and Gurob"
[  ] Photograph of the entrance of the tomb of Khnumhotep courtesy Jon Bodsworth
[  ] Source of the other photographs and excerpts: The Petrie Museum website [2], Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, University College London: UC7505, UC27892, UC7454, UC59040, UC28009, UC7933, UC59037, UC28048, UC59052, UC59057, UC71256, UC71414

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These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these sites

 

-[1] Knot, plaited leather basket work
-[2] The Petrie Museum: Choose the menu item "The Petrie Museum" and then "Search the online catalogue". Search for Object type "basket"
-Basketry (University College London)

 

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Update: December 2003

 

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