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Ariadne’s Threads

A book on Aegean clothing by Berenice R. Jones

With Ariadne’s Threads, published in 2015, Berenice Jones has written the standard work on clothing in the Aegean Bronze Age that will serve as the basis for all future research.

Written by Josho Brouwers on

Few books have impressed me recently as much as Berenice R. Jones’s Ariadne’s Threads: The Construction and Significance of Clothes in the Aegean Bronze Age (2015), published by Peeters (Liège) as part of the Aegaeum series (no. 38).

Jones’s book is “a substantially revised and enlarged version” of her PhD thesis (p. 1) and deals with textiles and clothing from the Bronze Age Aegean. Textiles were important in the Aegean world, as demonstrated by finds of loomweights and plentiful references to cloth in Linear B tablets. Frescoes and other figurative art show that clothing, especially for women, was often ornate and brightly coloured, and no doubt steeped in significance.

Unfortunately, only rarely have examples of Aegean textiles survived archaeologically, which means that clothing hasn’t received as much attention as it should. Fortunately, this book tries to redress the balance. But Jones doesn’t just catalogue and describe all known depictions of Aegean dress. She also takes a practical approach to the subject by making recreations of Aegean clothes, and the book features many photos of models and mannequins wearing them, giving a better idea of what these clothes may have looked like more than three thousand years ago. Diagrams of clothes even enable readers to make their own.

Incidentally, a review by Abbey Lillethun of this book, published in the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies 6.3 (2018), pp. 249-252, writes that Jones never accurately distinguishes between reconstruction and recreation: because she doesn’t piece together ancient examples of actual Minoan and Mycenaean clothing (which haven’t survived), her “reconstructions” ought properly to be referred to as “recreations”.

This strikes me as pedantic in this context. It’s common to speak of reconstruction when one attempts to (re)construct what the past was like, and most archaeologists have a clear understanding that “reconstruction” in many cases boils down to the creation of something new rather than restorations. See also, for example, the book Re-constructing Archaeology by Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley (1992 [1987]).

Clothing in the Aegean Bronze Age

Jones’s book consists of ten chapters, with the emphasis placed on female dress. This is due to the evidence: men wore fewer clothes than women and their clothing was much simpler. For example, Jones discusses the male kilt in chapter 6 (pp. 217-219), and some other pieces of male clothing in chapter 9, including, for example, the mantle of the leading figure from the “Harvester Vase”. The fringes along the bottom of the tunics (?) of the men on the Mycenaean Warrior Vase are briefly mentioned (p. 146). Personally, I would love to read Jones’s take on Mycenaean armour (like linen gaiters), but that is beyond the scope of the book.

The first chapter of Ariadne’s Threads deals briefly with the limited evidence from the Stone Age. The similarly short second chapter focuses on Early Bronze Age Greece and Prepalatial Crete, roughly the third millennium BC. The brief lengths of these chapters reflect our knowledge about these periods when it comes to clothing; the material collected here is useful if not conclusive, from textile impressions and weaving implements to clay figures and anthropomorphic vessels.

The bulk of the book focuses on the second millennium BC. In chapter 3, Jones discusses Minoan dresses of the Middle Bronze Age and compares these to clothing from ancient Egypt and the Near East. The main focus is on the “peak-back robe”, so named because of its peculiar design, known from figurines as well as seals. Comparing the dress with evidence from Egypt, Jones eventually comes up with a solution for interpreting this item of clothing (pp. 44-48).

In the fourth and longest chapter of the book, the focus switches to the Late Bronze Age. The emphasis is on the so-called “open front dress” is perhaps the best-known piece of Cretan clothing, made famous by the Snake Goddess that adorns the cover of Jones’s book (see also the featured image, above). The garment has a narrow waist and exposes the breasts of the wearer. In art, this dress is worn by female figures who are almost certainly deities or other supernatural beings, but in other, more seemingly mundane scenes they appear to be worn by mortal women.

The remaining chapters deal with specific items of clothing. Chapter 5 focuses on the “flounced skirt”, which is also worn by the aforementioned Snake Goddess (for example). These skirts were wrapped around the waist and may have been derived from similar skirts developed in the Near East. Chapter 6 discusses the “flounced kilt”, which is more than a shorter version of the flounced skirt of the previous chapter. It too was worn wrapped around the waist.

The “side-pleated skirt” is the subject of chapter 7. Jones stresses that “[u]nlike the flounced skirt which was adapted from Near Eastern designs, it is indigenous and thus should be placed in the forefront of Minoan costume design” (p. 227). It can be recognized in art – especially figurines – by the pronounced vertical folds at the sides.

“A-shaped and hide skirts” are discussed in chapter 8. A-shaped skirts taper down and form the shape of the letter A (or perhaps rather the Greek letter lambda). Hide skirts are recognized in art whenever they also feature a portion that is best interpreted as an animal’s tail. The latter are seen, for example, on the sacrophagus from Agia Triada.

Accessories, such as mantles and cloaks, scarves, and aprons, are discussed in chapter 9. The section on scarves drew my interest in particular because of the so-called “Sacral Knot” (pp. 281-282). This is again a term coined by Evans and refers to a narrow scarf tied in a distinctive loop knot. This object is also used as a decorative (?) element in Minoan and Mycenaean art, and Evans believed it was related to cult. I had hoped Jones would provide an argument for or against this interpretation, but aside from noting that Nilsson argued against a cultic connotation, she remains impartial on the matter.

In chapter 10, Jones summarizes the main points of the book, even if the subtitle’s “significance” of Aegean Bronze Age clothing is left a bit unclear. Nevertheless, a point is made that the new reconstructions allow for better interpretation of existing figurative scenes. An example is then introduced: a reconstruction of the large fresco from room 14 at Agia Triada, with relevant illustrations printed on a separate sheet included in a paper sleeve glued to the book’s inside back cover.

Closing thoughts

As far as criticism is concerned, it is a pity that the book doesn’t feature an index and that none of the images are provided with captions. However, the table of contents is thorough and the information is organized in a clear manner, and every image is also referenced in the text. Pictures are placed close to where they are referenced.

A more serious impediment to the enjoyment of the book by a wider audience is its price point: at more than €130 ($145 US), even this softcover edition from 2019 is one that only specialists and those with a truly deep interest in the subject matter are likely to buy; everyone else will have to hope that the local (academic) library has the book on offer or that a cheaper version at some point will see the light of day. That’s a real shame, because the book is well written and sheds important light on an underappreciated aspect of life in the ancient world.

Because of how important this book is, I thoroughly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the ancient civilizations that flourished in the Aegean during the Bronze Age. Berenice Jones has written what is sure to be the standard work on Aegean clothing.