A Parent’s Sorrow: The Sleeve of a Long-Dead Child

TORCH - A Child's Sleeve

Photo: Kate Cooper (by permission, Ashmolean Museum)

During 2014-15 the Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities is sponsoring a project on Objects of Love with the Ashmolean Museum, and as part of it teaching curator Senta German and I have been hosting behind-the-scenes sessions to discover how objects from the Museum’s ancient Mediterranean collections can shed light on the human relationships between people in the ancient world. And, at the same time, we are asking how modern people from different backgrounds – students, scholars, artists, and the general public – can spark each other’s thinking about the objects.

The theme for the first session was ‘Parents and Children’, and we considered a a striking range of items including a fertility goddess from the fourth millennium B.C. and a child’s tunic from some time after AD 500.


Brooklyn Museum, Girl with a garland (ca AD 200-230); Boy with a garland in his hair (source:http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Fayum_mummy_portraits_in_the_Brooklyn_Museum)

It was this last item (pictured above) that gave us pause. The tunic’s provenance is uncertain; it was bought on the antiquities market some time ago, so nothing is known about the circumstances of its discovery. But it almost certainly comes from a burial – it was perhaps deposited in the grave of the child to whom it belonged. The somewhat earlier portraits to the left show Roman-period children dressed in similar bateau-neck tunics with embroidered (or jacquard-woven) vertical stripes at either end of the neckline.


Roman-period child mummy, Neues Museum, Berlin (source: http://museumchick.com/2010/06/neues-museum-island-berlin-nefertiti-bust.html)

Remarkably, mummy burials continued into the Christian period, and they are the most evocative burials because of the vivid portraits that adorned them. A surprising number of portraits of children have survived from Ptolemaic and Roman-period Egypt, along with a smaller number of intact child mummies still in their wrappings.  (The British Museum has a child mummy discovered in Hawara, Egypt, in 1887/88 by Flinders Petrie, who kept careful records of his archaeological excavations.) So it isn’t impossible to get a sense of what the original burial could have been like, even though we have no information about this specific burial.

As we examined the surviving Ashmolean tunic, we asked ourselves what kind of gesture it was to buy such a fine and richly decorated tunic for a child. Was it a gift from a parent? A relative or godparent? The family must have been prosperous for its child to be accorded a garment of such fine quality. We know that most families lost at least as many children as survived to adulthood, and wealth offered no protection.

We also wondered, what kind of gesture was it to place the tunic in the burial? Its state of preservation suggests that it was not worn by the dead body; rather it may have been packed – perhaps in the mummy case? – and stored away from the light. (And, of course, from moisture – but that isn’t difficult in Egypt!) Was it a gift buried away with the dead child, to accompany her or him into the afterlife?

Finally, we were fascinated by how tiny the child’s sleeve was. It seemed almost impossibly narrow.

Complete 14th Century Long Sleeve Shift

Modern reconstruction of a medieval woman’s cotton or linen shift (source: http://barefootsewingandotheradventures.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/my-14th-century-long-sleeved-shift.html)

14th c sleeve detail

Reproduction tunic by Isolde Fairamay (high-contrast detail to show construction of sleeve)

Of course, it is possible that the tunic was simply never worn. But I found myself thinking of a handmade Mexican peasant blouse which my mother bought many years ago. I came across it recently, after her death, when I was going through her clothes to decide what should go to charity. I remember admiring how, in order to save fabric, the seamstress who made this particular blouse had used only rectangular pieces. There were no wasteful circles at the neck or arm-hole. This meant that an extra square was needed under the arm, a gusset to give ease of movement where the two cylinders of the arm and chest intersected.

It did not take long to find a fascinating discussion of this kind of sleeve on the website of the modern seamstress Isolde Fairamay, who specialises in figuring out how historic garments were constructed. Fairamay was trying to understand a different kind of garment, but what she had to say about sleeves made sense of the narrowness of the Ashmolean tunic’s sleeve. It’s entirely possible, given the state of the garment’s preservation, that a gusset was present in antiquity, but that sometime in the last sixteen hundred years it disintegrated or came unsewn. I would be very grateful to hear from others who may know more – please feel free to offer any thoughts or ideas in the comments below.

In the mean time, I am left musing about the narrowness of that sleeve. A child died, over a thousand years ago, and someone could not quite let go of the habit of making sure that she or he had clean clothes to wear.


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