Many years ago, when I studied creative embroidery (City and Guilds), a favourite topic was the history element. There are several ancient pieces still extant. There are quite a few pieces in the V&A Museum, including several medieval copes. I expect these will be star pieces in their exhibition on opus Anglicanum later this year. Perhaps the most famous, ancient embroidery is the work known as the Bayeux Tapestry (11th century). There is also some interesting Viking embroidery at the National Museum of Denmark (which dates from 970/971AD). I think the oldest embroidery that exists was found in China.
Today I saw evidence of an exceptionally ancient piece of English embroidery. Click HERE for a picture though it is not very exciting - and it looks just the same in real life. What is remarkable is that it is over 2000 years old. It is a piece of iron which was once a brooch. The brooch corroded but the mark of the woven cloth it was attached to was imprinted on its surface and, it is said, shows evidence of embroidery at its edge. I looked very closely but I could not see it, but perhaps with a magnifying glass, and no glass cabinet in between? Yet I still thought it really fascinating because it showed evidence of "ordinary" embroidery in pre-historic Britain. It dates from 250-100BC and was found in the East Riding of Yorkshire.
It was part of the British Museum, Celts: Art and Identity exhibition. There were two other pieces of embroidery on display - one a banner at the entrance which dated from 1896 (designed by a TH Thomas) and used annually in the Welsh Eisteddfod, and another decorating part of a "druid" costume, also for the Eisteddfod.
The exhibition looked at what is meant by the term Celtic - like many such labels its meaning has changed over time. Originally it was the Greeks back in 500BC who used it to describe people of continental Europe (not Britain or Ireland), later it was used to differentiate non-Roman people. In 1703-7, "Celtic" described the languages of Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Ireland, Brittany and the Isle of Man which are all connected linguistically but then developed separately. The eighteenth century was also the time when the idea of the Celts was first romanticised.
I learnt that Celtic is not a race of people but a term to describe communities with a non-Mediterranean way of looking at the world (ie, they were different from the Classical world). Celtic art is identified as including stylised plants, animals and people with abstract shape-shifting designs, most likely reflecting religious beliefs. Celtic art was picked up and used by the Romans, and it developed and changed over the years. It was used to decorate pots, weapons, books and jewellery - all of which were on display. There were a large number of torcs - some of them very fine and delicate, some hefty and looked very uncomfortable to wear. It is believed the different designs represented regional differences.
Going around this exhibition looking at the designs that survived on pots and other objects I wondered how many would have been inspired by, or replicated in, embroidery. This week an archaeological dig in Cambridgeshire (Must Farm) was reported as finding textiles dating from the Bronze Age so perhaps there is a chance of finding some even older embroidery.
The exhibition at the British Museum continues until 31st January 2016.