Homepage Timeline Maps A-Z index Learning

Hairnets and bonnets in Late Roman and Byzantine Egypt
by Petra Linscheid

The climate of Egypt is extremely suitable for the preservation of organic materials such as wood, papyrus or textiles. Thus the archaeological textile finds from Egypt offer an insight into Late Roman and Early Byzantine costume and textile furnishing, while from other parts of the Roman and Byzantine Empire just a few original examples survived.

Judging by the several hundreds of examples found, the probably most popular headcovering in Late Roman and Byzantine Egypt were bonnets and hairnets made in the so-called "sprang"-technique. This technique is a kind of braiding with stretched threads producing an elastic fabric quite suitable for headcoverings (Collingwood 1974: fig. 71).

Two types of bonnets can be distinguished: a rectangular shaped one and a conical one tapering at the top. The tapering shape was produced by grouping the threads and thus diminuishing the width of the fabric. After the sprang piece was taken off of the sprang frame, it was folded in half and the sides were sewn together to form a receptacle. The lower front edge was strenthened by attaching a braid, the back edge was provided with drawstrings for pulling the bonnet together in the neck and making it close-fitting Another drawstring was threaded through the top line of the bonnet.

Construction of sprang caps:

1) Sprang piece as on the sprang frame

2 Sprang piece made up into a cap and provided with a, b - drawstrings and c - a braid

The rectangular bonnets mostly have a dense structure and they are made from coloured wool, often with a multicoloured pattern. An example of this type of bonnet in the Petrie Museum's collection is still preserved on a naturally mummified head of a woman from the cemeteries of Hawara (UC 28073; cfr. Javer/Eastop/Janssen 1999). For burial the front edge of the bonnet was pulled down over the nose. Two further examples of this type in the Petrie Museum are made from brownish wool and the front edge is provided with a heavy fringe (UC 28150i, UC 28150ii). Both bonnets are partly damaged and torn and therefore lying flat.

The bonnets tapering at the top have an openwork structure and thus the term "hairnet" seems more appropriate. This hairnets are mostly made from undyed linen, and since the linen fibre is hard to dye, the hairnets are light coloured and monochrome. For patterning, holes, lozenges or grids were braided into the ground. There are two examples of linen hairnets in the Petrie Museum (UC 28009a, UC 28009b), both in a fragmentary state. These two hairnets were found in a wicker basket among the grave goods of a girls tomb probably belonging to the 2nd / 3rd century in the cemetery of Hawara during Petrie's excavations in 1888 (Bierbrier/Walker et al. 1997: cat. no. 321). The basket contained a third hairnet made from knotted linen (UC 28009c), as well very fragmentary today. The technique of knotting linen threads into a net-like structure was as well used for the manufacturing of hairnets, but much less frequently. Probably the elasticity of sprang fabrics made the sprang technique more suitable for haircoverings.

In Late Roman and Byzantine Egypt, the deceased were buried in or supplied with their daily life clothes, so we can presume that the bonnets and hairnets were not textiles produced for funerary purpose, but they represent the daily costume. Four of the six bonnets and hair nets in sprang technique in the Petrie Museum's collection are known to have been found in woman's graves. Indeed all the sprang bonnets and hairnets for which a burial context is known, belonged to female burials, thus it is most likely that this headcoverings were worn exclusively by women (Petra Linscheid, In situ - What the find spot tells us about sprang fabrics, in: Riggisberger Berichte, Vol. 11, 2002 (in print)). Predecessors of the hairnets have been found in Roman times Israel (Sheffer/Granger-Taylor1994) and they seem to have been spread also in the Roman West, as testified for example by frescoes from Pompeii (Krauss/vonMatt 1975: 166, fig. 213). Eventually they can be traced back even to Ancient Greece (Jenkins/Williams 1985).

General literature on Roman hairnets:


Copyright © 2002 University College London. All rights reserved.