Local scientist makes breakthrough in study of ancient Egyptian footwear
Local scientist Dr Joanne Dyer has developed ‘non-invasive’ pioneering imaging techniques to study a 2,000-year-old Egyptian sock during her work at the British Museum.
Dr Dyer and a team at the British Museum have used these techniques to discover how Egyptians in AD300 used dyes on a child’s sock to create a stripe pattern.
Although striped socks are commonplace in modern times, the imaging techniques have allowed Dr Dyer and the team at the British Museum to study the artefact in detail without having to physically destroy it.
Previously scientists would have had to take a small piece of material from different areas. As the sock is thousands of years old and extremely fragile this would have proved difficult for scientists to do without destroying parts of the artefact.
Multispectral imaging can establish which dyes were used such as madder for red, woad for blue and weld for yellow.
The imaging revealed how people dyed the sock using double and sequential dying, and the weaving and twisting of fibres to create myriad colours from their scarce resources.
Ancient Egyptians are thought to be responsible for the first knitted socks, designing them with one compartment for the big toe and another for the rest to allow them to be worn with sandals.
Dr Dyer has been a scientist with the British Museum for nine years having previously worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Working in the Department of Scientific Research she specialises in the study of ancient pigments and colourants on both ancient painted surfaces and archaeological textiles.
The sock, which belonged to a small child aged three or four, was found in the 1913/14 excavations of the rubbish dumps of the ancient city of Antinoupolis.
“Today not much remains of the ancient city, in its place is the small village of El Sheikh Ibada,” Dr Dyer told the Chronicle.
What is unusual about the sock is that it is stripped. Upon seeing it for the first time she said her “heart melted”.
“The sock is so vibrantly coloured and tiny; it fits in the palm of your hand, and to think that such a small and fragile thing that once belonged to small child had survived almost 2,000 years discarded in a rubbish dump was quite amazing,” Dr Dyer said.
Dr Dyer is unaware as to who made it or who it was made for but suspect “he or she would probably have been just a regular child.”
When Dr Dyer and her colleagues obtained the sock a series of studies were carried out, “to determine how the sock was made and particularly what dyes and dyeing techniques were used to dye the wool from which the sock was made.”
She added: “It’s likely that these items were made from remnants of wool used for other purposes that were then reused to make everyday clothing.”
“This might explain the different colours, as there might not have been enough of any one colour of wool to make an entire piece.”
“It’s an inventive way of making use of ‘leftovers’, but also they’re cheery and fun which would definitely appeal to children ancient and modern.”
Originally from Gibraltar, Dr Dyer trained as a PhD chemist/spectroscopist, obtaining her PhD in Chemistry from the University in Nottingham in 2003.
From there she completed a post-doctoral fellowship at Columbia University in New York.
During 2007-2009 she worked at the Art Conservation Research Center, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.
From 2013-2014, she held an Andrew Mellon Senior Research Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Since joining the British Museum her research has focused on the use of a variety of analytical techniques and the adaption and development of new imaging methods. This is used to study ancient painted surfaces and textiles, enabling them to be read and understood in new ways.
“I work on projects related to the study of ancient colour and in particular the materials and practices used to create ancient painted objects. This means I can look at any painted surface from coffins, to panel paintings, wall paintings and of course painted sculpture,” explains Dr Dyer.
“Recently I have also been expanding these methods to investigating archaeological textiles, such as the sock,” she added.
When asked what has been her most interesting experience, find or work to date, she explained that every day “is an interesting experience in my job, if I can even call it that.”
“It’s a privilege to work with such special and unique objects and to try and learn more about them and the people that created them.”
“Recently though we had a very exciting find, where we showed, for the first time, that a pigment that was thought only to exist in the East in antiquity, was found on an object (a piece of terracotta sculpture) from the ancient Mediterranean region.
“Such findings reveal not only new colours but they’re also a tantalizing window into trade and the use of exotic materials to make works of art in ancient world.”