Monastic funerary biers from el-Ghalida (Egypt), and bedding in the Byzantine world
Peter Beatson - NVG Miklagard
A cemetary was exposed by illegal excavations at the abandoned medieval hermitage of el-Ghalida . The site was heavily disturbed by digging machinery but archaeologists managed to retrieve some remains, chiefly textile scraps, including coverings from ten funerary biers. As contexts had been utterly destroyed individual dating was not possible - but the associated settlement was abandoned in the Fatimid era, which is in line with the only radiocarbon date obtained: 890-1020AD .
2. Principle of bier construction
The frames of the biers are constructed of palm ribs in a grid-shaped arrangement, held together with cords of palm-bast or halfa grass. Width of about half the biers could be estimated, at 60-70cm. Only one estimate of length was possible, at about 120cm. Though this is too short to fully support a body, it is corroborated by finds at other Egyptian sites of late Roman to Byzantine date . The frames were covered in fabric which was tied in place, thus in both in size and construction the biers resemble one illustrated in a Constantinopolitan manuscript of the early 11th cent. (Fig. 1):
3. The fabrics and their purpose
The fabric covers were either laid on top of the frame and wrapped and tied around its edges (Type A: five examples); or folded in half and sewn togther into a pouch, so the frame was inserted through one open side (Type B: four examples) :
Most of the covers show signs of wear and other clues that indicate their cloth was used for other purposes before consignment to the grave. As indicated by the frequent preservation of starting/finishing borders and selvedges (see Table 2 below) in general they are large rectangular loom-pieces, frequently with fringes  - possibly wraps, shawls and mantles, or coverlets and blankets. It is likely, however, that the most immediate source of fabric for an individuals funeral is the same bedding that the monk used in life . Type A covers could have been sheets or blankets, and the bag-shaped Type B covers from mattresses (strōmata).
4. Technical details of fabrics
Biers were covered with homespun fabrics of various qualities (Table 1). Linen was the most frequent fibre used, but two covers (both Type A) were woolen. As is usual for Egypt, both warp and weft threads were S-spun. All cloths were 1/1 (plain or tabby) weave with a slight predominance of repps, that is, cloths with unbalanced thread counts .
Decorative effects were achieved via several means - by weaving in weft stripes of contrasting colour , by texture effects such as calendaring , or by appliqué of strips of colored silk , but these must be considered in terms of the fabrics original, rather than final use.
5. Constructive details of fabric use
Starting/finishing borders and selvedges are usually viewed as technical aspects of weaving a fabric but here they also functioned - as edges of cloths that may have penultimately been used for bedding (Table 2).
Type A (blankets) - Apart from the types of fabric chosen, there is little that can be concluded about covers that may have come from sheets and blankets - none are really complete enough to guess their original size, although 80cm is the minimum full width preserved, and two are 150cm or longer.
Type B (mattresses) - As mentioned, all Type B covers were made of linen. They are generally of reasonably close weave, which would retain stuffing well. No. 6 and 9 are very similar, a full loom width (c.120cm) was folded in half, lengthwise so the selvedges meet, though there is no trace of a seam here. Their sole surviving ends were sewn up - a fringed border being given a deep turn inward, then overcast . The other two Type Bs are less complete but probably made much the same, though the end of no. 7 was fixed differently - the long fringe was knotted together in bunches before the cover was turned right side out.
Other seams and hems - Some cut edges were folded twice  to ~1cm depth and hemmed with overcast stitching, but these hems come from pre-funerary uses as they were all turned toward the outside of the bier cover . Apart from the already mentioned seams used to close the Type B covers, only one other construction seam is present - two lengths are tacked together along their selvedges to make a double-width piece (No. 4). No. 2 has a repair - a hole is covered from inside and out, the edges of the patches are folded twice and overcast .
Sewing was generally performed with thread of the same fibre as the base fabric, the thread was doubled and plied .
6. Conclusion - implications for reconstruction of Byzantine bedding
Egyptian funeral biers of the Romano-Byzantine period and later appear to show definite preference for a particular size - 60 by 120 cm, even when the fabric coverings used could have amply accommodated a larger framework . Although one must consider whether construction was limited by the length of palm ribs available, could these biers actually have been based on the size of the monk's sleeping pallets? That would not resemble usual representations of bedding in Byzantine art, where the mattress is shown as long or even somewhat longer than body length.
A short pallet could though be combined with pillows for the head and even the feet, as illustrated by a late Antique female burial from Antinoopolis, Egypt (Fig. 3):
A two-or-three part bed suite would be more convenient for carrying, particularly if the stuffing is included .