Monastic funerary biers from el-Ghalida (Egypt), and bedding in the Byzantine world

Peter Beatson - NVG Miklagard

1. Introduction

A cemetary was exposed by illegal excavations at the abandoned medieval hermitage of el-Ghalida [1]. 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].

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 [3]. 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):

Figure 1 - Patriarch Ignatios lying in state. ‘Menologion of Basil II’, MS Vat. gr. 1613, fol. 134 (detail).
Gabriel Millet Collection of Christian Art).

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) [4]:

Figure 2 - Principle of construction of funeral biers from el-Ghalida, plan and cross-sectional views.
(source: Huber, 2009).

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 [5] - possibly wraps, shawls and mantles, or coverlets and blankets. It is likely, however, that the most immediate source of fabric for an individual’s funeral is the same bedding that the monk used in life [6]. 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 [7].

Decorative effects were achieved via several means - by weaving in weft stripes of contrasting colour [8], by texture effects such as ‘calendaring’ [9], or by appliqué of strips of colored silk [10], but these must be considered in terms of the fabric’s original, rather than final use.

Table 1 - Fabric quality of cloths used for bier covers from el-Ghalida. Data collated from Huber (2009), fabric quality defined by system of Hägg (1991) [11].

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 [12]. The other two Type B’s 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 [13] 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 [14]. 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 [15].

Sewing was generally performed with thread of the same fibre as the base fabric, the thread was doubled and plied [16].

Table 2 - Constructive features of cloths used for bier covers from el-Ghalida. Data collated from Huber (2009). i - iv: see Footnotes [17].

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 [18]. 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):

Figure 3 - The mummy known as “Euphémiâan”, as currently displayed in the Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire, Brussels. She dates to the 4th c. AD. (source: Paetz, 2009).

A two-or-three part bed suite would be more convenient for carrying, particularly if the stuffing is included [19].


Clarysse, W. and Geens, K. (2009). Late Roman cushions and their principles of decoration, in: A. De Moor and C. Flück (eds.) Clothing the House: Furnishing Textiles of the 1st Millenium AD from Egypt and Neighbouring Countries, p.38-47. Lannoo: Tielt.

Hägg, I. (1991). Textilfunde aus der Siedlung und aus den Gräbern von Haithabu, p.63. Berichte über die Ausgrabungen in Haithabu 29, Karl Wachholtz: Neumünster.

Huber, B. (2009). The funerary beds from the monastic cemetary at el-Ghalida (el-Kom el-Aḥmar/Šaruna), in: A. De Moor and C. Flück (eds.) Clothing the House: Furnishing Textiles of the 1st Millenium AD from Egypt and Neighbouring Countries, p.57-72. Lannoo: Tielt.

Lightfoot, C.S., Ivison, E.A. et al. (2001). The Amorium project: The 1998 excavation season. Dumbarton Oaks Papers 55, p.371-399.

Paetz, A. (2009). Late Roman cushions and their principles of decoration, in: A. De Moor and C. Flück (eds.) Clothing the House: Furnishing Textiles of the 1st Millenium AD from Egypt and Neighbouring Countries, p.115-131. Lannoo: Tielt.


[1] The site is on the eastern edge of the lower Nile valley, near ancient Šaruna. (back)

[2] Dating of human remains from the cemetary, 95th percentile range indicated. (back)

[3] These sites are discussed in Huber (2009). A rather different bier construction was noted at Amorion, Turkey (Lightfoot et al., 2001). Made for a simultaneous double burial, this was larger (2m x 1m) - the wooden frame had transverse struts, and was joined with iron nails. Only traces of the fabric cover remained. Coin-dated to c.970AD. (back)

[4] One cover (no. 10) was too incomplete be classified. (back)

[5] Fringed borders may not be deliberately decorative as they may simply result from cutting the piece off the loom, but a fringed border combined with a float (see note 17, below) is likely to be a decorative treatment with a specific use in mind, eg. a shawl or scarf. (back)

[6] Even this may not have been their original purpose - hermits may well have made their beds from used clothing or household fabrics donated to them. PB. (back)

[7] Most of these were warp-faced, with approx. twice the number of warp threads per cm as weft threads, but there was a single example of weft-faced tabby (no. 3, see Table 1). (back)

[8] Both the woolens - No.1: brown stripes of various width, placed rather indiscriminately throughout the fabric. No. 4: single dark blue stripe near border. (back)

[9] Again the woolens, No.1 and No. 4. In modern usage calendaring refers to pressing damp fabric between rollers to make it smooth and shiny, but it can also be done to ‘emboss’ with a pattern (in these cases apparently, diamonds). (back)

[10] These silk strips were usually cut off and salvaged before the fabric was reused, leaving only scraps along the attachment hems (no. 2, no. 6, no. 10). (back)

[11] In Hägg’s system the warp and weft threads are counted per 2cm, then added together (N). N < 20 very coarse; 20 < N < 30 coarse; 30 < N < 40 medium; 40 < N < 50 fine; N > 50 very fine. (back)

[12] On no. 6 the fold is 7cm deep, on no. 9, 5.5 cm. Overcasting is the same as whip stitch. The stitching on no. 9 is poorly executed, sometimes wandering inward so much that a change to running stitch is required. On no. 8, running stitch alone was used. (back)

[13] A selvedge with no raw edge was folded only once before hemming (no. 3). (back)

[14] Nos. 3 and 4. Interestingly, when appliqués had been present (see note 10) they were found on the “inside” of the bier, perhaps clothing for the dead was ritually inverted. PB. (back)

[15] These patches differ from each other and the base fabric - one is linen/silk (the same as the trim, see note 10 above), the other is dark brown wool (very fine warp-faced tabby, 23 x 11 threads/cm). (back)

[16] Plied, Z(2S). (back)

[17] Notes to Table 2:  i. Measurement in cm direction parallel to warp, ‘>’ not fully preserved, extant length.  ii. Measurement in cm parallel to weft, ‘>’ not fully preserved, extant width.  iii. ‘End’ - treatment of fabric edge parallel to weft, which was usually laid across the width of the bier, with a single exception (no. 3). It was not necessarily the edge at the head end of the bier. The corresponding ‘other end’ is missing in all cases, and therefore not tabulated. ‘Fringe’ - a few cm of the warp ends are left free at the starting or finishing border of the piece; ‘float’ - a small band of warp that is not covered by wefts, usually found close to a fringed edge.  iv. ‘Sides’ - treatment of fabric edges parallel to warp, which usually runs along the length of the bier (except no. 3, see iii.). (back)

[18] The excess was simply folded double before being wrapped around the frame - see Fig. 2, left. (back)

[19] Consider that woolen strōmata (mattresses) for household use could weigh 40 to 60 minae (14-21.5 kg) - from the ‘Zenon archive’, 3rd c. BC papyri (Clarysse and Geens, 2009). (back)

‘Monastic funerary biers from el-Ghalida (Egypt), and bedding in the Byzantine world’, written and webbed by Peter Beatson.

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