In the First Millennium AD, colourful fabrics came into fashion with new dyeing techniques and access to materials.

Textile garments and accessories dressed the individual, and soft-furnishings, such as curtains, wall-hangings and cushion-covers clothed the home and public buildings. International trade over land and by sea across Eurasia and East Africa was facilitated by the relative stability of the Roman and Sasanian empires and, later, successive Muslim caliphates. Although materials and finished goods were produced far and wide, their survival is rare with metal objects such as buttons, belt-fittings and brooches generally providing our best evidence for ancient and medieval dress outside of Egypt. Due to its arid climate, Egypt preserves the textiles themselves in large numbers from the rubbish mounds of its cities and towns and especially from its cemeteries.

Until recently, the origin and date of textiles were largely determined by style and iconography. Increasingly, the application of scientific techniques is slowly over-turning long-held assumptions concerning chronology, the sources of materials and availability of dye stuffs, and providing new insights into textile production, dyeing practices, trade and the economy.

Multi-analytical approaches, combining the use of non-invasive and micro-invasive techniques, are increasingly being applied to the study of First Millennium AD textile collections, with particular attention to the technology of textile production, dye stuff sources and dyeing practices. Building on these advances, this project initially applies multispectral imaging (MSI) techniques, which are well-established in the study of polychrome surfaces, to the investigation of ancient and medieval textiles.

Project aims and outputs

This research will feed into the Museum’s long-term display strategy, exploring the stories that can be told through textile collections.

Building on knowledge gained from earlier BM Research projects on archaeological objects from the excavated sites of Antinoupolis and Wadi Sarga, the project aims to explore how portable, non-invasive methodologies can facilitate the survey and preliminary analysis of organic colourants on archaeological textiles, and how this data can be related with micro-invasive studies.

A series of workshops are planned to bring international specialists together to discuss new techniques, their potential and limits.

View the first workshop programme here  

Project research

The first phase of this project explores how multispectral imaging (MSI), a non-invasive, relatively inexpensive and portable methodology, can be used to map the photoluminescence and reflective characteristics of textiles under different wavelengths of light, and to provide qualitative and holistic insights into the chemical nature of the dyes that compose them. The images produced can afford preliminary indications of the colorants used and their spatial distribution, aid in planning more targeted and effective sampling strategies and facilitate comparisons between objects.

The visual accessibility to the physical properties observed from these images can then be related to and underpinned by the more detailed information provided by complementary non-invasive techniques, such as fibre-optic reflectance spectroscopy (FORS) and high-performance liquid chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry (HPLC-MS). The potential and limitations of establishing an empirical database relating multispectral data to chemical properties will also be explored.


J. Dyer, D. Tamburini, E. R. O’Connell and A. Harrison. 2018. A multispectral imaging approach integrated into the study of Late Antique textiles from Egypt, PLoS ONE 13(10): e0204699.  

J. Dyer. 2017. Scientific approaches to First Millennium AD textiles from Egypt. Scientific Research Newsletter 3: 6.

E. R. O'Connell and J. Dyer. 2017. New light on old socks. British Museum Magazine 89 (Winter): 8.

E. R. O'Connell and J. Dyer. 2018. Scientific approaches to First Millennium AD textiles from Egypt. Ancient Egypt and Sudan Newsletter 5: 13.


A. Harrison and E. R. O’Connell, ‘A site-based approach: Ten years of conservation and research at The British Museum,’ 11th conference of the research group, Textiles of the Nile Valley, HeadquARTers, Antwerp, 25–27 October, 2019.

J. Dyer and E. R. O’Connell, ‘New Techniques for the non-invasive analysis of purple textiles and their depictions,’ VII PURPUREAE VESTES: Redefining textile handcraft. Structures, tools and production processes, Granada, Spain, 2–4 October, 2019.

D.Tamburini, J. Dyer, M. Gulmini, P. Davit, E. R. O’Connell and M. Vandenbeusch, ‘Integrated protocols to investigate natural dyes at the British Museum on a series of textiles from Egypt,’ Overview of natural dyes: Colorful world, Biennale of natural dyes, China National Silk Museum, Hangzhou, China, May 20–24, 2019.

J. Dyer and D. Tamburini, ‘Scientific approaches to First Millennium AD textiles from Egypt in The British Museum collection,’ Scientific approaches to First Millennium AD textiles from Egypt: Dye Analysis, The British Museum, 2 March 2017.

J. Dyer, D. Tamburini, E. R. O’Connell and A. Harrison, ‘Seeing textiles in a different light: A multispectral, multi-analytical approach to the study of Late Antique textiles from Egypt,’ Textile interrelationships in the 1st Millennium: Egypt as a textile hub, 10th conference of the research group, Textiles from the Nile Valley, HeadquARTers, Antwerp, Belgium, 27–29 October 2017.


Image top: Three MSI images of a child’s stripy sock (Antinoupolis, Late Antiquity, 200–400); in visible light (VIS), showing UV-induced luminescence (UVL), and in infrared-reflected false colour (IRRFC).

Image bottom, left: Visitors view Antinoupolis textiles on display in BM exhibition, ‘Rome: Power & People’, at the MacManus Gallery in Dundee (2015).

Image bottom, middle: Multispectral imaging set-up, with the child’s stripy sock (Antinoupolis, Late Antiquity, 200–400) in the studio.

Image bottom, right: Scientists at work on the sock.