Rome and India: early Indian cotton textiles from Berenike, Red Sea coast of Egypt
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Weaving is one of the oldest technologies, in many places predating pottery and certainly preceding metallurgy. The processing and manipulation of fibres for weaving purposes was developed in Asia and the Near East at some time between 7000 BC and 6000 BC, with archaeological evidence for the use of both horizontal and vertical looms dated prior to 6000 BC.1 While the function of textiles may initially have been protection against the elements, it soon acquired a social dimension. As we can see in the elaborate forms of burial dress from Ancient Egypt, Central Asia, and North-Eastern China, textiles were used as a primary indicator of status, wealth, and ethnic or gender identity in human societies. Writers of Mediterranean antiquity already mentioned that there was considerable demand for the exotic silks of China and the fine cotton muslin of India. Textiles are fragile, though, and only survive under certain conditions; the dry climates of, for example, Egypt and Central Asia, have preserved numerous ancient fabrics. For the cultures of the Indian Ocean littoral there is little primary evidence that predates the Christian era, although small fragments of cotton fibres have been found at the Harappan site of Mohenjo Daro.2