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Pompeii’s ancient textile dyeing technique comes to life

Pompeii, the ancient Roman city that was buried under volcanic ash and pumice in AD 79, is famous for its incredible frescoes, mosaics, and sculptures that showcase the artistic and cultural achievements of its people. However, there’s a lesser-known aspect of Pompeii’s history that deserves attention: the textile industry. Textile dyeing, in particular, was a thriving craft that involved intricate techniques, various materials, and vibrant results.

Reviving Ancient Techniques

A new project inside the Pompeii archaeological park is bringing back ancient textile dyeing techniques to shed light on the daily life of Pompeii before its tragic destruction. This project aims to show that history isn’t just about grand monuments and beautiful paintings but also about the ordinary activities and skills of the people who lived in the past.

The project takes inspiration from frescoes discovered within the archaeological site. These frescoes depict winged cupids dyeing cloth, gathering grapes for wine, and creating perfumes. These images highlight the significance of textile dyeing in Pompeii’s society, as it was used for clothing, furnishings, and rituals. Textile dyeing also provided income and social status, especially for women who were actively involved in its production and trade.

The project is led by Gabriel Zuchtriegel, the director of the archaeological site, in collaboration with Claudio Cutuli, one of the world’s few remaining master dyers. Cutuli uses natural ingredients like rose madder, walnut husks, elderberries, and cardamom to recreate the Pompeiian color palette, which includes shades of red, brown, black, gray, yellow, and green. He dyes scarves with motifs inspired by the House of Vetti frescoes, which belonged to a wealthy merchant family.

Designer and traditional dyer Claudio Cutuli prepares a rubia tinctorum, rose madder, to make a Pompeii red to dye his own line of clothing-Trisha Thomas/AP

Supporting Restoration Efforts

Half of the profits from the sale of these scarves will contribute to further restoration efforts at Pompeii. Recently, gardeners recreated a nursery with plants that were used for dyeing before the city’s destruction. Garden historian Maurizio Bartolini explains that roots, bark, and flowers were commonly used in dyeing, with rosehip being a popular choice for creating a soft pink color.

Frescoes within the archaeological site depict wealthy Pompeiians dressed in vibrant colors. Achieving these hues involved boiling dyed textiles in metal-lined vats at workshops run by slaves, who wore plain brown tunics. Archaeologist Sophie Hay reveals that the working conditions for these slaves were harsh, as they had to endure the heat, noise, and fumes of the dyeing process.

Designer and traditional dyer Claudio Cutuli prepares a rubia tinctorum, rose madder, to make a Pompeii red to dye his own line of clothingTrisha Thomas/AP

Bringing Pompeii to Life

For Zuchtriegel, textile dyeing is a way to bring Pompeii back to life for modern visitors. He emphasizes that history isn’t just about grand monuments and beautiful paintings but also about the daily life, economy, and experiences of the majority, which are often overlooked. Additionally, textile dyeing remains a relevant and sustainable craft that can inspire contemporary fashion and culture.

This project is part of a larger initiative called the Pompeii Commitment, which aims to promote the conservation and enhancement of the archaeological site as well as its social and environmental responsibility. The initiative includes various activities and events such as exhibitions, workshops, concerts, and conferences that explore the themes of heritage, sustainability, and innovation.

The project is supported by the Italian Ministry of Culture, the European Union, and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. These organizations recognize Pompeii as a unique and universal treasure that needs protection and appreciation from the global community.

The scarves are available for purchase online at the official website of the archaeological site and at the museum shop inside the park. The project will continue until the end of 2024 and will be accompanied by educational materials such as videos, podcasts, and articles that explain the history and techniques of textile dyeing in Pompeii.

By reviving ancient textile dyeing techniques, this project aims to showcase another fascinating aspect of Pompeii’s history and celebrate its rich and diverse cultural heritage.

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