By Mary Severine, textile artist, San Diego, California​

“Context” Tapestry













The little tapestry I submitted for the project is called “Context” because of my need to define things by looking at their context – the “negative space” – if you will.

The negative space of an archaeological find might include the empirical and the documented provenance, perhaps filtered through an existing body of knowledge with a pinch of educated conjecture. The negative space is fluid, according to one’s point of view. An observer sees a landscape differently from an archaeologist or an artist. Are we studying the tree in a landscape or the background of grass, sky, earth and light source? Is the individual’s focus on the found object or the context in which it is found?

Surely one informs the other. It is about articulating relationships, boundaries, balance, and a little speculation.

The spiral papyrus was found in a specific room – C56 – in Karanis, Egypt. “C” is the level of the excavation.  Each level from A to D marks a chronology in the town’s existence.  Karanis has been excavated from the surface downward, from the newer D level to the older A level as successive generations built upon older levels below.  The levels have each been dated with technologies available at the time of the excavation, and continue to be refined with newer scientific technologies as they are devised.

The spiral papyrus is analyzed in the context of other objects found in the same room at the same level, in the context of the surrounding structure, materials and architecture. The site not static, but is subject to weather and human activity over time. The papyrus informs and is informed by all of these features, providing a basis for research by new generations of scientist scholars.

So, what do I see in the negative space of the spiral papyrus? I am not an archeologist, but I see the object through an artist’s eye and I’m also a voracious reader!

Before I came up with my design and began weaving, I worked on defining the negative space. I am embarrassed to say that I spent many, many hours reading about Greco-Roman Karanis, the Kelsey museum in Ann Arbor, Michigan, about past and ongoing research on the Kelsey collection, and about theories in development and implications. ​​

Karanis Level C with roads shown in blue

My design is based on a hand drawn map I found in a 2014 UCLA Archeology PhD dissertation by B.L. Simpson.  “Neighborhood Networks: Social and Spatial Organization of Domestic Architecture in Greco-Roman Karanis, Egypt”.  This work has nothing to do with textile weaving, but I was drawn by this and many other papers because it gave me some negative space to help define the papyrus.

“Context” cartoon

You may or may not notice the red dot in one of the rooms shown on my little tapestry map. I wish I had defined it more boldly. The red dot is where the spiral papyrus was found (part of the context) in room C56 of the studied area in Karanis. The blended browns of the papyrus flow into the paths and roads that wind their way through the sandy landscape of ancient buildings.