Inventory

The Project Sea-silk at the Natural History Museum Basel began with the search for objects and their inventory in 1998. This proved to be more difficult than expected, since virtually all objects where kept in natural history collections and not - as it was expected – in textile collections or ethnographic museums. In 2004, nevertheless, more than 20 sea-silk objects from Europe and the United States were shown in Basel at the world's first exhibition devoted exclusively to the topic of sea-silk. In the meantime, the world wide inventory contains 60 items.

By tracing these objects, we constantly learn more about their history. How did an object come into the collection? Who were its owners? How did they get it? Where was it produced? Thus the places of production and the conditions of production are slowly revealed, such as: The importance of trade and gift exchange, the role of Grand Tour, travel literature, diaries, and we learn about knowledge production and exchange among elites in church and aristocracy interested in historical and natural history studies, across national borders, sometimes over vast distances.

With many fabrics from sea-silk, the question arises, whether they were mere prestige items or if they were really worn. Were objects of sea-silk mainly souvenirs and collectibles for the curiosity cabinet at home? Or were they - just a bit more expensive - accessories?

It is striking that to date no liturgical textiles from sea-silk were found, although they are frequently mentioned in the literature. May these report also lead back to a misunderstanding of the term byssus? Bock is very concise when he speakes about «the white linen byssus» in his Geschichte der liturgischen Gewänder des Mittelalters of 1866: «Bis zu jenen Zeiten, wo der Handel mit dem Oriente dem Abendlande jenen kostbaren, glänzend weissen Byssusstoff lieferte, wurden vielfach die festtäglichen Alben der Bischöfe aus diesem theuern, ägyptischen Leinen angefertigt. Unter diesem Byssusstoffe, der hinsichtlich seiner Feinheit und Durchsichtigkeit, sowie seiner weissen Farbe mehrere Qualitäten hatte, bezeichnete man im frühen Mittelalter, wie auch im Alterthume, vornehmlich jene feine Sorte von Leinen, die man aus dem Morgenlande, namentlich aber aus Aegypten, dem alten Heimathlande des Byssus, zu beziehen pflegte.»

The inventory includes all the objects found to date from the late Middle Ages to the mid-20th century.

Note: We cannot say of all attributions with absolute certainty that it is sea-silk, unless the fibres were analysed and determined as sea-silk. Or the objects are from natural history collections. Since in that case they were mostly associated objects of a pen shell and its byssus, it can be assumed that there is indeed sea-silk.