At the turn of the century, from about 1880 to 1930, large quantities of textiles from the late Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods were excavated, mainly from burials in the cemeteries of the Egyptian cities of Panopolis (Akhmim) and Antinoë (Sheikh Ibada) and of the Fayum. The practice of burying the dead in several layers of clothing and wrapping them in shrouds secured with bandages or tapes promised significant numbers of textiles for excavation. Prior to the discovery of a large cache of papyri, dating from the fifth through tenth century, in the winter of 1877–78 at Arsinoe (Crocodilopolis) in the Fayum, little attention was paid to the later periods of Egyptian history or art by either the academic community or the larger public. The find opened new avenues of exploration, which led to the often unsystematic excavation of sites in search of textiles and grave goods. Excavations were overseen by archaeologists, both professionally trained and amateur, as well as dealers and collectors. The result is thousands of fragments and relatively few complete textiles in museum collections, and scanty evidence regarding find sites and burial context. In some cases, poorly preserved textiles were trimmed to make them more palatable for collectors; in others, dealers trimmed away the linen ground, catering to collectors' preferences for color and pattern and their own desire to have more textiles for the market.
International venues—such as the Paris Exposition Universelle, the 1900 world's fair, and the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, known as the St. Louis World's Fair—introduced the public to the textiles of Late Antique Egypt. Albert Gayet (1856–1916), a French archaeologist who excavated at Antinoë, exhibited textiles in Paris. His bold personality and theatrical displays of archaeological material made him one of the best known figures of the period. In 1901, Gayet discovered near Antinoë two fully clothed mummies, whom he identified using burial inscriptions as Thaïs and Sérapion. Thaïs was a fourth-century courtesan who was converted to Christianity by the monk Sérapion. Her story was the subject of a novel by Anatole France (1890), an opera by Jules Massenet (1894), a play by Paul Wilstatch (1911), and five silent films produced in France, Italy, and America (between 1911 and 1917). Gayet's mummies were displayed together with other grave goods in a summer blockbuster at the Musée Guimet in Paris. He excavated many more mummies, each given an equally interesting pedigree.
Archaeologists, dealers, and collectors frequently organized textiles into albums composed of paper boards onto which were sewn fragments, often several to a page. This practice was adopted from the textile industry, which used presentation portfolios grouped by fabric, color, and pattern. Two examples of pages from a textile album are on view in this exhibition. About the turn of the century, museums made their first acquisitions of this material. It was not unusual for museums and collectors to purchase from dealers large lots or complete collections. Textiles from Late Antique Egypt came to be seen as important to the history of Byzantine art and featured prominently in art-historical discourse, such as the work of Alois Riegl (Die Ägyptischen Textilfunde in K.K. Österreich. Museum. Allgemeine Charasteristik und Katalog [Vienna, 1889]). The bold colors and patterns attracted the admiration of modern artists. Both Henri Matisse (1869–1954) and Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) saw Gayet's exhibition in Paris and began their own collections of Late Antique textiles, as did a number of their contemporaries.