Textiles lay bare Jewish history

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The Independent Online

A British team is helping to save one of the world's most importa and historically coroversial collections of ancie textiles.

The material comes from the clothes worn and fabrics used by Jewish resistance fighters who, 2,000 years ago, committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Romans.

The suicide pact, in which 1,000 men, women and children killed themselves, was the last act of the Jewish Revolt against Rome - the great uprising in which the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and which, to a great exte, marked the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora.

Today the site of the mass suicide - the spectacular ancie desert fortress of Masada - has become for Israelis a pote symbol of ancie roots and modern statehood.

Many of the Masada textiles - perfectly preserved by thedesert environme - are being conserved by Britain's Textile Conservation Cere at Hampton Court Palace, west London, and are now being exhibited at the British Museum.

At one level, the analysis of the textile material is yielding fascinating new information about iernational trade and fashion in the first ceury AD and about life in Masada itself. For instance, the research has found that about 5 per ce of the textiles were imported, half of which appear to have come from western Europe, possibly including Britain. Indeed, some of the Jewish resistance fighters may have been wearing original Scottish-style imported tartans - several fragmes have been ideified.

On another level, however, the textiles and other archaeological material are at the heart of a historical coroversy as to the ideity of the Jewish defenders of Masada.

Hero Granger-Taylor, the archaeologist in charge of the British Museum exhibition, believes the defenders were middle-class Hellenised ai- Roman refugees from Jerusalem, which had been sacked by the Romans shortly before the siege of Masada began.

However, the Reader in Jewish Studies at Oxford University, Martin Goodman, believes that far from being middle-class urban refugees, the defenders of Masada were a bunch of fanatical brigands, robbers and terrorists who drew their membership from the rural poor and did nothing to help the real leadership of the Jewish uprising against Rome.

For now Masada coinues as a place of selective historiography and pote political mythology - the place where Israeli Army recruits are still taken to swear allegiance to the State.

t The Masada Textiles will be on show at the British Museum uil 29 October. Admission free.