Ancient world

The ancient term byssus meant a delicate precious cloth. Whether it was of linen, wool, cotton or silk, is not clear yet. Certainly it was not sea-silk, for the term byssus was given to the fibre beard of mussels only after the 15th century.

However: sea-silk existed in antiquity, but the textile was described by a different term.. Somewhere around the Mediterranean somebody had the idea to use the fibres of the noble pen shell as a textile material. Where exactly? And when? We do not know. From the Greek Bronze Age many remains of noble pen shells were found in Thessaly and on Santorini (Karali 1990, Fischer 2007, Burke 2012). Was the noble pen shell only used for food? Or has its fibre already been processed to sea-silk? Maybe by the Phoenicians? They lived in the 1st millenium BC on the eastern Mediterranean coast and knew another marine product, the real purple, the most valuable dye of the ancient world.

The book Periplus Maris Erythraei from the 1st century AD describes the shipping routes and port cities between India and East Africa. 
The book Periplus Maris Erythraei from the 1st century AD describes the shipping routes and port cities between India and East Africa. 
1st to 3rd century AD

The book Periplus Maris Erythreai, whose author is unknown, dates from 1st century AD. It is a handbook for the import and export of commercial goods and describes the shipping routes and port cities between India and East Africa. In the list of goods we find the term pinikon, which is interpreted in various ways. Does it mean pearls or cloth embroidered with pearls? (Kaeuffer 1859) Or is it sea-silk, as some authors think (Gilroy 1845, Schrader 1886)? And does pinnikon or pinninon, terms which we find 800 years later in Sardinia, denote the same thing?

A book on trade in ancient times notes under exports:
  • from Apologos (port city in southern Iraq on the Tigris) «nach Indien und Arabien Stoffe aus Faden der Steckmuschel»;
  • from the island Tapobrane (old name for Ceylon): «Steckmuscheln...»;
  • from the Ganges (river mouth in Bangladesh?): «Steckmuschelseide...»(Schmidt 1924).
But, here again: many questions!

The book Hou Hanshou about the history of the Later Han Dynasty of the 1st to 3rd century, describes trade on the Silk Road. There, Roman traders from Daqin, the Chinese name for the Roman Empire, and Chinese traders got in contact through intermediaries. Various precious textiles are mentioned: «They also have a fine cloth which some people say is made from the down of ‘water sheep,’ but which is made, in fact, from the cocoons of wild silkworms.» This 'water sheep' is only one of all the different names that have been associated with sea-silk (Ecsedy 1974, McKinley 1998, Boulnois 2001). John Hill analyzed the term in his new translation of the Hou Hanshou. Based on new sources he comes to the conclusion that the term ‚water sheep’ didn’t mean wild silk, but sea-silk (Hill 2009).

One of the first written evidence of the use of sea-silk dates from the period around 200 AD. Tertullian, a convert to Christianity which came to Rome from Carthage in modern Tunisia mentioned it in his text De Pallio: «Nec fuit satis tunicam pangere et serere, ni etiam piscari vestitum contigisset: nam et de mari vellera, quo mucosae lanusitatis plautiores conchae comant» - (Nor was it enough to comb and sow the materials for a tunic, It was necessary also to fish for one’s dress; For fleeces are obtained from the sea, where shells of extraordinary size are furnished with tufts of mossy hair.) In addition to wool and linen, the then customary textile materials, sea-silk must have been known for clothing purposes.

4th to 6th century

In 301 AD Emperor Diocletian ordered maximum prices for all kinds of goods and services. Parts of these texts are preserved and form an inexhaustible source for studies of the every day life in Roman times. Various textiles are mentioned, including the sea wool. Was this sea-silk? (Caputo & Goodchild 1955, Lauffer 1971, Giacchero 1974, Reynolds 1981).

From St. Basil the Great (331-379), a sermon is passed on, in which he speaks with admiration of the golden fleece of the pinna, which no dyer ever imitated. This quote is probably the origin of the legend which sees sea-silk as the Golden Fleece of Jason in Greek mythology (Abbott 1972). Cole (2005) thoroughly studied the different legends and their interpretations.

Aquincum, a Roman legionary town, where the oldest sea-silk fragment has been found. Source
Aquincum, a Roman legionary town, where the oldest sea-silk fragment has been found. Source
Also from the 4th century dates the oldest object - the first tangible evidence that sea-silk was processed in late antiquity. The cloth fragment was found in 1912 in a woman's grave in Aquincum. The present-day Budapest was then a Roman legionary town on the north eastern frontier of the empire. The simultaneously detected necklace of gold and coloured glass beads suggests that it was the grave of a high-ranking personality. Does this textile fragment come from the Syrian provinces of Rome? There is some evidence (Maeder 2008). Unfortunately, this fragment was lost in the turmoil of the Second World War (Hollendonner 1917, Nagy 1935, Wild 1970).

The centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, is known for his lavish luxury, also in clothing. Not surprisingly, then, that the sea-silk is not missing. In the years around 550, the historian Procopius describes the insignia that the Emperor Justinian I gave to five Armenian satraps (governors) as a sign of power. This included «a cloak made of wool, not such as is produced by sheep, but gathered from the sea. Pinnoi the creature is called on which this wool grows.»

Further sources
: Jolowicz 1861, Marquardt 1886, Mommsen & Bl├╝mner 1893, Laufer 1915, Pfister 1934, Forbes 1956