Button, button, who’s got the button?

Buttons in Ancient Greece are fascinating because there is an assumption that they were used, and yet few extant items exist. It can be quite frustrating to accept the premise that we should be using buttons on our chitons and yet not know what it should look like when we do. First, let’s start with a very convincing paper on the Greek button hypothesis, and then we’ll go on to representations of buttons, and finally to examples of extant buttons.

Button Argument

Buttons and Their Use on Greek Garments by Kate Elderkin [1], while old, seems to be one of the most cited sources discussing Greek buttons. The author claims that there is no Greek word specifically meaning “button” which makes the literary record almost useless. The author hypothesizes that the words fibula and perone may have come to include anything that fastens and not just the original pins; thus, the use of buttons as fasteners might be masked in the literary record by using the words for pins. The author claims that fibulae of the safety-pin variety, with the exception of a few examples, disappear in the late 6th century BCE, but that the stick-pin variety has a few more occurrences after the 6th century. The stick-pin type is not used with Ionian chitons, and the story that “explains” the adoption of the Ionian chiton by the Athenians takes place around 560 BCE. In the story, the Athenian women stabbed a messenger to death with their dress pins, which were likely stick-pins, and were forced to adopt the Ionian chiton which does not use pins. (Of course, this may not be the causal force behind the change in dress, but might rather have simply coincided with the trend. Regardless, it is informative for dating purposes.) The author claims that the Ionian chiton is either sewn or uses two to 8 buttons placed along the sleeve to fasten it at intervals, and that the other side of the sleeve had loops, which explains why the sleeves meet rather than overlapping which would occur with button holes. The author also makes a strong case that the Dorian form of dress (e.g. the peplos and possibly the sleeveless chiton) was modified from using the stick-pins that are without a doubt shown on the earlier peplos to using buttons after the middle of the 6th century. Examples of the following objects which seem likely to be buttons are discussed. Glass buttons for chiton sleeves (.7-3 cm) may be convex on top and flat on the back with a central hole (.1-.3 cm) through which a knotted cord could be passed to fasten the button to the fabric. They may have also had depressed hollows in the back where a rod or other attachment could have been inserted. Bone or ivory buttons for chiton sleeves (1.8-4 cm) may be convex on top and flat on the back with a central hole and decorated with “incised concentric circles, dots, and parallel crescents.” They may also be flat (1.5-2.5 cm) and decorated with birds on one side and rosettes on the other. Another flat, thin type (7.2 cm) decorated with a rosette and concentric circle border may have been used for a chlamys. These bone objects may have been mistakenly labeled as spindle whorls, but the author gives reasons to believe they are not, including being possibly too light to provide the weight needed for a spindle whorl and the frequency with which they are found in graves being closer to the frequency of buttons on fabric. Bronze buttons for a chlamys (4.8-5 cm) may have been convex on top with a loop on the back decorated with a central boss and concentric raised bands. Another bronze button was found with a stem and guard back, similar to a cufflink. Last, Elderkin gives the size of the buttons on the Ionian sleeve of an archaic statuette from Paros in the Metropolitan Museum as being 1.2cm.

Button Representations

One of the key underlying arguments behind Elderkin’s conclusion is the fastener on Ionian chiton sleeves represented on statues and vases does not look like a pin, and there is an obvious difference between the representation of pins on early peploi as a linear object and the later representation of a round object. The small round objects we see do not have any corresponding fibula that has been found. The closest might be the spectacle fibula, but this has two circles, not one (hence its name). The archaeological record is full of representations of chitons and peploi with small objects resembling buttons fastening the sleeves, so I will present just a few. Photos were taken by me unless otherwise noted.

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National Archaeological Museum #12260. Corinthian red-figure hydria. The Epaulia (the day after the wedding) from Attica by the Pelikai Painter. 420-410 BCE.
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National Archaeological Museum #14500. Dinos. Dionysos and his thiasos from Athens by the Painter of the Athens Dinos. 420-410 BCE.
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National Archaeological Museum #1333. Attic red-figure pelike from Tanagra in the manner of the Pronomos Painter. 400 BCE.
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National Archaeological Museum #1333. Attic red-figure pelike from Tanagra in the manner of the Pronomos Painter. 400 BCE.
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National Archaeological Museum #1331. Votive relief in the shape of a temple found in the Asklepieion in Athens. 340-330 BCE.
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National Archaeological Museum #693. Statuette of a girl found near the river Ilissos in Athens. 310-300 BCE.
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Archaeological Museum of Delos #A78. Statue of a young girl holding a bird from the Agora of the Competaliasts. Hellenistic period.
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Naples National Archaeological Museum. Herculaneum Dancers. Photo from Wikimedia. Roman copy of 5th century Greek originals.

Extant Buttons

Let us begin with objects that are undeniably buttons. These bronze buttons are part of a bronze jewelry display in the Delphi Archaeological Museum. They did not have a plaque with dating information and I am still awaiting a response from the museum regarding their dimensions, but the straight- and safety-pins displayed in the same case are from the 7th century, so this seems like a reasonable assumption. In person, they seemed to be on the large end of the spectrum for what I would expect to use with a linen chiton; however, they seem like they would work very well for a peplos. On the other hand, with 10 in the case, one would assume they were a set and therefore would most likely be buttons for an Ionian chiton. If I had to guess, I would estimate their size to be around 1″ (2.5 cm). They appear to be bronze domes with piercework slats and a bronze bar attached to the back.

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Delphi Archaeological Museum. Bronze buttons. Probably 7th century BCE.

These clay and bronze buttons (1.9cm diameter) from 500 BCE are on display at the British museum. They are made from bronze cups filled with fired clay depicting gorgoneions (gorgon heads). They were kind enough to send me a picture of the back of the buttons as well as they could while the items are on display. This shows the bronze backing or cup as well as the loop attached to the back that would have been used for fastening the button to the fabric.

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British Museum #1959,0720.5. Bronze button decorated with a Gorgon’s head; made of a bronze cup filled with fired clay. Photo from British Museum. 500 BCE.
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British Museum #1959,0720.5. Bronze button decorated with a Gorgon’s head; made of a bronze cup filled with fired clay. Photo provided by British Museum via email. 500 BCE.

This button is likely one of the two Elderkin discusses; though the numbers she provides do not match the current number for this item at the Metropolitan Museum, the description is nearly identical. This bronze button (4.9 cm diameter) has a central boss and 5 concentric bands. The website claims it was part of the Cesnola Collection of items from Cyprus, but the book does not seem to have information on this item. I am awaiting a reply from the museum for dating information.

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Metropolitan Museum #74.51.5657. Bronze button from Cyprus. Photo from the Metropolitan Museum.

This final item is of the category that Elderkin describes as being possibly mislabeled. The British Museum calls it a “spindle-whorl (?) / disc” plainly indicating that its use was unclear. It is an ivory disc with a 3.9 cm diameter, .2 cm height, .4 cm hole, and 3.54 gram weight decorated with a rosette. Given its size, it seems like it might have been used for a chlamys button or maybe for a peplos. It is from Cyprus and quite early. As there are many items like this floating around in the archaeological record possibly mislabeled as spindle-whorls or loom weights, if we accept the hypothesis that they may have been buttons, we have a large variety of objects that we can draw from in our creations.

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British Museum #1969,0701.17.+. Spindle-whorl or possibly a button from Cyprus. Photo from the British Museum. 1340-1050BCE.

[1] Kate Elderkin, “Buttons and Their Use on Greek Garments,” American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 32, no. 3, pp. 333-345, Jul.-Sep. 1928.

11 thoughts on “Button, button, who’s got the button?

    1. The argument against it being a spindle whorl is that it would be ridiculously light. It’s about 1.5″ x .1″. I don’t spin personally, but those I have spoken to that do say this would be much too light. All of the Greek spindle whorls I saw labeled as such in museums were made from clay or stone and looked more like a vase-shaped cork (taller than a flat disc and with one end wider than the other). There are a few examples of items that are very similar to this that are labeled buttons that lend support to the argument that it’s a button. I’ll see if I can find them again.

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      1. I don’t know that that IS too light. The fabrics they were weaving then were stunningly light. We literally cannot reproduce them because the type of linen no longer exists – the threads are very, very fine and you need a light whorl to spin it. But who knows? I wish everyday I could travel back and see what’s really going on…

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      2. Agreed. Prehistoric Textiles by Barber talks about Islamic whorls under a gram but that they were used (or supposedly used) for very fine cotton (pg. 51). Says modern peasants of Afghanistan use whorls about 8 grams for short, fine wool and medium-light whorl of about 33 grams for long staple medium heavy wool” (pg. 52). So, yeah 3.5 still seems pretty light if it’s not cotton.

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  1. Same thickness, roughly 2/3 the width, “disk or button”: https://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/246451
    Trying to find an image, no thickness but roughly same width. “ivory button,” same general time and place: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/244109 (there are several like this lacking images which make them less useful)
    Same ballpark size, 1st c AD Roman, “bone disk or button”:
    https://metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/246452
    Missing dimension data, same general time and place, “ivory button?”: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/wml/collections/antiquities/ancient-cyprus/item-529300.aspx
    Much later and thinner, but same kind of object called a “button”, Sasanian: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/322953
    Same general time, Iran, dimension data very likely wrong, same kind of object called a “button”:
    https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/325975

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    1. I can’t find an image catalog or a way to compare what’s listed here to what appears in the Met Museum online collection. The fact that spindle whorls and buttons are both listed here continues the confusion. https://books.google.com/books?id=ZPo3AAAAMAAJ&pg=PA517&lpg=PA517&dq=cesnola+collection+5902&source=bl&ots=D3gwhIZlxR&sig=P4MQYBsUm1To9BAq5hc2hhHiLHg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjk9b_4gPTXAhWEx4MKHSgOAc8Q6AEIUTAL#v=onepage&q=cesnola%20collection%205902&f=false

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