10 Ancient Textiles That Will Blow Your Mind
Textiles made of organic fibers are easily destroyed by the ravages of time, as anyone who dragged around a favorite childhood blanket for years knows all too well. Insects, microorganisms, water, fire, and regular old wear-and-tear all destroy fabric, sometimes leaving behind only the most meager of scraps. When it comes to archaeological textiles, only in exceptional circumstances—very dry desert environments; very wet, waterlogged environments like peat bogs; and frozen environments like glaciers—can cloth beat time at its own game. Here are some textiles that laughed in the face of entropy.
1. LINEN TUNIC WITH 4,000-YEAR-OLD HORIZONTAL PLEATS
There's plenty of linen to be found in ancient Egyptian tombs, but completely intact garments with horizontal pleats still crisp are rarer than hen's teeth. This long, slim-fit tunic was found in a Middle Kingdom tomb in Asyut on the west bank of the Nile, balled up in a coffin next to a skeletonized mummy of indeterminate gender. It dates to around 2000 BC and likely belonged to the person it was buried next to. Besides being a great rarity, this textile is also harboring a secret—the secret of how in the world those pleats were made. They're not stitched. It may have been some sort of stamping process applied when the linen was wet, but that would be some impressive stamping, given that the pleats held even after being balled up and entombed for 4000 years.
2. THE OLDEST TROUSERS IN THE WORLD
Discovered in the vast Yanghai cemetery near Turfan, northwestern China, these wool pants date to 1122-926 BC and still look fly as hell. Zig-zags decorate the lower legs and a handsome rhombic meander pattern embraces the knees. The ingenious ziggurat-shaped crotch piece, with its double lines of dark brown, is as snazzy as it is practical for the horse-riding nomad who prefers to avoid genital chafing in style. These are the oldest trousers in the world, as far as we know, courtesy of 3000 years spent in a gravel desert that's 122°F in the summer and -20°F in the winter.
3. THE OLDEST CARPET IN THE WORLD
The Pazyryk carpet, woven about 2500 years ago using the symmetrical double knot technique, was found in the grave of a Scythian aristocrat in the frigid, arid Altai Mountains of Siberia. The once-bright blue is a tad on the olive side now, the crimson more like burgundy, and the formerly sunny yellow a brownish gold, but it still dazzles with color and pattern. Twenty-four crossed stylized lotus buds grace the central square. Around them is a rectangle of 44 griffins, framed by another with 24 handsomely antlered fallow deer. Next is a border of crossed lotuses in alternating colors. They're framed by the widest border, featuring 28 men on horseback against a red field. The last rectangle closes the show with a display of almost 100 griffins.
4. EGTVED GIRL'S WRAP SKIRT
Egtved Girl was just a teenager, albeit a very wealthy, well-traveled one, when she died in 1370 BC. She was buried in a hollowed-out oak placed in a barrow outside Egtved, on Denmark's Jutland peninsula. Her body was almost entirely decomposed when her grave was excavated in 1921, but her long blonde hair survived perched atop her pristine clothing. She wore a short, woven wool tunic top and a corded wool skirt 15 inches long that was wrapped around her waist twice. The look was accessorized with a wool belt featuring a large bronze disc with a central spike that would make a rodeo champion feel painfully inadequate.
5. HULDREMOSE WOMAN'S CONTRASTING PLAIDS
Huldremose Woman was found in a peat bog on Jutland about 100 miles southwest of Egtved Girl's final resting place. She'd been buried there around the 2nd century BC, but thanks to the magical anaerobic environment of peat bogs, her soft tissues were preserved even down to her stomach contents. So was her outfit: a long plaid skirt, a plaid scarf (both wool), and two sheepskin capes, the outer one colorblocked with a light wool collar topping a dark-brown wool body. A couple of thousand years in a bog turned the skirt a mustard color and the scarf a chocolate brown, which gives them an Agatha Christie weekend-at-the-country-estate look today, but pigment analysis has found that the skirt was originally blue and the scarf red.
6. LADY DAI'S PAINTED SILK BANNER
The T-shaped painted silk funerary banner was one of many silk textiles found wrapped around the body of Xin Zhui, the Marquise of Dai, when her tomb and those of her husband and another relative, possibly their son, were excavated at the archaeological site of Mawangdui in Changsha, China, in the early 1970s. Xin Zhui outlived them both, dying in 163 BC, and her tomb is the best-preserved of the three. Her body survived in exceptional condition, as did the rich textiles that adorned it.
This banner was carried at her funeral before being deposited in her coffin. The painting is a rich representation of Han Dynasty mythology. The heavenly world presided over by the fire dragon is on top. In the middle is Lady Dai rising upwards toward the heavens with three of her maids, while her family prays for her soul's safe journey. At the bottom is the underworld where grotesques and sea creatures guard her dead body.
7. THE DAZZLING PARACAS TEXTILES
When embroidered ponchos, turbans, headbands, and other assorted wraps from an unknown Peruvian culture suddenly began to pop up in private collections in the early 20th century, archaeologists had to bribe looters to lead them to the spot: the Paracas peninsula in Peru, where the salty sands had preserved mummy bundles shrouded in layer upon layer of increasingly large, riotously colorful textiles. Made from cotton and the wool of camelids between 500 BC and 300 AD, the textiles were a group effort from the Paracas people, who used natural dyes to produce more than 200 different shades, and embroidered every stitch by hand with cactus thorn needles. Widely looted, smuggled, and mistreated even by museum professionals in the century since their discovery, the surviving Paracas textiles still stun with their color, craftsmanship, and variety.
8. EGYPTIAN SPLIT-TOE SOCKS
The sands of the Greek city of Oxyrhynchus in Egypt famously preserved a collection of papyri so huge that scholars have still only gone through 15% of them. The sand also kept a pair of flame-red wool split-toe socks from 250-420 AD in flawless condition. The socks were knitted using the ancient technique of nålbindning, a single-needle sewing method that long predates the two-needle knitting we know today. The toe configuration indicates they were worn with sandals, because fashion faux pas or not, thick wool socks that tie at the top are actually a really good idea when trudging around a hot desert in open shoes.
9. WARI FEATHER WALL HANGINGS
Neither desert, bog, nor permafrost is responsible for the survival of the glorious wall hangings of the pre-Incan Wari people of Peru. Pots get the credit this time. Ninety-six hangings were found rolled-up snugly in humaniform ceramic jars, their macaw feathers kept intact in brilliant color for at least a thousand years. An average of seven feet wide and two-and-a-half feet high, the hangings were made by painstakingly knotting each feather to a string and then stitching the string onto a plain weave cotton backing in overlapping rows. We know they were used as wall hangings, rather than cloaks or blankets, because there's a strip of woven camelid fibers with braided ties on the corners running along the top of each piece. Rothko, eat your heart out.
10. THE MANTLE OF ROGER II
It may or may not have actually belonged to Roger II, Norman king of Sicily from 1130 to 1154, but this mantle was made at his court and is certainly fit for a king. The mantle shape of traditional Byzantine liturgical dress may indicate a Byzantine origin for the shimmering crimson samite base, while the gold embroidery was crafted by Arabic artisans in Palermo. Divided by a stylized date palm, each half of the panel depicts a lion attacking a dromedary, a symbol of the Norman House of Hauteville's conquest of Muslim Sicily in 1072. The embroiderers did us the great courtesy of noting exactly where and when they did their work, in the Kufic inscription along the curved hem:
"Here is what was created in the princely treasury, filled with luck, illustration, majesty, perfection, longevity, superiority, welcome, prosperity, liberality, shine, pride, beauty, the achievement of desires and hopes, the pleasure of days and nights, without cease or change, with glory, devotion, preservation, protection, chance, salvation, victory and capability, in the capital of Sicily, in the year 528 AH [1133-1134 AD]."
It looks pretty great belted and paired with thigh-high boots, too, as Alexander McQueen proved in his final collection, alas left uncompleted by his premature death in 2010.