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The History Blog

10 Ancient Textiles That Will Blow Your Mind

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The History Blog

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

Louvre Museum via The History Blog 

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

M. Wagner, German Archaeological Institute via The History Blog

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

Hermitage Museum via The History Blog

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

National Museum of Denmark via The History Blog 

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

National Museum of Denmark via The History Blog 

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

Hunan Provincial Museum via The History Blog 

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

Gothenburg Museum of World Culture via The History Blog 

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

Victoria & Albert Museum via The History Blog 

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

Metropolitan Museum of Art via The History Blog 

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

Alexander McQueen via The History Blog

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.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Weird
Creative Bar Owners in India Build Maze to Skirt New Liquor Laws
June 20, 2017
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iStock

Facing a complicated legal maze, a bar in the southern Indian state of Kerala decided to construct a real one to stay in business, according to The Times of India. Aiswarya Bar, a watering hole that sits around 500 feet from a national highway, was threatened in 2016 after India's Supreme Court banned alcohol sales within 1640 feet of state and country-wide expressways to curb drunk driving. Instead of moving or ceasing operation, Aiswarya Bar's proprietors got creative: They used prefabricated concrete to construct a convoluted pathway outside the entrance, which more than tripled the distance from car to bar.

Aiswarya Bar's unorthodox solution technically adhered to the law, so members of the State Excise Administration—which regulates commodities including alcohol—initially seemed to accept the plan.

"We do [not] measure the aerial distance but only the walking distance," a representative told The Times of India. "However, they will be fined for altering the entrance."

Follow-up reports, though, indicate that the bar isn't in the clear quite yet. Other officials reportedly want to measure the distance between the bar and the highway, and not the length of the road to the bar itself.

Amid all the bureaucratic drama, Aiswarya Bar has gained global fame for both metaphorically and literally circumnavigating the law. But as a whole, liquor-serving establishments in India are facing tough times: As Quartz reports, the alcohol ban—which ordered bars, hotels, and pubs along highways to cancel their liquor licenses by April 1, 2017—has resulted in heavy financial losses, and the estimated loss of over 1 million jobs. Aiswarya Bar's owner, who until recently operated as many as nine local bars, is just one of many afflicted entrepreneurs.

Some state governments, which receive a large portion of their total revenue from liquor sales, are now attempting to downgrade the status of their state and national highways. To continue selling liquor in roadside establishments, they're rechristening thoroughfares as "urban roads," "district roads," and "local authority roads." So far, the jury's still out on whether Kerala—the notoriously heavy-drinking state in which Aiswarya Bar is located—will become one of them.

[h/t The Times of India]

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