10 Ancient Textiles That Will Blow Your Mind

iStock.com/Stopboxstudio
iStock.com/Stopboxstudio

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 4000-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.

Find Love With These 18 Old Halloween Fortune-Telling Tricks

Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Before trick-or-treat, the sugar lobby, and mass-produced David S. Pumpkins costumes took over Halloween celebrations, fortune-telling games were one of the most popular ways to enjoy our spookiest holiday.

This was especially true in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Halloween is rooted in the festival of Samhain, the Celtic New Year, in which worshippers believed the gates between our present reality and the netherworld briefly shut down. It was a night for consulting the spirit realm for advice—especially on love and marriage. In fact, Halloween was just as romantic as our modern Valentine’s Day, if not more so.

With Lisa Morton’s exhaustive book The Halloween Encyclopedia as our guide, we’ve cobbled together some of the best romantic divination techniques from the Celtic New Year celebrations. Keep in mind that as far-fetched as some of these fortune-telling games may seem, they were largely viewed as playful parlor games—opportunities for friends to set potential suitors up, or for a bashful lad or lass to spark a courtship. When playing a game, “a clever hostess will send two unsuspecting lovers by different doors;” Martha Orne suggests in Hallowe’en And How to Celebrate It, “they are sure to meet, and not infrequently settle matters then and there.”

Perhaps it's time to bring a few of these back?

1. Acquire a newborn baby. Encourage it to sip from a bowl. Afterward, return the baby. Retain the bowl and fill it with water, then cut all 26 letters of the alphabet from a newspaper or magazine—or write the letters on 26 slips of paper—and place the papers into the bowl. Leave it to sit overnight. The next morning blindfold yourself, dip your hand into the bowl, and pull out the same number of slips as letters that are in your name. Using those slips, you should be able to spell the name of your future spouse. (You can thank the people of Newfoundland for this custom.)

2. Eat an entire salted herring, bones and all, in three bites. Do not drink water. Go to bed. In your dreams, prophetic visions of your future spouse shall appear. (Also possible: indigestion.)

3. Find a blackberry bush. Crawl underneath the branches. In the moonlight, you may find the shadow of your future beloved. (Also possible: blackberries.)

4. Procure two apple seeds. Wet the seeds. Designate one seed for “Love Interest A,” and the second seed for “Love Interest B.” Press the seeds against your forehead or eyelids. Wait. The first apple seed to fall will indicate the least faithful of the two suitors.

Cabbage
Lisa Morton

5. Trespass on your neighbor’s garden. Strap on a blindfold, and began searching for kale. Upon finding the vegetable, attempt to pull the kale from the dirt. The shape of the kale's root shall foretell your future: “A straight stalk foretold a tall straight handsome mate, and dirt clinging to the kale promised money,” Morton writes. (Don’t snicker: This divination was once a popular matchmaking tool in Scotland, and, if you’re of Scottish descent, there’s a chance that you owe your entire existence to a stalk of kale.)

6. Step outside and pluck a hair from your head. (If balding, skip to the next divination.) At nightfall, toss the hair into the wind. The direction the hair flies will indicate the direction from which your future spouse will come. In 1714, the English dramatist John Gay mentioned this custom in this poem:

I pluck this lock of hair from off my head
to tell whence comes the one that I shall wed.
Fly, silken hair, fly all the world around,
Until you reach the spot where my true love is found.

7. Spread a fine layer of cornmeal near your bed. (People with carpet can probably skip this one.) Sleep. In the morning, the name of your future spouse will be scribbled in the powder. (This bit of divination was supposedly practiced by children in the American South.)

8. Grab an egg, prepare a glass of water, and school yourself in oomancy! Crack the egg and carefully drip the whites into the water three times: The goop will contort to form the initials of your future beloved. (But be careful: Morton writes of a young man who was so disturbed by his eggy divination, he “drank heavily and became a beggar who committed suicide by downing laudanum.” The girls of Salem also attempted to read egg whites, and, well, we know how that turned out.)

9. Book a ticket to the Scottish Highlands, specifically to Ross-shire where this trick supposedly originated. Find a field in which the furrows run north to south. Wait for dark. Enter the field from the west, and gently walk over 11 furrows. Stop at the 12th, wait, and listen for your fortune: If you hear sobbing, you may die early; if you hear music, your future will be joyful. (And if you hear a man or woman grumbling about getting off their lawn, your future likely holds a trespassing charge.)

10. Find a snail. Go to the hearth, scoop up ashes, and scatter them across a plate. (Hearthless? Use flour!) Place the snail on the plate and go to sleep. In the morning, check the snail’s slime trail: It will have spelled the initials of your true love.

Limekiln
Lisa Morton

11. Locate the nearest lime-kiln. Then locate the nearest arts and crafts store and buy blue yarn. Throw the ball of yarn into the kiln while grasping the opposite end. Reel in the yarn. When you feel a tug from the other end, ask for the name of your future beloved, and a disembodied voice will belch his or her name. (This tradition originates in lower Scotland, where it was believed that mythical household goblins called “Brownies” lived in the kilns—and, well, everywhere else.)

12. Buy a knife and find a field of leeks. At night, walk backwards through the field, and stab one of the leeks with the knife. Hide, then watch. According to Celtic lore, your future spouse will walk through the field, pick up the knife, and chuck it to the middle of the garden.

13. Visit a farm and pull up a stalk of oats. If the stalk is missing the tiny seeds at the top—what the Scots called the pickle—then you’ll lose your virginity before marriage. (For people who have already sowed their oats, pulling up a stalk of oats is probably unnecessary.) The Scottish poet Robert Burns refers to this custom, alluding to a woman’s virginity as the “tap-pickle":

But her tap-pickle maist [nearly] was lost,
What kiutlin [fondling] in the ‘fause-house’
Wi’ him that night.

14. Attain a willow branch or wand. While holding it in the left or right hand, run around your house three times. Meanwhile, whisper, “He that is to be my goodman, come to grip the end of it.” During the third lap, the fetch—that is, the living spirit—of your future spouse will appear and grab it. (Willow is a interesting choice of wand, since it used to be a symbol of curmudgeonry. In the Scottish Highlands, placing a peeled willow wand on your door was a sign that you wished nobody to enter your house.)

Backwards
Lisa Morton

15. At midnight, scoop up a heaping spoonful of salt and insert it into your mouth. Do not swallow. Then light a candle, grab a mirror, and, while holding both candle and mirror in your hands, begin walking backward into the cellar. Watch the mirror. As you reach the bottom, you’ll see the face of your future spouse staring back at you. (According to the aptly titled Book of Entertainments and Frolics for All Occasions, “This is most easily accomplished if there be a tacit agreement that some cavalier shall be in waiting for the inquiring maid.”)

16. Place two nuts on a fire and recite these words: If you hate me spit and fly; if you love me burn away. If the nuts roll apart, you may separate soon from your spouse. If both burn, your relationship is secure. A similar divination involves placing two peas on a red-hot shovel.

17. It’s time to break out the Luggie Bowls! Place three bowls side by side: Fill the first with clear water, the second with dirty water, and the third with no water at all. Blindfold yourself and ask a friend to rearrange the bowls. Dunk your left forefinger into one of the bowls. If you choose the clear bowl, you’ll enjoy a happy marriage. The dirty water, on the other hand, indicates an unhappy marriage, and the empty bowl means no marriage at all. Robert Burns describes Luggie Bowls in a poem:

In order, on the clean hearth-stane
The luggies three are ranged,
And every time great care is ta’en
To see them duly changed:
Auld uncle John, wah wedlock’s joys
Sin Mar’s year did desire,
Because he gat the toom-dish [empty] thrice
He heaved them on the fire
In wrath that night.

18. Pour half a pint of high-proof brandy in a dish. Ignite it. Throw a handful of raisins, nuts, candied figs, and other tiny fruits into the blaze. Then gather a group of friends and attempt to remove as many items as possible, trying your best to toss them into your mouth without getting burnt. Whoever retrieves the most fruits and nuts is destined to meet their true love in one year. (In Britain, this game, known as Snap-Dragon, was mostly a Christmas Eve parlor game—Charles Dickens wrote about it in The Pickwick Papers—but, in the United States, it supposedly became a Halloween pastime.)

This list was first published in 2017 and republished in 2019.

6 Puzzling Anachronisms That Made It Into Shakespeare’s Plays

iofoto/iStock via Getty Images
iofoto/iStock via Getty Images

William Shakespeare was known for writing with a fabulous disregard for the rules of language. Not only did he regularly coin his own phrases, he also literally made up words—many of which are now in our discourse and dictionaries. And, considering how influential his work has been for the last five centuries, you’d be hard-pressed to find a scholar who thinks that the prolific playwright’s penchant for literary invention was anything but genius.

Having said that, the Bard did actually get a few things wrong. Because many of Shakespeare’s plays include historical figures like Julius Caesar and events like the Trojan War, we know they were set during pretty specific time periods. And while Shakespeare is certainly allowed to mention Niccolò Machiavelli in a play that takes place before Machiavelli was even born, it’s not exactly historically accurate.

What we don’t know for sure are the reasons behind the Bard’s occasional anachronisms. Did he include them intentionally to provide context and clarity for his audience? Or were they legitimate mistakes, because fact-checking was a lot more labor-intensive in the pre-internet era?

Since we’re now just a Google search away from knowing Machiavelli’s birth year and more, here are the details behind six of Shakespeare’s most surprising anachronisms.

1. The clock in Julius Caesar

In Act 2, Scene 1 of Julius Caesar, after the stage directions say “Clock strikes,” Brutus tells Cassius to “count the clock,” and Cassius says it “hath stricken three.” Though humans have been measuring time for thousands of years, clocks definitely didn’t "strike" while Caesar was alive. The first weight-driven mechanical clock was recorded in England in 1283, more than 1300 years after Caesar’s death. Before that, people used sundials or devices called clepsydras, which counted time by measuring water that slowly dripped in or out of a container. Given the late hour, a sundial wouldn’t have sufficed for this scene, and maybe Shakespeare felt that “Check how much water is in the bowl!” would bewilder his modern audience.

2. The doublet in Julius Caesar

doublet from 1580
A doublet, circa 1580.
Catherine Breyer Van Bomel Foundation Fund, Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

The clock might be Shakespeare’s most famous anachronism in Julius Caesar, but it’s not the only one. Earlier in the play (Act 1, Scene 2), Casca recounts to Cassius and Brutus how, after refusing the crown three times, Caesar pulls aside his clothing to offer the crowd his throat to cut. The clothing, however, isn’t the Roman military finery you’re probably imagining. Casca calls it a doublet, which is a type of fancy jacket popular between the 15th and 17th centuries—Shakespeare himself is sometimes pictured wearing one. Caesar may have been ahead of his time in some ways, but he certainly wasn’t fashion-forward enough to have predicted a trend that occurred more than 1500 years after he died in 44 BCE.

3. The billiards game in Antony and Cleopatra

In Act 2, Scene 5 of Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra invites her servant Charmain to play billiards. Considering that Cleopatra was born around 69 BCE in Egypt, and the earliest known mention of billiards wasn’t until 15th-century Europe, an apt response from Charmain would’ve been “Madam, what are billiards?” Instead, she declines the game due to a sore arm, and a mercurial Cleopatra declares that she’s lost interest and would rather go fishing (which, of course, has been around for much longer than billiards).

4. The mentions of Machiavelli in Henry VI

the prince by niccolo machiavelli
dcerbino/iStock via Getty Images

Niccolò Machiavelli made such an impact on society with his treatise The Prince that Shakespeare mentioned him in Henry VI not once, but twice—both with negative connotations. In Act 5, Scene 4 of Part 1, Joan of Arc tells Warwick and York that she’s pregnant with Alençon’s child to convince them not to burn her at the stake. At this, York exclaims “Alençon! That notorious Machiavel!” meaning that Alençon is essentially an immoral person. As you might remember from a high school history class, Joan of Arc eventually did end up burning at the stake in 1431.

Shakespeare’s next reference to Machiavelli occurs in Act 3, Scene 2 of Part 3, right after Henry VI is captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1465. Richard, whose brother Edward currently sits on the throne, delivers a lengthy monologue in which he vows to commit whatever heinous crimes are necessary to steal the crown for himself, “[setting] the murderous Machiavel to school.” In other words, he plans to take Machiavelli’s “The ends justify the means” mantra to such a high level that he’ll basically be showing its founder how it’s done. However, in 1465, Machiavelli was definitely not yet “murderous.” In fact, he wasn’t even born until four years later (and decades after Joan of Arc's death), in 1469.

5. The mention of Aristotle in Troilus and Cressida

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare spins a tale of love and loss during the Trojan War, which is thought to have occurred in either the 12th or 13th century BCE. Aristotle, on the other hand, was definitely born in 384 BCE. So when Hector likens Paris and Troilus to the young men “whom Aristotle thought unfit to hear moral philosophy” in Act 2, Scene 2, he showed wisdom beyond his years … by several hundred years.

6. The gun in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

titiana and nick bottom from a midsummer night's dream
Edwin Henry Landseer, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

What we now call gunpowder exploded onto the scene in China as early as 850 CE, and guns themselves were developed over the following centuries. Ancient as that may seem, it’s not nearly as old as ancient Greece, the setting for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Act 3, Scene 2, the jester Puck tells the fairy king Oberon how, when Nick Bottom’s friends see him with a donkey’s head, they act like wild geese “rising and cawing at the gun’s report.” In other words, they scatter in fear, much like geese do when a hunter fires his gun. Having said that, it’s hard to begrudge Shakespeare one measly anachronism in a play with fairies, love potions, and roguish sprites who can transform humans into donkeys.

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