Tag Archives: ancient textiles

Very Old Clothes: Fabric and Sandals circa 4000 BC

There is something awe-inspiring about a scrap of fabric woven 6000 years ago.

Fragment of a fringed textile, Eastern Mediterranean, 4500 -3600 BC. From Masters of Fire Exhibit.

Fragment of a fringed textile, Eastern Mediterranean, 4500 -3600 BC. From Masters of Fire Exhibit.

Detail of woven fringed fabric, 4500 to 3600 BC.

Detail of woven fringed fabric, 4500 to 3600 BC.

I am not a weaver, but I was amazed by the thinness of these hand-spun threads and the use of omitted (or drawn?) threads to create a linear pattern. The exhibit also contains a very rare wooden warp beam for a horizontal loom ( it looked less than 18 inches wide) and a “cylindrical stick for a warp-weighted loom;” both looked very small, but nomadic people have to work with portable looms. These people used both vertical and horizontal looms. I wish there had been more explanation about these:

Warp beam for Horizontal Ground Loom and Cylindrical Stick for Warp-Weighted Loom. Masters of Fire exhibit.

Warp Beam for Horizontal Ground Loom and Cylindrical Stick for Warp-Weighted Loom. Masters of Fire exhibit.

Masters of Fire Exhibit

I wasn’t expecting to find textiles in an exhibit called Masters of Fire, which is about Late Chalcolithic (Copper Age meets Stone Age) artifacts found in the region now called Israel. “This exhibition is organized by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and the Israel Antiquities Authority in collaboration with The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.” The museum website reminds us that this fabric was woven centuries before the Egyptian pyramids were built.

Very Old Sandals

Leather sandals from the Cave of the Warrior, 4500 to 3600 BC. Israel Antiquities Authority.

Leather sandals from the Cave of the Warrior, north of  Jerusalem, 4500 to 3600 BC. Israel Antiquities Authority.

“This pair of sandals, made of coarse, light-colored cowhide, was found inside the burial shroud of the person interred, placed one inside the other. Sandals were very rare in the Southern Levant until the Roman period. These examples, preserved only due to the dry climate of the Judean desert, provide evidence of the elevated status of the individual buried at the site.”

I wonder if the soles were worn through by the owner, as appears to be the case with the sole of the sandal on top? As in Roman sandals three or four thousand years later, the leather near the heel has slits through which the cords that tie the sandals to the foot can pass. The slits at the toe are harder to make out, but visible. I wonder if that thing that looks like a button was part of the piece that goes between your big toe and the rest of your toes in a flip-flop? And, if there are archeologists 6000 years from now, what will they make of the shoes worn today by people of  “elevated status?”

Turquoise Necklace from Ze ‘elim

The fine workmanship on the maces and other metallic objects still didn’t prepare me for these incredibly tiny turquoise beads — remember, copper is a soft metal, not like bronze or iron, so I can’t even imagine how the minuscule holes were drilled! These are not a whole lot bigger than modern glass beads.

Detail of turquoise necklace, 4500-3600 BC. Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority.

Detail of turquoise necklace, 4500-3600 BC. Collection of Israel Antiquities Authority.

A graceful necklace older than the Pyramids.

A graceful necklace older than the Pyramids. Click to enlarge.

“Violin Shaped Figurines”

The exhibit includes many tiny figurines drilled to be used as pendants or trim; the same violin shape is repeated in larger figurines. As I moved from case to case, I got a clearer idea of what these figures represented:

Three violin shaped figurines, a few inches tall. From Masters of Fire. 4500 to 3600 BC.

Three violin shaped figurines, a few inches tall. From Masters of Fire exhibit. 4500 to 3600 BC.

 

Large (about the size of a man's hand) violin shaped figure.

Large (about the size of a man’s hand) violin shaped figure.

Decorated Violin shaped figurine. She seems to be wearing a skirt. 4500-3600 BC, Eastern Mediterranean.

Decorated Violin shaped figurine. She seems to be wearing a skirt. 4500-3600 BC, Eastern Mediterranean. Click to enlarge.

This poor little lady has lost an eye, but I’d rather think of her as winking at us.

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Filed under Exhibitions & Museums, Musings, Shoes

A Costumer’s Bookshelf: Woman’s Work: the First 20,000 Years

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, 1994. ISBN 0-393-03506-0

My definition of a classic book is that the book seems to grow with you. Every time you read it, you notice things that seemed unimportant on your previous readings. Of course, the book doesn’t change; a classic is just so rich in ideas that, as you, the reader, learn and grow, more of what’s there becomes relevant to your new experiences.

I’ve just read Women’s Work for the fourth time. I had to use a library copy, because, although I’ve bought the paperback several times, I always end up giving it to another costumer, or a textile artist, or someone who’s interested in women’s studies or archeology or mythology or ethnic embroidery or…. This book covers a lot of ground.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber is a woman archeologist. She realized that the work women have done since pre-historic times usually involves textiles, but, because cloth is perishable, and looms made of wood are perishable, as are wooden distaffs and spindles, the huge contribution that textiles made to ancient economies has been overlooked by [mostly male] archeologists.

Vase, 560 BC, showing vertical loom & loom weights in use. Illustration from Women's Work of a vase in the Metropolitan Museum.

Vase, 560 BC, showing vertical loom & loom weights in use. Illustration from Women’s Work of a vase in the Metropolitan Museum.

Thousands and thousands of loom weights have been found at Troy and other ancient sites where vertical looms were used. (Loom weights are made of non-perishable clay or stone.) But when Troy  or Knossos or Kültepe burned, so did the looms and the textiles that were part of their treasures.

I am simplifying here, but Barber’s point is that half of the products, and at least half of the objects that determined the ancient world’s trade and economy, have disappeared from the historical record – the half that was women’s work.

Textiles: Traditionally Women’s Work

Barber explains that spinning and weaving were tasks compatible with child-minding, while hunting and herding large animals were not.

“Among the thousands of archeologists who have written about pottery or architecture, how many have actually tried to make a pot or build a building? Precious few….” she writes on page 24.

But Barber taught herself to spin and weave so that she could analyze ancient textiles – even reproducing some – to get insight into the differences in societies that lead to different kinds of looms and spindles, etc. A nomadic society, for instance, can’t use a loom that hangs on the wall and uses loom weights for tension on the warp, so archeological evidence of their textile work rarely survives. We know about horizontal Egyptian looms primarily because of wall paintings and models left in tombs; archeologists didn’t need to find piles of loom weights to know that the Egyptians produced vast amounts of cloth.

Things I never really thought about until I read this book:

1. Thread. Fiber. String.

"Needle netted linen bag with stone button. thought to be a ceremonial hat and thus the oldest preserved clothing." From Israel, 6500 BC. (drawing from Women's Work by Tamar Schick.)

“Needle netted linen bag with stone button. thought to be a ceremonial hat and thus the oldest preserved clothing.” From Israel, 6500 BC. (drawing from Women’s Work by Tamar Schick.) Click to enlarge.

On vacation years ago, I was hiking along the Welsh border. Small clumps of white stuff drifted across the road and were caught in the hedges. I stopped to read a map, alone – I thought – and a voice on the other side of the tall hedge cried, “Maa!”  There was a flock of sheep on the other side of the hawthorn bushes, and that white stuff caught on the branches was wool. I was in the position of some paleolithic woman or man who, more clever that I am, gathered some of the animal hair or plant fibers she found, twisted them in her fingers, added more, twisted them together, and invented string or thread.

Drawing from Women's Work by Barber, after Glory

Drawing from Women’s Work by Barber, after Glory

2. Textiles were necessary for trade.

Archeologists find non-perishable items like obsidian, pottery, tin, gold, ax-heads and knives, beads, beakers, and statuettes – trade items that show us how far pre-historic people traveled and how wide-spread and interlinked ancient societies were. But a pack animal can carry only so much metal or stone. Textiles are lighter; they can be used to wrap the precious metals and objects and then sold or traded at the end of the journey.  “The records tell us that one particular donkey [that left Assyria] carried twenty-six cloths of two sorts, sixty-five units of sealed tin, and nine units of loose tin [used to pay for expenses on the way.]”  An ancient letter written from a trader to his wife says, “If you don’t manage to make fine textiles [in time for the caravan], … Buy [them] for me and send [them] to me.” (pp. 170 -171)

3. The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the ancient Greek plays confirm the economic importance of women’s textile work.

A Spinster. "Woman spinning with a drop spindle, depicted on a Greek vase of ca. 490 B.C." From Women's Work, by E. W. Barber

A Spinster. From Women’s Work, by E. W. Barber

At the end of a war, the losers were killed or enslaved.  Numerous female slaves were needed because it takes much longer to spin the thread for a garment than it does to weave the cloth – “as much as seven to ten times as long, using a hand spindle.” (P. 87) “Spinsters” were especially valuable prizes of war.

4. Textiles are part of our language and proverbs. “Spinster.” “On the Distaff side.” “Cut your coat to suit your cloth.” “Man must work from sun to sun, but woman’s work is never done.” That was literally true. A woman can spin thread while walking, while ‘resting,’ and even in the near-darkness of a fire-lit hut or cave. A woman would spin day and night for most of the year in order to have enough thread to weave cloth for her family: that was woman’s work.

You don’t have to know anything about textiles or archeology before reading Women’s Work. Barber’s writing is scholarly, but never stuffy or condescending. There are plenty of illustrations from Egyptian, early European, and Middle Eastern cultures, and a wealth of odd facts about everything from Egyptian eye makeup to “dragon’s blood” dye.

Every time I read Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, I enjoy it. I learn from it. It’s a classic.

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Filed under A Costumers' Bookshelf