Confirmation of the world’s oldest woven garment: the Tarkhan Dress
In 1912–1913, W.M. Flinders Petrie directed excavations at Tarkhan, a late fourth- and early third-millennium BC Egyptian cemetery located 50km south of Cairo. In his report, Petrie (1913: 6) noted that the history of one of the tombs (mastaba 2050), a large mud-brick niched construction of the First Dynasty, “was curious”. Sadly, it had been entirely rifled. This was unfortunate because lying amongst a “great pile of linen cloth” (Petrie 1913: 6) was something just as curious: a V-neck linen shirt with pleated sleeves and bodice in remarkable condition (Figure 1). The garment itself was only discovered in 1977, between 17 other different qualities of textile, when the dirty bundle was sent to the Victoria and Albert Museum for conservation (Landi & Hall 1979). Due to its association with a First Dynasty tomb, as well as Naqada IIIC1-type stone vessels, the Tarkhan Dress (as it became known) has been claimed to be Egypt’s oldest garment and the oldest extant woven garment in the world. In the absence of a secure context, however, its date has been contentious (Jones 2014: 213–14). Associated linen was analysed in the 1980s, when AMS was in its infancy, and it was thought to date to the late third-millennium BC (Hall 1982: 29; BM-1497, 4312±78 BP). This date, however, was essentially too broad to be historically meaningful. In 2015, a sample (weighing just 2.24mg) from the dress itself was analysed by the University of Oxford’s radiocarbon unit. The results reported here not only confirm the garment’s antiquity, but also suggest that it might pre-date the First Dynasty.
Linen textiles are especially suitable for radiocarbon dating as they are composed of flax fibres that grow over a relatively short time. Occasionally, problems arise due to the reuse of material—making the radiocarbon age somewhat older than the contextual age of the sample—but for intact garments such as the Tarkhan Dress, recycling seems unlikely. Other difficulties include contamination from oils or resins applied in antiquity, or from glues or preservatives added during conservation. The sample was therefore first exposed to a series of organic solvents (acetone, methanol and chloroform) at an ambient temperature.
The radiocarbon determination obtained for the Tarkhan Dress (OxA-32331) is 4570±36 BP (δ13C = -24.8 ‰ PDB). This calibrates to a true age (Figure 2) of 3366–3120 BC (68% probability) or 3482–3102 BC (95% probability). This result is a little less precise than is now routinely possible because the sample was small and because of inherent challenges with the calibration of radiocarbon dates in the late fourth millennium BC. Also shown in Figure 2 is the median date of 3085 BC obtained for the commencement of the First Dynasty (Dee et al. 2013). It is clear that the material for the Tarkhan Dress was procured at the cusp of the First Dynasty, or sometime during the early Naqada III period.
The survival of highly perishable textiles in the archaeological record is exceptional; the survival of complete, or almost complete, articles of clothing even more so. The early date of the Tarkhan Dress, however, is unsurprising. Textile fragments made of flax (Linum usitatissimum) are known from at least Egyptian Neolithic times (Figure 3), while weaving on horizontal looms is evidenced from at least the early fourth millennium BC (Figure 4). Iconographic representations in Second Dynasty Egyptian tombs at Helwan (in Greater Cairo) show the deceased wearing similar types of garments to the Tarkhan Dress, indicating that the depiction of clothing was based upon contemporary fashions rather than idealised (Jones 2014). The dress itself has been observed to demonstrate signs of wear, indicating that it was used in life (Hall 1982). The contexts of its use, however, remain unclear, although it appears to have been an elite article.
Outside of Egypt, some of the oldest archaeological items of clothing include a pair of late second-millennium BC trousers from eastern Central Asia (Beck et al. 2014), early Bronze Age cord skirts from Denmark (Bergerbrant 2014) and an early fourth-millennium BC sheet of linen from Jordan that would have formed a wrap-around kilt (Shamir 2014: 141). In the New World, examples of textile dresses are known from Late Archaic Caral (3000–1800 BC) in Peru (Solís 2008: 55). The Tarkhan Dress, however, remains the earliest extant example of complex woven clothing, that is, a cut, fitted and tailored garment as opposed to one that was draped or wrapped. Along with other textile remains from Egypt, it has the potential to provide further insights into craft specialisation and the organisation of textile manufacture during the development of the world’s first territorial state (Jones 2008).
Thanks are due to Susanna Harris, Lisa Mawdsley, Stephen Quirke and Bill Sillar for helpful discussions on ancient clothing.
* Author for correspondence.