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The Tarkhan Dress.

Dated Fashion: The Tarkhan Dress, the Oldest Woven Garment in the World

A piece of clothing found buried in an ancient Egyptian cemetery has been identified as the oldest known dress and the oldest woven garment in the world.

The item is known as the Tarkhan dress. It was discovered in 1912 by one of the most famous Egyptologists in history – William Flinders Petrie. Petrie excavated the site of Tarkhan, located 50 km (31.07 miles) south of Cairo, in 1912 – 1913. The impressive textile was found in one of the tombs, which was a large mud-brick niched construction. The tomb was built during the First Dynasty (c. 3218–3035 BC).

A dirty bundle of linen from the tomb was sent to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1977 for conservation. It was only then that the V-neck linen shirt (or dress) with pleated sleeves was discovered. It has been preserved in remarkable condition. Apart from this treasured item of clothing, there were also 17 other different qualities of textiles.

A reconstruction of  Tarkhan tomb 2050, where the Tarkhan dress was discovered.

A reconstruction of  Tarkhan tomb 2050 , where the Tarkhan dress was discovered. ( The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL )

Radiocarbon Dating Confirms the Importance

In 2015, a team led by Dr. Michael Dee from the University of Oxford measured a 2.24mg sample of the dress. They decided to check the age of the textile by using radiocarbon dating. According to the journal Antiquity, linen textiles are very suitable for radiocarbon dating as they are composed of flax fibers. Sometimes, a problem appears due to the reuse of the material, but in this case recycling seemed to be unlikely.

The results of the analysis were published this week (February 2016) in Antiquity. According to the presented results of the examination: “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).”

Figure 2. Radiocarbon date for the Tarkhan Dress adjusted for the Nilotic seasonal effect.

Figure 2. Radiocarbon date for the Tarkhan Dress adjusted for the Nilotic seasonal effect. ( Dee et al. 2010 )

These results confirm that the dress, which is one of the oldest examples of Egyptian clothing, is the oldest known dress and oldest woven garment in the world.

The Tarkhan Dress is currently a part of the collection of the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology in London. Dr. Alice Stevenson, Curator at the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, told Past Horizons :

The survival of highly perishable textiles in the archaeological record is exceptional, the survival of complete, or almost complete, articles of clothing like the Tarkhan Dress is even more remarkable. We’ve always suspected that the dress dated from the First Dynasty but haven’t been able to confirm this as the sample previously needed for testing would have caused too much damage to the dress. Although the result is a little less precise than is now routinely possible through radiocarbon dating, as the sample was so small, it’s clear that the linen for the dress was made at the cusp of the First Dynasty or even earlier .”

The Tarkhan dress.

The Tarkhan dress. ( The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL )

The Oldest Trousers and Shoes in the World

Previously, researchers believed that the oldest clothes were discovered in China. In 2014, a team of archaeologists led by Ulrike Beck and Mayke Wagner of the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin, excavated tombs in Yanghai in western China. There, they uncovered the remains of two nomadic herders and a pair of trousers with woven patterns, which were dated to be 3,000 years old. These are the oldest known pair of trousers found to date. The discovery also supports the theory about an evolution from tunics to trousers, which were more practical for horse-riders of the time.

The oldest known trousers belonged to nomadic horsemen in Central Asia

The oldest known trousers belonged to nomadic horsemen in Central Asia. ( M. Wagner/German Archaeological Institute )

A few months later, in 2015, Chinese archaeologists announced the discovery and restoration of a pair of goat leather shoes . The shoes were discovered in tombs in Astana, the capital city of the ancient kingdom of Gaocheng. According to Xu Dongliang of Academia Turfanica in China, the shoes are 24 cm (9.45 inches) long, with the vamps, uppers and soles separately tailored. They are 1,400-years-old and were sewed together using animal sinew.

A Chinese archeological research institute restoring a pair of 1,400-year-old shoes unearthed from the Astana Tombs.

A Chinese archeological research institute restoring a pair of 1,400-year-old shoes unearthed from the Astana Tombs. ( The Institute of Archaeology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (IA CASS ))

The past discoveries in China are impressive, however, the confirmation of the age of the shirt or dress from Egypt changes the history of textiles.

Featured Image: The Tarkhan Dress. Source: The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology UCL

By Natalia Klimczak

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