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Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Did Tutankhamun wear socks with sandals?

This week I have been largely distracted by socks.

I rather like making socks myself, then I saw this lecture by Anne Marie Decker and got totally distracted. Anne also has a blog with useful information here.

National Museum of Scotland A.1911.315. Akhmim, 4th-5th century

What a lot of interesting and pretty examples. The ones made for children, Anne states, are the most colourful. 

Child's sock dyed with madder, woad and weld. A left-foot sock. Found in Antinopolis (el-Minya), dated c300 AD. British Museum EA53193

They are not knit but made by making loops with a needle with eye, nalbinding. A video on the technique can be seen here. Note that these are two-toed to accommodate the wearing of sandals.

But when were the earliest Egyptian socks worn? There are probable socks from the tomb of Tutankhamun, though others believe they were riding gauntlets.(1). I tend to go with Vogelsang-Eastwood and believe they are socks. She believes that the socks were part of a charioteer's clothing and may have been a gift from Mitanni (northern Syria). The socks are made from woven linen with a fine linen inside and a coarser one outside. They have ties at the ankle. I'm afraid I couldn't find a copyright free picture but you could google them to see.

The earliest unequivocal ancient Egyptian socks date to the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD, that is the period during which the Romans had conquered Egypt. These were usually made using nalbinding technology though a slip-stitch crochet example is known:

Slip-stitch crochet sock, George Washington Textile Museum 73.719

A google search suggests that the first mention of socks was by the Greek poet Hesiod in the 8th century BC. In his poem Works and Days (536), he writes:

As for your feet, fasten onto them tight-fitting boots made from the hide of a slaughtered ox. Make them snug with felt on the inside.


Most of these Roman Egyptian examples are made of wool but a linen example has even been found.

Linen sock, George Washington Museum 73.714

I really like some of the even later examples, the Islamic Period ones like these. They may well be knitted. The earliest knitted examples date from the 11th century AD onwards.

George Washington Textile Museum. 73.619. The Kufic script repeats the name of Allah. 

Cooper Hewitt Collection. Again, the Kufic script repeats the name of Allah,

Socks are not the only way to keep your feet warm. You could wear footwraps. These were used by several groups, including Russian armies, up until the mid 20th century and later. I wonder if some of the squares of linen found in Egyptian Museums might be footwraps?

If you think they look odd (like I did) remember, that two-toed or tabi socks are still worn today. Here are a couple of examples. Perfect for wearing with thong-sandals.

Another great talk here:


1. Willeke Wendrich and Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, Footwear, In Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood (ed.) 1999. Tutankhamun's Wardrobe: Garments from the Tomb of Tutankhamun, Barjesteh van Waalwijk van Doorn and Co's Uitgeversmaatschappij, 68-77; Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, Socks, In  André J. Veldmeijer (ed.) 2011. Tutankhamun's Footwear. Studies of Ancient Egyptian Footwear, Sidestone Press165-168.

Friday, 6 August 2021

Eight-pointed Star (Octagram)


The eight-pointed star is a common design on Egyptian textiles from the 4th century AD, often composed of two superimposed squares combined with interlace ornament. We have several in the Egypt Centre.

In Egypt, the motif may date from the 2nd century AD, as is shown by a mummy portraits from Antinoe. [i] Pharaonic Egyptians depicted a five-pointed star.

If you google it, you will see all sorts of ideas on the meaning behind the eight-pointed star, from a symbol of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar (who equates with the Greek Aphrodite), the eight deities of the Egyptian Ogdoad to a Masonic symbol. An eight pointed star is also used as a rub el hisb (Arabic, quarter-group), an ornament used to mark the end of passages in the Q’uran. It seems to have been used by several different cultures in different ways around the world. For information on its various uses see: https://lds-studies.blogspot.com/2011/05/seal-of-melchizedek-eight-pointed-star.html.

It seems most likely, given the dating, that in Egypt the design was copied from Roman motifs. The star features, for example, on the 3rd century Vichten mosaic, shown on the left here. Such designs were later reused in Islamic geometric art.

On late Roman/Byzantine/Coptic clothing such as that in the Egypt Centre, the combination of the star with the vine leaf is common, perhaps an influence of Graeco-Roman Dionysian motifs.

[i]Les Portraits D'Antinoe Au Musee Guimet, Emile Etienne Guimet (Librairie Hachette et Cie, Paris, France, 1912), Plate XLVI. (I am unclear if the date is correct).

Saturday, 31 July 2021

High Whorl or Low Whorl?

A drop spindle tends to be a simple device, though there are variations. One of the most obvious differences is in how far the weight, the whorl, is placed in relation to the spindle stich. At top or at the bottom. The picture on the right comes from the modern spinning magazine Spin-Off which explains that using either is often a matter of personal preference but generally the low whorl is easier for beginners. Low whorls have been traditionally used in the north and west of Europe.

However, iconography and actual finds (1) shows us that the ancient Egyptians preferred the high whorl on their spindles. That is, the weight was at the top of the whorl and not the bottom. Generally, one starts these spinning by twirling them against ones thigh:

You tube videos show spinning using a modern high whorl:


Was there any reason for the high whorl preference other than simple following of tradition?

Well, my hand spinning is pretty bad, and I prefer the Turkish spindle, which is slightly different again. So what do modern spinners say about the high whorl?

They are ideal for thin and fine fibres. But then they are spinning and not plying, the figures here are plying. See here for an explanation of why I think that.

You might notice that of you look at the items the Egypt Centre has catalogued as whorls, they are made of clay, or stone, whereas the examples from other collections are wooden. Maybe ours are late, or not Egyptian?

And, related to this, Sam Powell, drew my attention to this figure in the Egypt Centre collection, W668:

Is he lifting her leg to ply on a high whorl spindle, like this depiction here from Beni Hasan:

1. A Roman Period wooden spindle and whorl now in the National Museum of Scotland can be seen here.
1850-1750BC and 1550-1069BC from Lahun and Gurob can be seen in the Petrie Museum.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Woad, not just for Celts!

Yes, the ancient Egyptians used it too!

I have long wanted to dye with woad, having heard about how fabric soaked in woad changes colour when taken out of the dye vat. And, having tried it, it is rather magical. As you lift it out of the liquid, the yarn or fabric turns blue as it hits the air. The colour produced is, well, indigo, the same colour as indigo dyed jeans. (To the left is a pic of wool dyed with woad drying in my back garden). Woad and indigo actually have the same chemical dye, though indigo has it in greater quantities.

Dyeing is like magic, so it is apt that papyri from ancient Egypt dealing with dyes are sometimes called alchemic texts. Papyrus X Leidensis of the Roman Period also has recipes for changing the colour of stones and metals.1

The only problem with woad dying is that it's a bit smelly. I dye in the kitchen but have the backdoor open. Indeed Papyrus Anastasia VII has a section in it declaring "The fingers of the dyer smell of rotten fish. His eyes are red from fatigue". 2 The use of woad as a dye requires the use of a fermentation vat. Traditionally, stale urine was used. Fermentation removes oxygen from the woad, making it soluable. Instructions on how to do it are given here.

Woad, comes from the plant Isatis tinctoria L. which grows widely, including in Egypt and Britain. I am trying to grow some in my garden, but slugs keep eating it!

PS, in September I am hoping to start a once a week, 10 week exploration of ancient Egyptian textiles which I hope others might like to join. We shall be looking at various aspects of textiles, including those in the Egypt Centre, and the intention is to have an experimental element. I anyone wants to keep in touch re. this, please email me at c.a.graves-brown@swansea.ac.uk

1. There were, and are, of course arguments as to what alchemy was/is. More recently, it seems to be associated with making precious metals, or is seen as the forerunner to chemistry. For a discussion on the connection between alchemy and dyeing see: Garcia, J. M. 2018. 'The art of dyeing in Greco-Roman Egypt', in Busana, M.S., Gleba, M., Meo. F and Tricomi, A.R. (eds.) Textiles and Dyes in the Mediterranean Economy and Society. Proceedings of the VIth International Symposium on Textiles and Dyes in the Ancient Mediterranean World (Padova - Este - Altino, Italy 17 – 20 October 2016). Libros Portico, 471-479.

2. 'The Satire of the Trades'. It should be pointed out that some scholars see this text as referring not to woad dye but rather Tyrian purple dye, a dye produces from shellfish. However, analysis of purple dyes in Egypt show little use of Tyrian purple. Rather, purple dyes were more commonly obtained by overdyeing blue woad with red madder. The Papyrus dates to the 19th Dynasty.

Friday, 16 July 2021

No Lasting Colour Without Alum

Why didn't the ancient Egyptians commonly dye their most often used textile, linen?1 I can't answer that here, but thinking through possibilities, it is said in some publications that linen was harder to dye. This has always seemed unlikely to me. I can dye linen and I'm no expert. Yes, wool more readily takes up the dye but it seems difficult to believe that the ancient Egyptians did not dye linen because it was a little more difficult than wool. Secondly, woad can be used to dye linen blue without the use of a mordant. And, linen has often been dyed with woad, for example labourers' linen smocks of the 19th century were dyed with woad. Woad was used and grown in ancient Egypt. Though using only blue dye is a bit limiting colourwise, unless one is happy with the all-over jean look (tradionally jeans are dyed with indigo, chemically the same as woad). I will look a bit more at woad in the next blog post.

The beautiful vibrant colours of 'Coptic' Egyptian textiles of wool and linen owe themselves not only to the dyes but the mordant (fixative) which ensured that colour did not simply wash out of wool. The wool was dyed whereas the linen was usually left undyed. The word mordant means (bite) and so the colours "bite" and stay fast. In ancient times, as today, alum was commonly used as a wool mordant. Recipes of the time state that wool needed to be washed and then treated with a mordant before the dyeing process. The mordant was alum. In the dyeing process, the mordant is vital, and sometimes more difficult to obtain than the dyes themselves.

Top, alum mines 

Bottom, handspun linen thread dyed by the author using madder mordanted with tannin (from brewers supplies) and aluminium sulphate, and then washed. As can be seen it did fix, it doesn't wash out. However, it hasn't penetrated the thread near the knot. Wool tends to take up dyes more easily. 

But why wasn't alum used for linen? It is possible that alum was hard to get hold of, though by the 1st century AD, when the Coptic textiles were produced, their bright coloured dyed wools suggest that this was not the case.

Alum only occurs as a natural mineral in a few restricted regions. Luckily for Egypt, it was possible to obtain the mineral within the country. Several alum mines have been identified in the western deserts of Egypt; in the Great Oasis at Dakhla and Kharga, and the Small Oasis at Bahariya. These appear as shallow hollows. A specific type of alum was also used to produce a blue pigment in glass making and glazes from the New Kingdom. Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD, states that Egyptian alum was highly prized in the Roman world and exported and used as a dye mordant, though Pliny states that it was a wool mordant. 2.

Why was it not used for linen?

Perhaps the important alum resource was deliberately restricted by the government? Alum mines were so valuable that in Roman times they were government controlled. It is not clear if this was the case earlier, but we know that other forms of mining came under royal control before the Roman Period.

Around 2,500 BC, we can see that linen was produced in small factories or workshops. By 1500, if not earlier, it seems that there was a great deal of domestic production with the women of the house heavily engaged in this. Unless wealthy, with connections to the royal family, perhaps they did not have access to alum? It does seem that most of the extant dyed linen comes from royal contexts (Goyon 1996). 

Against the idea that linen was not dyed because alum was restricted, the colours of 'Coptic' Egyptian textiles of the 1st millennium AD show that when given the choice, linen was left plain and only the wool was dyed. But, the amount of colour does not suggest a huge alum shortage. Perhaps, indeed, the difficulty of dyeing linen meant it was usually left plain.

There are alternative suggestions. Perhaps the alum mined in Egypt was the wrong type to be used as a mordant for linen. Alum has several uses and as well as its use as a mordant, it can also be used for tanning leather, as a medicine, and, as stated above, one of the types of alum from with Egypt (cobaltiferous alum) was used to colour glass. Today's dyers of linen tend to use aluminium acetate (it can be bought online), though tannin with aluminium sulphate can be used (see image above). Now the paper by Bogenspeger, below, is great with lots of detail, but perhaps because I'm not a chemist, I'm not sure what types of alum were available within Egypt. Cardon (2007, 21-23) says the type of alum found in Egypt is a hydrated sulphate of potassium and aluminium. Is this the same as the aluminium sulphate one can by from modern dyer's supplies? If anyone can help me out, I'd be grateful. Perhaps the alum which I had used to dye linen is not really so accessible in Egypt and to use other types of alum for linen really was more difficult.

And other suggestions as to why linen wasn't commonly dyed, maybe the Egyptians simply preferred the look of the plain material, and, it had associations of divinity and purity. The ancient Egyptian could appear a very conservative lot, unwilling to change. But, if it works and has important connotations for you why change? 

1. Linen was dyed, for example, linen used to wrap mummies was not infrequently dyed red, and several dyed textiles have been found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. According to Pliny, in the 4th century BC, the generals of Alexander the Great competed in dyeing the sails of their ships. Of course this may have simply been a fanciful story and it is clear that the dyeing of linen was not common. See Goyon 1996.

2. Chapter 52 in his 35th book of his Natural History lists alum uses as: wool dyeing, leather tawing, leather tanning, for creating special metal and glass finishes, for medicinal and cosmetic uses. According to Pliny, alum, ‘… has the effect, also, of checking and dispersing perspiration, and of neutralizing offensive odours of the arm-pits.’

References and Further Reading

Bogensperger, I. 2018. 'Alum in Ancient Egypt: The written evidence', in Antoine De Moor, Cäcilia Fluck and Petra Linscheid (eds.), Excavating, analysing, reconstructing Textiles of the 1st millennium AD from Egypt and neighbouring countries. Proceedings of the 9th conference of the research group ‘Textiles from the Nile Valley’ Antwerp, 27–29 November 2015. Tielt: Lannoo Publishers. pp. 255-263. This can be downloaded from here: https://www.academia.edu/40968832/Alum_in_Ancient_Egypt_The_written_evidence (accessed July 2021).

Cardon, D.2007. Natural Dyes. Sources, Tradition, Technology and Science. London: Archetype Publications.

Goyon, J.-C. 1996 “Le lin et sa teinture en Égypte. Des procédés ancestraux aux pratiques importées (VIIe siècle av. J.-C. à l’époque récente)”, in Aspects de l’artisanat du textile dans le Monde Méditerranéen (Égypte, Grèce, monde Romain). Collection de l’Institut d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de l’Antiquité, Université Lumière Lyon 2, vol. 2, Lyon, p. 13-22

Saturday, 10 July 2021

The thread of life, women and textiles


Archaeologists have historically divided time into the ages of "hard technology" with such terms as “Stone Age”, “Bronze Age” and “Iron Age”. These technologies, it is claimed were fundamental to human ‘progression’. Of course, Egyptologists have seen kings and dynasties as more important and so use these to break up periods of time.[1]

But, what if we explore replacing the three age division of stone, bronze and iron to: something like the ages of “pottery” and “flax”?[2] An interesting idea. But just how important were textiles? Here I only look at ancient Egypt.

We know that textiles were used for clothing, furnishings burial wrappings, votive offerings, sails, and much more. Linen was important in the deification of the deceased and the gods carry cloth reinforcing that idea. Wages were paid in food, but also in metalwork and textiles. Textiles kept the Egyptians warm, were important in religion, allowed them to sail the Nile, were used as items of prestige and social display. Cloth was valuable, mended and re-mended.

Amulet (c. 4cm high showing Imsety holding a piece of cloth. Egypt Centre collection PM7).

There is evidence that the Egyptians themselves recognized the importance of textiles. Hella Küllmer has written on the phenomenon of women of early Bronze Age Egypt being rewarded for their weaving.[3]The hieroglyph for weaver, which represents a sceptre, designates the weaver as ‘one who is adorned’ or ‘rewarded’ and suggests the high status of weavers. Women are shown being given costly ornaments for their services, something which does not appear in later representations. It has been claimed  that the depictions of women weavers receiving necklaces were a public recognition of their worth, and furthermore  that the payment of weavers can be equated to payment given to  tomb workers of this date. 

Tomb of Akhethotep. In the second and third sections down, women weavers are rewarded with necklaces for their work, 2400-2300BC (see Junkeriza V: Die Mastaba des Snb (Seneb) und die umliegenden  figs. 8-12) 

Women engaged in such activities would have had a certain amount of financial independence and thus have been more able to build their own tombs. Even in domestic production. Around 1900, a male head of a household, Heqanakht, was able to rent fields with income from cloth woven in his household and presumably also supply the household with cloth.[3] Around 1500BC, one woman accumulated enough surplus to buy goods such as slaves.[4]

But, we don’t usually think of textiles as being central to historic development. Could this be because, before c.1300BC, it was women of ancient Egypt who tended to do most of the spinning and weaving? Around this date the vertical loom, a more complex affair than the horizontal loom, was introduced. Years of practice manipulating warp and weft in using the horizontal loom gave way to more emphasis on controlling a machine. Arguably, the new did not make fancy weaving more possible, but rather made it a little easier. Women did use these new looms, but men were now introduced into the weaving process.

In many societies textile production has been the female preserve, particularly spinning, less so weaving. The world over, deities associated with spinning and weaving have been female. And, traditionally, women's work is not so valued as that of men; though rewards such as those given to female weavers discussed above, show it was not always so.

The discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb shows us Howard Carter disappointed that a certain casket contained not rolls of papyri but linen; that opening the king's sarcophagus was at first disappointing because the body was shrouded in linen.[6] Ancient Egyptian tomb robbers, however, frequently took the expensive linen from tombs. And in the tomb of Tutankhamun, statues, as well as the mummy were made sacred with mummy wrappings.

[1] Yes, time is a continuum, but we often have to use a name to refer to a period so that other people know what we mean.

[2] https://lithub.com/what-if-we-called-it-the-flax-age-instead-of-the-iron-age/?fbclid=IwAR1_Ey5fEROYzvHRtdPV-K5sCJQrKOoC-2eDg1l5ND_zri9Bi89R6BYPxoA

[3] Küllmer, H. (2007), ‘Marktfrauen, Priesterinnen und, Edle des Königs’ Untersuchung über die Position von Frauen in der sozialen Hierarchie des Alten Ägypten bis zum Ende der 1. Zwischenzeit’, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Hamburg.

[4] Wente, E.F. (1990), Letters from Ancient Egypt. Atlanta: Scholars Press. pp. 58–9. 

[5] Eyre, C.J. (1998), 'The market women of pharaonic Egypt', in Grimal, N. and Menu, P. (eds), Le commerce en Égypte ancieneCairo: Imprimerie de l'Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, pp. 173–92.8, 178.

[6] St Clair, K. (2019), The Golden Thread. How fabric changed history. London: John Murray. pp. 37–39.


Friday, 25 June 2021

Not spinning but splicing

As a person with little knowledge of textiles, but learning about them, I had assumed that the pictures such as that shown above, from a Middle Kingdom tomb at Beni Hasan (c.1900BC), showed the person on the right spinning linen from flax fibres. There are quite a few scenes of spinning using spindles in the pharaonic period. In more modern times, in spinning flax, the fibre is separated from the plant and then the strands of fibre spun together to form a "single". In order to strengthen the thread, two singles are then plied together. What is happening here, as in most other pharaonic spinning scenes is the plying of two already created singles. The person on the right holds two threads from two bowls, plying them together to make a stronger thread.

Spinning single threads does not seem to have happened at this date. So how did the ancients make long thin strands prior to plying? It now seems that for most of pharaonic Egypt linen thread was not spun in singles, but fibres joined to make a long thread by splicing.

You can see a demonstration of splicing done by Sally Pointer on nettle here (21 minutes in) , though flax would be spliced in the same way. 

From the same tomb scene, to the left of the plying woman, there appears to be a kneeling woman, whom I assume is splicing.

You can read more about the scenes here.

The Petrie Museum has some linen cloth from Lahun, some of which is spliced.

Now I have wondered if splicing enabled the Egyptians to get finer thread than by spinning singles. 

There is another aspect to this, with splicing the fibre doesn't have to be processed quite so much as it does with spinning singles. The bits of plant which are not fibre can be beaten out after weaving. Was this a job carried out by men? Perhaps the male 'washermen' whom we know from text, by the river were also fulling linen.

Just thoughts. Comments welcome.

The first picture is from a facsimile by Norman de Garis Davis in 1931. The second is a copy of the same, but enhanced to make it clearer (from Rooijakkers 2005).

Rooijakkers, T. 2005., "Unravelling Beni Hassan: Textile Production in the Beni Hasan Tomb Paintings" 
Archaeological Textiles Newsletter 41 (Autumn 2005), 2-32.