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Thursday 10 February 2022

Red cloth to protect the living and dead

Colouring linen, and later wool, red in ancient Egypt seems first to have been done using red ochre. From around 1500 B.C. madder seemed to become increasingly common as a red colourant.  

Colouring the dead with the mineral red ochre (iron oxide) was not confined to Egypt but seems a common practice cross-culturally. Use of ochre goes back over 300,000 years and the substance was used by Neanderthals as well as our closer ancestors. In Wales we have the 'Red Lady of Paviland', a male burial found covered with ochre, dating to around 3300 BC.C.. Of course, it could be that past societies also made use of red ochre in everyday life but there is less evidence for it. Today, ochre is still used by some groups of people to adorn the hair and body.

In Ancient Egypt

Ochre occurs naturally in Egypt in the Oases of the Western Desert, and in areas around Aswan. 

In burials of the predynastic period, palettes for grinding pigments are found on both burial and settlement sites. Perversely, perhaps, green malachite seems to have been the most common pigment used for burials, while ochre was mainly found on palettes from settlements (Baduel 2008).  Fifth millennium graves from Badari contained chunks of red ochre and fourth millennium period graves from Bhutto in lower Egypt were part covered in ochre. A burial at Hierakonpolis dating to 3650-3500 B.C. contained, among other items, junks of black galena used as eye pigment but also chunks of ochre. Another elite burial contained cloth pigmented with iron oxide (Jones 2002).

In the Old Kingdom (2700-2200 B.C.) the use of ochre continued, with red cloth being used for mummy wrappings. Analysis shows red ochre was also used in the 12th Dynasty (c.1800 B.C.) to dye linen (Wouters 1990). It was used, for example on the  red mummy wrappings of Khenmit and Ita at Dashur. Iron oxide was also used to dye votive animal mummy wrappings of 3rd century B.C. to the 3rd century AD (Tamburini et al. 2001). [Although I have used the term 'dye', the term 'pigment' may be more apt for mineral colourants. Mineral colourants do not dissolve in water or form molecular bonds with the fabric].

As well as being used to colour linen, the ancient Egyptians also used red ochre to colour paints (for tomb, temple and other painting), as a medicine to help with eye ailments, to paint images on pottery, and to write on papyrus. Coffins and shrouds were frequently coloured red throughout the Dynastic Period.

The use of red continued beyond the New Kingdom, though from around 1500 B.C. madder and tannin frequently replaced iron oxides to colour textiles red, though iron oxide has certainly been found in votive animal mummies of the Roman Period. Use of madder to colour red, may have been introduced from the Levant.

In the New Kingdom, coloured linen seems to have been used by the elite, but here cloth was not only coloured red, but also blue and yellow. For example, Howard Carter found four pieces of coloured cloth from the tomb of Tuthmosis IV (left). Although I say he found them, the actual discovery was made by a dog! Rosalind Janssen (1992, 218) quotes Howard Carter: "I must, however, admit that the original discoverer of the first piece of tapestry-weaving was an inquisitive pariah-puppy, of inborn excavating tendencies. Amid a mass of rubbish were tattered fragments of mummy linen; amongst these the puppy suddenly became active, and after a bout of foraging seized a piece of linen and ran away in triumph with his prize. I pursued him and rescued what I discovered to be a piece of tapestry-woven fabric, which immediately suggested a further search".

There were also several dyed linen pieces from the tomb of Tutankhamun, probably dyed with woad and madder. However, the use of ochre continued. A few pieces from Amarna were coloured with iron oxide rather than madder (Kemp and Vogelsang-Eastwood, 2001, 153-154).

Madder used with alum and/or tannin may have been preferred because it was more colour fast when washed repeatedly. However, colouring cloth with minerals can have some advantages. Indeed, minerals are still sometimes used today to colour textiles, for example the famous mud cloth of Africa or the Bengala mud dyes. They can have the advantage of other dyes in being usable cold and, as mordants are not used, they have a low environmental impact. Iron oxides are colour fast and while they can be washed out of fabrics, it is not easily done. It is possible too that some sort of glue, such as milk, was used to help the mineral stick to the cloth. However, mineral pigments can cause textiles to decay. In the case of linen, however, such decay appears slow, with wool it is quicker. The later use of wool may have accelerated the preference for madder of ochre as a textile colourant.

EC116, from the Egypt Centre, is just one of thousands of (madder) red-dyed shrouds of the Roman Period in museums across the world. It is part of the long Egyptian tradition of dyeing funerary cloth red.

Red was the colour of the sun-god Re and rebirth, it was associated with dangerous beings but was also associated with life and with protection. Red cloth was given as a daily offering to the gods. Indeed, as late the fourth to seventh centuries AD, Egyptian linen textiles sometimes included seemingly stray red threads, almost hidden, which Rooijakkers (2017) has seen as protective.


Baduel, N. 2008. Tegumentary paint and cosmetic palettes in Predynastic Egypt: Impact of those artefacts on the birth of the monarchy. In Egypt at its origins 2: Proceedings of the international conference "Origin of the State, Predynastic and Early Dynastic Egypt," Toulouse (France), 5th - 8th September 2005, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 172. Eds. Béatrix Midant-Reynes, and Yann Tristant, pp. 1057-1090.

Janssen, 1992. The Ceremonial Garments of Tuthmosis III Reconsidered. Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur, 19 (1992), pp. 217-224.

Jones, J. 2002. Funeral Textiles of the Rich and Poor. Nekhen News, 14, p13.

Kemp, B.J. and Vogelsang-Eastwood, G.  2001. The Ancient Textile Industry at Amarna. The Egypt Exploration Society.

Rooijakkers, T. 2017. Tracing the Red Thread. In Excavating, Analysing, Reconstructing: Textiles of the First 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. Eds. de Moor, A, Fluck, C. and Linscheid, P. Lanoon, pp. 242-251.

Tamburini, D, Dyer, J., Vandenbeusch, M. et al.  2021. A multi-scalar investigation of the colouring materials used in textile wrappings of Egyptian votive animal mummies, Heritage Science https://doi.org/10.1186/s40494-021-00585-2.

Wouters, J. 1990. The Identification of Haematite as a Red Colorant on an Egyptian Textile from the Second Millenium B.C. Studies in Conservation, 35, pp. 89-92.

Thursday 3 February 2022

Warping the loom in ancient Egypt

The picture on the left is the theme for today's blog.

Last week, I blogged about the ground looms used by ancient Egyptians. This week consideration is given to how they warped the loom, that is, how were the longitudinal fibres put on the loom. Modern weavers using simple looms tend to use two different methods: direct warping where the thread is would backwards and forwards around two parallel beams, or often an indirect method is used there the weaver winds the length of thread between poles/pegs and then transfers it to the loom. Because of the number of warp threads per centimeter is estimated as 30 on average, it has been suggested it would have taken about 3 days to warp the loom.

A video of modern direct warping of a simple loom can be seen here:


You can see modern weavers using warping pegs here:



Pegs can be hammered into the ground, put on a frame or into a wall.

It seems likely that in ancient Egypt different methods were used at different times and places. However, there is evidence of indirect warping.

To the left is a model of a weavers workshop from the tomb of Mekhetre. I've showed this image before in other posts. It dates to around 1980BC. On the left in the picture you can see pegs stuck into the wall. It has been suggested that these are warping pegs. The first picture on this page shows a close up of the warping section.

There are also one or two tomb depictions which have been seen as warping tough they are difficult to interpret.

For example, below is a scene from the tomb of Nefer-Renpet from around 1200 BC. It has been suggested that the vertical forked sticks are warping pegs.

Peet and Woolly in their report on the Workmen's Village at Amarna claimed that the several pegs found in houses were warping pegs (COA I, 55).

As you can see by the videos above, warping pegs are not confined to ancient societies. Below is a depiction of the laying out of a warp in a wall in modern Egypt (with apologies as I don't know where I got the picture!).

Further Reading

Kemp, B.J. and Vogelsang-Eastwood, G. 2001. The Ancient Textile Industry at Amarna, The Egypt Exploration Society, pp.314-322.

Peet, T. E. and Woolly, C.L. 1923. The City of Akhenaten, Part I, Excavations of 1921 and 1922 at el-Amarneh. The Egypt Exploration Society.

Thursday 27 January 2022

Ancient Egyptian Ground Looms

I've been practising some very basic weaving, really basic, I'm a beginner, so been thinking what can be possible on a very simple loom. I know back-strap looms can be used to make some really outstanding pieces, but the ancient Egyptians, for much of their history, used a ground loom on which they wove linen. 

Model of a weaving workshop from the tomb of Mekhetre (c.2000 BC). On the left wall it looks like women are using warp pegs stuck in the wall and centre you can see the ground loom.

Right: A ground loom of the early 20th century.

Four pegs are hammered into the ground, sticks are attached at one short ends and the warp threads strung between the sticks. Alternate warp threads are lifted up and down by means of another stick to which thread heddles are attached and the weft passed between them.

You can get an idea of how such a loom works in this video

Such looms appear to have been used from very early on in ancient Egypt. Here is a depiction of an early example on a piece of pottery from the Petrie Museum. It dates to c. 3600 BC.

The loom is the rectangular shape and depicted at the bottom of the vessel. The weaver would have sat at the foot end of the loom (the right in the picture) and the depiction shows that a start had been made to weaving (right in the picture, the end nearest where the weaver would have sat). If you look closely you may see that the bottom right of the loom in the depiction (this would have been bottom left for the weaver) has some strange 'extensions'.

These would have been caused by the weft threads being quite short, so that they would only pass under and over the warp threads for a few widths of the fabric. This would result in a fringed left edge. Such fringes appear to have been left and used as a decorative feature on the final cloth.

Here is the famous Tarkhan dress from the Petrie Museum, c3200BC. On the wearer's left you can see the weft thread showing underneath the arm.
In later periods, the weft was longer but the use of the decorative fringe was still desirable. Often, a separately made fringe piece was deliberately added to the garment to emulate the short weft effect.

From around 1500 BC, vertical looms came into use. The ground loom was still used,though with less frequency. 

It amazes me that the ancients were able to weave such fine weaves on such looms. Some royal linens achieved a count of 60 threads per centimeter though more common counts were 20-50 threads a cm (Kemp and Vogelsang-Eastwood, 2001, pp100-103).

Kemp, B. J. and Vogelsang-Eastwood, G. 2001. The Ancient Textile Industry at Amarna. The Egypt Exploration Society.

Thursday 20 January 2022

Spitting on linen

In the last post I looked at making singles of linen for plying. Plying involves twisting two or more single strands of fibre together to make the yarn stronger. And in a post, long ago, I explored twizzling that whirl to ply and looked at different whirl types. But is there anything more we can say about plying?

Well, in ancient Egypt, and other countries in the ancient near east, there were these things (left). They are usually made of pottery, are bowl-shaped and have an internal 'handle' or loop.

The first two pictured here are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (above is 15.3.99). The one above is actually made of limestone and was found in a grave (sometimes items found in graves which were normally made from pottery are made of stone- permanence for eternity).

These are commonly called spinning bowls. Many date to the Middle Kingdom (2400-1782 BC), but there are similar items from Tell el-Farkha which date to c. 3000 BC, and others like the one on the left are more modern. Those from Tell el-Farkha have grooves on the undersides of the loops. 

Such items are commonly said to have held balls of linen yarn with the thread travelling under an internal loop and then out. They may have been used for keeping spliced singles of linen taught for plying.

Barber, referencing Tsoboi, also shows this illustration used in the manufacture of nettle fibre in Japan in the early 1980s.

As you can see it was described as a wetting bowl. It was important to keep the nettle damp when it was spun. So, the bowl contained a ball of nettle fibre and water. Again, it is possible that the ancient Egyptians used their similar bowls to keep fibre wet.

There is more than one reason why one might want to ply wet. Firstly, it helps make sure the spliced strands stick together. Spinning flax wet also makes it easier to get a smooth finish to the thread, rather than a hairy one. Finally, linen is stronger wet than dry, allowing it to hold together more, especially if one wants to put a string twist in the ply. Ancient Egyptian yarns seem often to have had a high level of twist. A high level of twist is also important in natural pleating, a method probably used by the ancients. You can see a video explaining natural pleating here.

Indeed, modern spinners will wet their hands with water or spittle to keep the fibre moist. Wheels used for spinning flax often had a container of water on them, or the water might be kept by the wheel. Furthermore, it is said that saliva may be better than water as it contains an enzyme, amylase, which dissolves the starch in flax and then when the starch dries it forms a stronger bond. In this video you can see women in the Pyrenees eating sloe berries prior to spinning hemp to help the production of saliva.

There is also a Grimms fairy tale about three sisters who were spinsters. One had a foot made large from treadling, another had a large thumb from twisting the fibre and the third had a huge lip which hung down to her chest from constantly wetting the flax thread. You can see them here. 

But, returning to the spinning bowl, as well as water, the bowls may have held size to further strengthen the thread and to keep the thread smooth. These two factors would have been particularly important if the thread was used for warping a loom. The warp threads are those which are held under tension and can also be subject to the constant beating used in placing weft threads. The latter can abrade them. Size can be made of starch boiled to make a paste, it can be made of gelatine, and also from boiled flax seeds.

Further Reading

Barber E. G. 1991. Prehistoric textiles: The development of cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with special reference to the Aegean, Princeton and Oxford, (p. 73. Refers to Japanese bowls).

Dothan, T. 1963. Spinning Bowls, Israel Exploration Journal , Vol. 13, No. 2 (1963), pp. 97-112.

Richards, A. 2020. Weaving Textiles that Shape Themselves, Ramsbury, 44-46.

Spinazzi-Lucchesi, C. 2020 ‘A Reassessment of Spinning Bowls. New evidence from Egypt and the Levant’. Iamoni, M (ed.) From the Prehistory of Upper Mesopotamia to the Bronze and Iron Age Societies of the Levant. Volume 1  271-279.


Thursday 13 January 2022

Splicing and plying again

 Way back in summer 2021, I did a post on splicing, you can read it here.

Then later the same year I did a series of talks exploring textiles in ancient Egypt. One of the sessions was on splicing and plying. It's usually believed that the Egyptians didn't join two pieces of yarn to make a single thread by spinning them together. Rather, they overlapped two pieces and twisted them together. Then, when strong warp threads were required for weaving two spiced threads may be plied together. There is more in my previous blog post and in the papers below. This happened throughout the dynastic period.

So here we have some spliced fibres from Lahun which are now in the Petrie Museum. They date from 1759-1850 BC.

Kate de Buriatte, who attended the sessions tried out an experiment, which I thought I'd share with you. Looking at depictions of linen production in ancient Egypt, and with actual hands-on experiments, Kate, who is an experienced spinner, suggested that what is going on in the scene below, for example, from the tomb of Dagi, is not quite what Egyptologists assumed. But rather that the woman second from the left is rolling two pieces of flax on a stone. She is splicing, but the little hump shown isn't a heap of fibre, but is a stone on which she is rolling strips of fibre.

The woman on the right with raised leg is plying two pieces together.

And below is a depiction of a weaving workshop from the tomb of Mekhetre. Noted the seated women on the left.

Kate's suggestion seems very plausible to me.

We also discussed how splicing could be made easier if the linen was in its green state, and/or if a spinning bowl was used to keep it wet, and/or if the yarn was passed through a size.

Splicing fibre used in weaving would show areas of minimal twist in some areas and high twist in other, and this is indeed what we see.

The picture on the right is a piece of Egyptian textile which I have taken from Gleba and Harris.

References and useful information

Gleba, M. and Harris, S. 2018. ‘The first plant bast fibre technology: identifying splicing in archaeological textiles’, Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences (2019) 11:2329–2346.


Pointer, Sally. YouTube video on nettles and splicing  onwards for splicing (but the whole video is good) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Eq7fyLMu9I 13.37

Tuesday 11 January 2022

Happy New Year from the Egypt Centre

The Egypt Centre has several small faience vessels made of faience. Unfortunately, we don't have any complete examples of this type, but I can show you a neck part and body so you can see how a whole one would look.

This type of vessel was popular during the 26th Dynasty, during the reigns of Apries and Amasis (c.550BC).

So many things about this type of vessel suggest that it is to do with rebirth and revival, and there is specific evidence that it was associated with the revivification of the New Year. But guess what, as with many ancient items we can still only take a guess as to what it was specifically used for.

Hints of rebirth/revival

Some of these vessels are found in graves. While not everything found in graves if ancient Egypt is to do with rebirth and revival after death, a lot was. For example: grapes and wine suggesting revival are associated with tombs; scarab beetles associated with the daily renewal of the sun; images of the daily renewal of the sun; etc. are all associated with tombs.

Secondly, the overall shape of the body bit is a squashed circle, reminiscent of the sun coming up above the horizon. Notice that the ancients did not depict the sun here as a proper circle, but rather a squashed circle.

There are baboons each side of the neck of the vessel. The baboons could represent Thoth and the New Year myth of The Return of the Distant One. Briefly the myth tells of Sekhmet being sent out to kill mankind, of her being persuaded to come back to Egypt in peace by Thoth who could take the form of a baboon, and the ensuing drunken celebrations. At philae, dwarves and baboons are shown paired in celebrations for The Return of the Distant One. Baboons are also said the call and 'dance' in the morning as though welcoming the newly risen sun.

There are depictions of lotus flowers (water lilies) on the vessel. The sweet smell of the lotus was said to revive. The water lily also sinks down beneath the water and then rises up to greet the sun in the morning. It was said that in the beginning a water lily rose from the waters of chaos. When it opened up it gave birth to sun god Re who rose into the sky.

And a Happy New Year?

The big clue is that the sides of the vessel spell out in hieroglyphs wpt nfr rnpt (a good/beautiful/ new year.

Moreover, there are three lines symbolising water after the New Year message. For the ancient Egyptians the  Nile was linked to the turning of the year.

New Year was heavily associated with the annual flooding of the Nile. And the annual flooding of the Nile was also bound up with the first sighting of the star, Sodep after its disappearance for around 70 days. The Egyptians believed the Nile to be the efflux (humours of the body) of Osiris, and the earth was fertilised by the flood, as Isis was her husband Osiris. The Nile's annual life-bringing flood was therefore seen as the union of Isis and Osiris, when they conceived their sun, Horus.

According to a text from Edfu (Edfu IV.3, 1-8), the New Year celebrations seemed quite fun:

There are all kinds of bread in loaves as numerous as grains of sand. Oxen abound like locusts. The smell of roast fowl, gazelle, or, oryx and ibex reach the sky. Wine flows freely through the town like the Nile bursting forth from the Two Caverns. Myrrh scattered on the brazier with incense can be smelled a mile away. The city is bestrewed with faience, glittering with natron and garlanded with flowers and fresh herbs. Its youths are drunk, its citizens glad, and its young maidens are beautiful to behold, rejoicing is all around it and festivity is in all its quarters. There is no sleep to be had there until dawn.

So what did the ancient Egyptians do with them?

We don't really know, but the fact that these are small vessels might suggest that they were used for holding samples of the new Nile water. In their size and shape these faience vessels are similar to later pilgrim vessels which later contained water from holy sites. Of course, a similarity in shape doesn't necessarily mean a similarity in use.

The New Year for the ancient Egyptians wasn't of course 1st January. Rather the Nile flooded annually around the 19th of July. Celebrations, continued over a series of days. So I may be late in wishing you a Happy New Year, but let celebration continue as it did for the ancients!

Further Reading 

Blanquet, C-H, 1992, ‘Typologie de la bouteille de nouvel an’ in Cl. Obsomer, A-L. Oosthoek (ed) Amosiades Melanges offerts au professeur Claude Vanderslyen par ses anciens etudiant, Louvain-la-Neuve, 49-54. 

Yamani, S. 2002, New Year’s bottles from Tell Marqula (Dakhla Oasis). Bulletin De L’Instit Français D’Archeologie Orientale, 102, 425-436.

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.