The Fascinating History Behind The World’s Oldest Woven Garment From Egypt That Is Over 5,000 Years Old

by Duke Magazine

Garments worn thousands of years ago have been able to survive to the present day. Those garments were merely wrapped around the body. But the “Tarkhan Dress,” named for the town in Egypt where it was found in 1913, is beautifully stitched. About five years ago, it was precisely dated using the latest radiocarbon dating technology. Researchers determined that the linen dress with fine detail dates to between 3482 and 3103 B.C., which then makes it the world’s oldest woven garment.

Textiles recovered from archaeological sites are generally no older than 2,000 years, Alice Stevenson, the curator of London’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, recently said. The Tarkhan Dress, however, dates back more than 5,000 years, and when it was new, it may have been longer, researchers said.

It was once part of a “large pile of dirty linen cloth” excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie in 1913 at the site he named Tarkhan after a nearby village 30 miles south of Cairo. In 1977, researchers from the Victoria and Albert Museum were preparing to clean the large pile of dirty linen cloth when they discovered the Tarkhan Dress, finely made. Though there were creases at the elbows and armpits showing that someone once wore the dress, the V-neck linen shirt with pleated sleeves and bodice was in excellent condition despite its age.

The researchers conserved the fabric, sewed it onto Crepeline silk to stabilize it, and displayed it. It has now been appraised as Egypt’s oldest garment and the oldest woven garment in the world, largely due to the age of the tomb in which it was discovered. However, because the tomb in which the garment had been found had been plundered, researchers couldn’t provide a precise age to the dress. 

In the 1980s when linen associated with the dress was analyzed using a new technology of accelerator mass spectrometry, it was believed to date to the late third millennium BC. But the date was too broad, according to researchers.

Finally, in 2015, a sample, weighing just 2.24mg from the dress itself was analyzed by the University of Oxford’s radiocarbon unit. The results showed that the Tarkhan Dress is from between 3482 and 3102 B.C. and might even pre-date Egypt’s 1st Dynasty (ca. 3111-2906 B.C.). 

“We’d always suspected it was old, and even if it wasn’t near the 1st Dynasty, even a 5th Dynasty dress [ca. 2500 B.C.] is still pretty old by archaeological standards for this type of object,” Stevenson said at the time, adding that the new dating has affirmed her appreciation of the garment. “…There’s nothing quite like it anywhere of that quality and of that date. It’s amazing to think it has survived some 5,000 years.”

Apparently, the beauty of age-long garment is a testament that backs the fascinating story of ancient African civilizations.

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