Using radiocarbon dating, researchers reveal that a V-neck linen shirt with pleated sleeves recovered from an Egyptian cemetery is between 5,500 and 5,100 years old. That makes it the oldest piece of tailored, woven clothing in the world, according to new findings reported in Antiquity.
Excavations beginning in 1912 at Tarkhan – a late fourth- and early third-millennium BC Egyptian cemetery about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Cairo – uncovered a pile of linen in a mud-brick First Dynasty tomb. One of the items in that dirty bundle was eventually identified in 1977 as the exceptionally preserved long V-neck garment, which came to be called the Tarkhan Dress. By the 1980s, linen from the tomb had been analyzed and dated to the late third-millennium BC. But not only is that date range too broad, the method used was still in its infancy.
Now, a team led by Alice Stevenson from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology applied radiocarbon dating techniques to a 2.24-milligram sample of the Tarkhan Dress itself. After the researchers accounted for contamination from oils, resins, glues, and preservatives, the radiocarbon date obtained for the Tarkhan Dress calibrates to a true age of 3482 to 3102 BC.
The dress is the oldest example in existence of complex woven clothing: It was cut, fitted, and tailored, and not just draped or wrapped. It may have even been floor-length. The garment was procured at the cusp of the First Dynasty, and since it shows signs of creasing, that means it was actually worn and not just placed in the tomb. While it appears to be an elite article of clothing, the context of its use is still unknown for now.
This earlier date doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Textiles made of flax, Linum usitatissimum, are known from Egyptian Neolithic times (pictured to the right), and there’s evidence of weaving on horizontal looms from the early fourth millennium BC. Also, garments similar to the Tarkhan Dress were worn by the deceased in Second Dynasty Egyptian tombs at Helwan in Greater Cairo.
Some of the oldest items of clothing from outside of Egypt include a pair of pants from the late second-millennium BC in eastern Central Asia, Danish cord skirts from the early Bronze Age, a wrap-around kilt from early fourth-millennium BC Jordan, and textile dresses dating back 3,000 years in Peru.
Image in the text: Neolithic Egyptian textile. Petrie Museum, UCL