Saka Stockings and Plataea

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Categories: Ancient
Some of the felt stockings/felt boots from graves of the Pazyryk Culture in the Altai Mountains, in Polos’mak, N.V., Barkova, L.L., Костюм и текстиль пазырыкцев Алтая (IV-III вв. до н.З.) / Kostium i tekstil’ pazyryktsev Altaya (IV-III vv. do n. e.) / Pazyryk Altai Costume and Textiles (4th-3rd centuries BCE). Infolio: Novosibirsk 2005 (in Russian) pages 94-95 ISBN 5-89590-051-8 (copies occasionally appear on Bookfinder but expect to pay several hundred for a copy, this copy comes the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek by interlibrary loan)

Dario Wielec of Dariusz caballeros and Stefanos Skarmintzos want me to talk about the felt stockings with soles which have been found in some graves in eastern Central Asia. They were often worn in combination with a pair of short trousers that covered the thighs and crotch. You can find a full set of colour photographs and drawings on pp. 92-97 of the Russian book I cited in my original post. They are fascinating and beautiful objects (just think about having brightly coloured feltwork more than 2000 years old!) but I am not sure that they help us understand Chehrabad Saltman 4’s trousers for four reasons:

  • they are not what Saltman 4 is wearing (they are felt, his are woven cloth; they are two separate legs, he wears joined trousers; they have seams up the back of the legs, his have seams at the side of the legs; the felt boots are close-fitting, his trousers are “baggy”)
  • in artwork like the Darius Mosaic, Red Figure vase paintings, and the sculptures of the Aphaia temple on Aigina, the leggings of trousered warriors seem to go all the way up to crotch level without sagging. The felt stockings tend to be shorter (although I don’t have a full set of measurements) and in the middle ages when stockings (‘hose’) extended that high, they needed to be hung from a belt to stop them from falling down.
  • trousers in early Achaemenid art often have a zigzag, diamond, or spotted pattern. That strikes me as something which would be easy to weave in tapestry weave like a kilim. Clothing in this period often had gold leaf, felt, or leather appliques, and its possible that the zig-zag was applied to felt. But we have a fragment of a textile with a rhombus pattern from the Achaemenid period at Chehrabad.
  • I am not sure which genders wore these felt stockings, I seem to remember that the famous pair with shiny beads on the soles were from a female burial but I only have access to what has been translated into German or English and what I can obtain from my library or interlibrary loan.

Since none of the Chehrābād salt mummies are wearing these felt boots, and none of the artwork from the Achaemenid Empire or the Aegean clearly shows them, they don’t belong in a post on Saltman 4’s clothing. But if you scroll down, Herr Doktor Manning will give you his whole lecture on the trouser outfit across Eurasia.

A Red Figure plate painted with an archer running right and looking left with a bow in one hand and an arrow in the other
When Greek artists show the bottoms of leggings, they usually end straight at the ankles, sometimes ‘breaking’ over the top of the foot and sometimes fitting tightly. A Red Figure plate signed Epiktetos, in a style attributed to around 520-510 BCE. British Museum, Registration Number 1837,0609.59 I would cite the British Museum’s Terms of use but I can’t see them without enabling a bunch of Javascripts so just search

A white woolen textile with a black pattern of trapezoids inside trapezoids woven into it
Achaemenid textile with ?woven? or ?embroidered? pattern, from Karina Grömer, Archaeological Textiles Review 60 (2018) p. 113 fig. 3 and Aali and Stöllner (eds). (2015) fig. 55 Photo: DBM/RUB/MFZ, K. Grömer

Lets have a look at where these sites are located. The distance from Chehrābād, Iran, to Pazyryk, Russia is about the same as the distance from Glasgow to Istanbul. That is a long way to go on horseback or camelback … one of my friends came about that far by truck but it was not a small thing and most of his family stopped in Turkey. The fuzzy black lines are roughly the boundary between lands which know that a Persian is their god-given king (lower left), and lands which have unaccountably not realized that yet (top and right).

A topographical map of central Asia with modern borders and ancient sites
The Ukok Plateau with the Pazyruk Culture tombs (upper right in the Altai Mountains) is about 3,350 km from Chehrābād, Iran (lower left). Only about half that distance was the King’s Land. The distance from Chehrabad to Yanghai, Xinjiang (center right near the Tarim River) is about as far. Map from distances from Wikipedia + an online calculator.

Old research tended to see the Medes and Persians as migrants from the Eurasian steppe who brought a common Eurasian material culture and Zoroastrian religion with them. They spoke an Indo-Germanische Sprache and called themselves Aryans, right? To people thinking this way, it would seem obvious to use finds from thousands of miles east of the King’s land to fill in the gaps in the archaeological record, as long as the finds seem “Scythian,” “Saka,” or “Iranian.”

But we now know that Media was an Assyrian province for more than a century, and that Persis (Fars) was the highland half of Elam (Khuzestan + Fars). Median and Persian culture were not purely ‘Indo-Aryan’ but products of complex cultural interactions and interchanges in the Zagros mountains. And while you might think that the “Median costume” or “riding outfit” was an unstained inheritance from the distant past, when we look closely we can see many differences between clothing in the Zagros Mountains and clothing in the Altai Mountains or the Tarim Basin:

Just like folk costume in recent times, the basic idea of a tunic and trousers was interpreted differently in different regions. All these different local traditions had some things in common, but the details differed. The sculptors of the Apadana at Persepolis showed some of the King’s eastern subjects wearing clothing which looks more like the finds from eastern central Asia, such as high boots, kaftans, and coats which are short in front and long in the back (if you can find that Russian book it has lots of beautiful colour photos, artists’ reconstructions and diagrams of those finds).

Some tribute bearers wearing tunics with long ‘coat-tails’ from the west staircase of the Palace of Darius (probably carved under Artaxerxes III in the fourth century BCE). Detail of a drawing from Curtis and Talis (eds.), Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia p. 79

I would be very grateful if someone who reads Russian and has access to the right publications would write up a study of far eastern material culture for re-enactors (maybe in partnership with Eran ud Turan?) Those books are very hard to obtain and very few of us can read them. And if I meet someone in a beautiful Pazyryk kit I will ooh and aah and ask lots of questions. But if you want to get as close to things worn at Plataea in 479 BCE as you can, if you want to represent someone from the central or western parts of the Achaemenid empire, I would recommend gathering as many sources from the empire as you can, then looking at Ötzi’s fire kit or the textiles from Yanghai and Pazyryk to fill in the gaps and help interpret things which are unclear.

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Edit 2019-12-07: In another place, Dario Wielec brings up Dagmar Dinkler and Carol James’ theory that some of the trousers in Aegean art are sprang (a type of springy weave similar to knit or naalbinding and often used for hammocks and sashes). I agree that that is a possibility which people working on the trousers in art from the Aegean or Neo-Assyrian reliefs should explore, but I don’t know of any archaeological finds and it is not what any of the salt men were wearing below the waist. To learn more about their ideas, check out:

  • Drinkler, Dagmar / James, Carol (forthcoming) “Tight-fitting Clothes in Antiquity and the Renaissance.” Scheduled for publication in Proceedings of the Early Textile Society Conference, October 2014 London, UK {an English summary of Drinkler 2010}
  • Drinkler, Dagmar (2010) „Enganliegende Bekleidung in Antike und Renaissance.“ Zeitschrift für Kunsttechnologie und Konservierung 1 pp. 5-35

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