Iranian Tunics for Plataea
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Iranian Tunics for Plataea

A horseman on an Achaemenid Period silver rhyton from Erebuni, Armenia. Note the bands around the upper arms and wrists of the tunic, along the shoulders, and from throat to hem. To learn more about this hoard see Mikhail Yu. Treister, “A Hoard of Silver Rhyta of the Achaemenid Circle from Erebuni,” Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia Vol. 21 (2015) pp. 23-119 (thanks Christopher Tuplin for the citation). Photo by Jona Lendering https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Erebuni_achaemenid_rhyton_2_mus.jpg

If you want to go to the reenactment event at Plataia (currently scheduled for 26-31 July 2022), the most important things are shoes, clothing, and something to sleep on and eat from. And the most important site for those things is the sale mine at Chehrābād, Zanjan province, Iran. This mine was worked from 700-400 BCE, then from 300 to 600 CE, then from the 17th century to the 20th century. North-West Iran suffers from earthquakes, and bad earthquakes buried some of the miners and their possessions. As of 2016, six salt mummies had been found from the Achaemenid and Sasanid periods. Just like the salt mines at Halstatt, Austria, the salt at Chehrabad preserves things which rot in air and wet. Since the 2010s, the objects from this site have been examined by a joint European-Iranian team with resources to do things like scan the mummies with a CT machine. So far, 600 pieces of textiles have been catalogued. The following post is based on a lecture in German by Dr. Karina Grömer of the Naturhistorisches Museum, Wien, at the University of Innsbruck on 18 January 2016. I delayed posting it partially because I was too sick and busy to make the illustrations, and partially because I was ashamed that I made a mistake in my article on the trousers from Chehrabad. I will continue to edit this post as I have time to make, scan, and clean up illustrations.

Saltman 4’s tunic is similar to tunic (1) from Akhmin, Egypt in Christian Roman times

The best preserved mummy is number 4, a man of 15 to 20 years old who died in the 5th century BCE. His body and equipment are almost as well preserved as Ötzi and his equipment in Austria. He wears a sleeved tunic of wool woven in one piece with a slit for the neck. It is decorated with red woolen borders along the side seams, hem, and sleeve ends. The side seams pass through the front of the tunic, the red border, and the back of the tunic. The hemp shirt from Pazyryk barrow 2 has its seams decorated the same way. But the shirt from Pazyruk belongs to the northern tradition of cut and sewed clothing, while this tunic belongs to the southern tradition of clothes woven to shape. To make sure you understand what I mean, lets step back and look at the broader context.

Some of the beautiful textiles found with saltman 1 in 1993. Note the patterns woven into the red and yellow cloth. National Museum of Iran, Teheran. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

Some clothing is woven or knit in its final shape, and other clothing is cut from a long piece of cloth and sewed back together. The cut clothes can be further divided into types made mainly from rectangles, rhombuses and triangles like 19th century Japanese clothing, and types made from more complicated shaped like 19th century European clothes. Clothes which are woven to shape can just be wrapped and pinned in place (like a towel or scarf) or they can be sewed edge to edge. In the Iron Age, cut clothes were typical of ‘Celtic’ and ‘Germanic’ Europe and the eastern parts of the Eurasian steppes, while clothes in the Mediterranean and Southwest Asia were traditionally woven to shape. Cultures which cut their clothes tended to use both twill and plain weaves, while peoples which wrapped their clothes relied on plain weaves. Northern barbarians and people in the Sasanid empire popularized cut clothes and twill weaves in the Christian Roman world. In ancient West Eurasia, clothes which were woven to shape were often rotated 90 degrees between hanging on the loom and hanging on the body. Veronika Gervers calls clothes which were made this way ‘horizontal’.

So when Cato the Elder said that tunics for slaves should be 3 1/2 feet long (de agri cultura 59), a common way of making those tunics would have been to set up a warp-weighted loom 7 feet wide, weave a rectangle of fabric about 3 feet long with a slit for the head, take it off the loom, turn it 90 degrees, and sew it up the sides. Another common way would have been to set up a loom 3 1/2 feet wide, weave two rectangles of fabric about 3 feet long, take them off the loom, rotate them 90 degrees, and either pin them at the shoulders or sew them at the shoulders. The authors of the gospel according to John (John 19:23-24) were thinking of the first kind of tunic when they said that the guards at the crucifixion diced for Christ’s tunic because it was woven in a single piece and could not be divided into four shares without tearing it.

This courtier from Persepolis shows typical features of high-status male clothes in Achaemenid art. The clothes are ‘smooth’ not billowed and pleated like in Athenian or Arsacid art, and the sleeves often wrinkle above the elbow and above the wrist. How did they get that tight fit at the wrist? The salt miners’ clothes were much less fine but still came from the same tradition. Photo by Sean Manning, May 2016.

So Saltman 4’s tunic was made like the early tunics from Christian Roman Egypt. It was woven as a single piece of fabric shaped roughly like a plus sign, then taken off the loom and sewn up the sides and under the arm, like tunic (1) from Akhmin, Egypt above.

Some of the tunics of the Sasanid period at Chehrābād seem to be made in the geometric tradition of rectangles and triangles cut from a long piece of fabric and sewed together. But this tradition, which we see in China, the Eurasian steppes, and ‘Germanic’ Europe, has not yet been documented in the Achaemenid empire. (There is one cut and sewed tunic from Tutankhamun’s tomb, but that is also cut simply). So when you interpret the clothes in Achaemenid reliefs and Athenian vase paintings, you should start from the assumption that it was woven to shape, and only try cut and sewed clothes if you cannot do that and match the art. The technology of the Achaemenid empire and Archaic Greece is very different from our technology, and if we want to solve problems the same way they did, we have to understand their approach.

Keep my loom clicking back and forth with a modest donation on Patreon or paypal.me or even liberapay

Further Reading:

  • Veronika Gervers, “Medieval Garments in the Mediterranean World.” In N.B. Harte and K.G. Ponting (eds.), Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Europe. Pasold Studies in Textile History 2 (London: Heinemann, 1983) pp. 298-315
  • G. M. Crowfoot and N. de G. Davies, “The Tunic of Tut’ankhamūn.” The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 27 (December 1941), pp. 113-130 http://www.jstor.org/stable/3854566
  • Giannis Kadoglou “Reconstructing the Greek chiton,” Hoplologia I (2019) (link)
  • “Textiles,” Reenacting the Archaic and the Long Sixth Century (link)
  • Textile Cultures of Archaic Italy and Greece (2018)
  • S.I. Rudenko, Frozen Tombs of Siberia, ch. 5 pp. 83-85 https://archive.org/details/frozentombsofsib00rude/page/82/mode/2up
  • 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 80-85 ISBN 5-89590-051-8 {colour photographs and diagrams of all the clothing and shoes from the Altai including trousers from Alakha-1 and the Verkh-Kal’djin-2}
  • Graham Sumner, Roman Military Dress {good overview of men’s clothing in the earlier Roman empire}

Contact Dr. Karina Grömer through https://www.nhm-wien.ac.at/en/karina_groemer or https://nhm-wien.academia.edu/KarinaGroemer The Wikipedia page for Salzmumien von Zandschan links to many free web resources including a documentary.

Edit 2022-02-10: rephrased my description of an alternative way of making Cato the Elder’s tunics

(written 2021, scheduled 4 February 2022)

7 thoughts on “Iranian Tunics for Plataea

  1. Joona Vuoristo says:

    I was hoping for a new entry in this series just last saturday and the next day I see this has been posted!

    Once again important points about different traditions of making clothing. I had not gathered before that the tunic of Saltman 4 was also made in the same way as the trousers (and roman “plus-sign” tunics). Speaking of, I looked up Dr. Grömer and colleagues’ understanding of the trousers since your post on Iranian trousers and made an (amateurish) interpretation of them last year. Maybe I will make a post about it on Roman Army Talk some time.

    This post gave intriguing ideas to think about. Thanks, always excited to read about historical clothing!

    1. Sean says:

      You are welcome! I think if people play around, we will get ideas about how well this approach works for replicating the clothing in sculptures from Persepolis. The immortals in Helsinki have an interpretation of the ‘Median overcoat’ based on the Sasanid coats from Egypt (Erik Jellyman, Gaunaka Pattern), but it does not come with an explanation of why they make it that way and what approaches they tried and rejected.

  2. Jaojao says:

    Very interesting article! It is always interesting to learn more about ancient clothing! I have a question which is not directly relevant to this post, but is adjacent to it and you seem to be the right person to ask, since you are very well-read on Achaemenid armies: how accurate is Herodotus’ “Catalogue of Nations” for the equipment of the Persian military? Do we know if Indian soldiers really wore cotton, and Thracians fur? When Herodotus describes Aethiopians as wearing animal skins and carrying gazelle horn-spears and stone-tipped arrows, is he just being exoticist? Thanks beforehand

    1. Sean says:

      I wish I had not lost contact with the woman in Italy who was writing her dissertation on the ‘catalogue of nations’ in Herodotus book 7 (or been able to talk to more archaeologists). I suspect that he is working from a description of soldiers from all the nations of the empire and possibly fleshing it out (he has more details about people from western Anatolia than eastern Iran). Probably the biggest issue is that he describes just one ‘typical’ warrior for each nation, and that its suspicious that Assyrians and other westerners use spears, Bactrians and other easterners use bows, and the Medes and Persians use both. Mesopotamians do seem to have been mostly bowmen until Sargon II started to copy the Urarteans and Neo-Hittites, but Herodotus may be ‘forcing his theory on the evidence’ like when he decides that the Nile must bend west because the Danube turns west and the Nile is the biggest river in Africa like the Danube is the biggest river in Europe. So I suspect he had good information, but maybe simplified it or reinterpreted it to fit some of his big ideas.

      I think there is now evidence for cotton textiles in the Achaemenid empire, I don’t know the archaeology of early India so well.

  3. Jaojao says:

    Thank you so much! Too bad you lost contact. It is interesting, as you point out, that he seems to portray the peoples as more archers the further East they live, as well as ascribing one style of equipment to each nation. Also interesting that there is evidence for cotton, otherwise his descriptions of soldiers from distant regions like India and ‘Aethiopia’ seem more exotic, but as you say it is difficult to say unless one knows the archaeology of the region. Thank you!

    1. Sean says:

      I almost forgot: Xenophon realized why they wear long cloaks, long tunics, and fox-skin caps in Thrace when he was fighting for the Thracian prince Seuthes and the temperature became so cold that water in skins froze (Xenophon, Anabasis, 7.4.3-4). There is some very cool archaeology in Bulgaria like the Alexandrovo tomb.

      1. Jaojao says:

        Thank you for the links!

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