There is not a lot of archaeological evidence for hide products in the Aegean, and the finds from tombs in Thrace have not yet been analyzed by leather experts. We know much more about leather from central Europe (Halstatt), Iran (Chehrabad), and Egypt (Elephantine). Today we think of vegetable tanned leather as the ‘old kind’ but in the Bronze and Iron Ages technologies such as rawhide and fat/oil/smoke curing seem to have been much more popular. In northern Europe, tanned leather tends to appear when the Romans conquer a region, and disappears when Roman rule collapsed. Vegetable-tanned leather is also absent from Egypt before the Iron Age, while rawhide and oil-tanned leather appear in excavations, paintings, and texts.
- van Driel-Murray, Carol (2008) “Tanning and Leather.” In John Oleson (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Engineering and Technology in the Classical World (New York: Oxford University Press) pp. 483-495
- JoAnn Scurlock, “On Some Terms for Leatherworking in Ancient Mesopotamia.” In Robert D. Biggs, Jennie Myers, and Martha T. Roth, eds. Proceedings of the 51st Rencontre Assyriologique Internationale, Held at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, July 18–22, 2005. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization 62 (Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 2008) pp. 171-176 https://www.academia.edu/11856686/On_Some_Terms_for_Leatherworking_in_Ancient_Mesopotamia
- Mag. Dr. Gabriela Ruß-Popa Eisenzeitliche Leder- und Felltechnologien (PhD thesis, Universität Wien, 2015) https://www.orea.oeaw.ac.at/das-institut/team/russ-popa-gabriela/
- Gabriela Ruß-Popa, “Leather, fur and skin technology in the Iron Age salt mines at Dürrnberg near Hallein / Austria and Chehrābād / Iran (a PhD-project),” Archaeological Textiles Review 57 (2015) pp. 114–118 http://www.atnfriends.com/download/ATR57samlet.pdf
- Gabriela Ruß-Popa, “Leather and Fur Samples from the Prehistoric Salt Mine of Chehrābād, Iran: An Initial Overview,” Metalla: Forschungsberichte des Deutschen Bergbau-Museums 21.1–2/2014, 2015, pp. 77–83
- Veldmeijer, André J. (2016) Leatherwork from Elephantine (Aswan, Egypt): Analysis and Catalogue of the Ancient Egyptian & Persian Leather Finds. Sidestone Press: Leiden.
The Archaeological Leather Group lead by Carol van Driel-Murray are the leading experts in early hide processing in Europe and Egypt. Dan D’Silva has some posts about the problems of finding modern leathers similar to ancient oil-cured leathers at https://xerxesmillion.blogspot.com/search/label/leather
Oil curing seems to have been very popular throughout the ancient world, with sources from Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Aegean. The oldest clear evidence for vegetable tanning is the writings of Theophrastus at the end of the 4th century BCE, and Carol van Driel-Murray suggests that there is no reason to believe it was practiced in Greece before the second half of the 5th century. One of the Persian Period shoe soles from Elephantine (el-016) appears to be vegetable tanned in a preliminary test. The existence of alum tawing is hard to prove, because this kind of leather does not survive well in the ground and because alum can also be used as a mordant to fix madder dye to skins. Carol van Driel-Murray is skeptical, others speculate that it could have been used to make the white armours with shoulder flaps on vases. But oil-cured leather without any alum can be bright white too. Scurlock suspects that the cuneiform texts which mention hides treated with alum refer to tawing rather than dying, and has found a few rare Akkadian terms which might refer to plant galls (a good source of tannins) and tanned leather.
In the salt mine at Chehrābād:
The optical examination of the tested samples suggests that an original treatment of the skins with vegetable tannins can rather be excluded. As a general rule, vegetable-tanned leathers exhibit a darker to lighter brownish colouration, depending on the tanning substance. Here almost all the samples exhibit a whitish light beige colour. … Taking into account the appearance of the sample material, one might consider a treatment of skins with either fat or alum. Spot-testing with alum (alizarin test) also revealed negative results.Aali and Stöllner eds., The Archaeology of the Salt Miners, pp. 82, 83
When the grain was preserved, cut stumps of hair were visible, suggesting that the hair had been cut off rather than removed by soaking in lye. The grain was not always removed for greater softness, as in some modern brain-tanned and oil-tanned leather.
Edit 2021-12-22: moved this section to its own page, edited formatting, added reference to Scurlock’s article