We don’t have many pictures of clothed women from the middle of the first millennium BCE in the Near East. Most of the local peoples did not paint scenes of daily life on their pottery, and their stone-carvings show a man’s world or a heavenly world. The Assyrian palace reliefs show some queens and deported women, and one Achaemenid seal shows a wealthy woman seated on a throne. One other picture of a clothed woman is a Neo-Elamite bitumen relief in the Louvre. Its 9.3 cm high, so five times larger than most of the little seals.
This week I had a chance to talk with Margarita Gleba about her work on Iron Age (1000-400 BCE) textiles from Spain, Italy, Greece, and Bulgaria. Thousands of fragments are known, often preserved in the corrosion products on bronze grave goods such as vessels or broaches, but understanding them requires rare knowledge and expensive equipment for taking high-magnification photos, and the details are often scattered in publications which are hard to find and use different language to describe the same thing. A Cambridge History of Western Textiles had a brief section on this material which I would like to read, but publication was delayed for almost 20 years while the archaeology moved on, and until this week I did not know of any other overviews.
Most of the peoples from Britain to Afghanistan grew flax and tended sheep and used drop spindles, warp-weighted looms, and tablets to turn linen and wool into cloth, but they made different kinds of textiles in different regions. Textile technology was hard to change, because in recent cultures, girls started to learn to spin and weave as toddlers and spend much of their childhood mastering the skills (Susan M. Strawn, “Hand Spinning and Cotton in the Aztec Empire, as Revealed by the Codex Mendoza,” http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/420). It is very difficult to change a skill practised for so many years, or persuade adults to take lessons in a skill which children are supposed to master. Moreover, it was bound up with the local crops, climate, and taboos: the sheep in different areas produced wool which was good for different things, and there was a divide between cultures which wove textiles to shape and wrapped and pinned them into garments, and cultures which wove long rectangular pieces, cut them up, and sewed them into garments.
People, especially people who are most interested in material culture, often find it hard to accept that ancient art does not directly and literally depict the world. People who recreate Roman material culture, for example, often fret that when we can check it against other evidence, Trajan’s column is usually wrong. “But the rest of the sculpture is so lifelike,” they complain. “Shouldn’t we use what evidence we have?” “Why would they go to so much trouble to depict something wrong?”
Dr. Stefan Bittner has kindly informed me that the line drawings from his thesis on the Achaemenid army are available at his online photo gallery. Copies of his thesis, and several other books, are still for sale at his press Bodem Verlag. His book is the single biggest source for Achaemenid kit and clothing, and... Continue reading: Dress and Armament of the Persian Army