Ancient Pants for a Rider Reconstructed

The precise construction of ancient textiles is often a matter of educated guesswork, since fibers—if they survive in the first place—tend to rot in most soil types. Now we have a little more to go on: in March 2022, a study was published on the technical details of fabric and finishing techniques of eight wool garments, including a spectacular pair of pants, belonging to a rider buried ca. 1200-1000 BCE.

One of the oldest preserved pairs of trousers in the world, the garment was found at Yanghai, Turfan (also known as Turpan), in the Xinjiang area in Northwest China. It’s an area with a long history and multiple tombs, as befits a stop on the Silk Road.

The breeches were made from three pieces: one for each leg and one for the crotch to combine the two sides.

HS Archaeological Research in Asia Wagner et al Turfan Rider Pants1

All three pieces included some woven patterning. Besides striping, the leg pieces also had a decorative band in a T-hook pattern (a kind of geometric design) around the knees.

HS Archaeological Research in Asia Wagner et al Turfan Rider Pants2

Interestingly, it seems that the pant pieces were woven on a loom into the final size and shape; no cutting from a longer length of cloth was involved. A combination of multiple techniques was also discovered: regular twill weave on the majority of the work, the weave on the knees, and a third method on the upper areas to create a thick waistband.

All this means a high skill level was needed in gauging not just the size of the future wearer, but also the amount of yarn required, plus naturally the various weaving techniques.

In the course of studying these clothes, reproductions were made. The outfit consists of the trousers, a poncho with belt, two pairs of braided bands (one below the knees and another at the ankles), and a wool headband.

HS Archaeological Research in Asia Wagner et al Turfan Rider Pants3

I’ve recently done some reading on recreating prehistorical clothing from scratch, and let me tell you, all of the shearing, washing, sorting, carding, spinning, dyeing, and—only at the very end—weaving plus sewing was no mean feat. The gorgeous (pre)historic garments we have managed to find must have taken a simply enormous amount of work to create. Even with a little weaving and band making plus a lot of sewing under my belt (pun intended—sorry, not sorry) I have a hard time imagining the magnitude of effort required in textile production before modern machinery.

Found and images via Helsingin Sanomat. (NB. Finnish only.) In English, you can read more at Science News.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.

Hipposandals

This strange-looking contraption is a Roman hipposandal, a forerunner of the horseshoe (from the Greek word “hippos,” meaning horse). It could be applied to a horse’s hoof, with the side pieces bent around to hold it in place or tied on with leather straps. Hipposandals like this one were known in the ancient Mediterranean (examples have been found in Greece and Italy), but archaeological evidence for them is concentrated in Roman contexts in northwestern Europe.

The function of hipposandals has been debated. They were not practical for long-term wear and were designed to be temporary and removable. One use may have been to protect injured hooves from further deterioration while healing. Some versions were also made with spikes on the bottom that could have given a horse extra traction while walking on loose or icy ground. Either use might explain why they appear to have been more common in the colder, wetter parts of the Roman world. In places like Britain and the Gaulish Alps, horses were exposed to soft, wet ground in summer and frozen roads in winter, which took a greater toll on their hooves than the hard, dry ground more typical in the Mediterranean.

One reason we are so uncertain about how exactly hipposandals were used is because no ancient source talks about them in any detail. Hipposandals are one little piece of material culture that would have been part of the everyday experience of people in the past, so mundane and unremarkable that nobody thought it was worth writing down just what they were for or how they were used. This is one more example of the paradox familiar to historians: the more typical and ordinary a thing was for people in the past, the more mysterious it is likely to be to us.

Image: Roman hipposandal, photograph by G. Garitan via Wikimdia (currently Musée de Saint-Remi; Roman period; iron)

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

Beautiful Reconstructions of Mesoamerican Cities

Here are some beautiful computer reconstructions of important archaeological sites in Mesoamerica.

Tenochtitlán, Mexico, by Advestudios

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon, US, by Advestudios

 

Advestudios, which produced these images, also creates videos and 360 vistas. Their work is wonderful for helping to picture these sites as living, functioning cities and settlements.

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

 

Evidence for Donkey Polo in Ancient China

An interesting archaeological find was reported earlier this year from western China where the excavation of a noblewoman’s grave has provided evidence for the use of donkeys for games of polo by elite women in the Tang dynasty.

The sport of polo was popular among the Chinese aristocracy in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). Literary sources document that women played as well as men, and that, even though donkeys were typically associated with low social status as pack and farm animals, they were also favored by the elite for playing polo. The excavation of the tomb of a Tang noblewoman, Cui Shi, for the first time offers archaeological evidence to support the written accounts.

Although polo has traditionally been played on horseback, the authors of this study, led by archaeologist Songmei Hu, mention that donkeys may sometimes have been preferred because their natural response to stress and danger, something a polo match would frequently present, is different. While horses, as herd animals, have developed a sensitivity to commotion among nearby animals and tend to respond by fleeing, donkeys, with a more solitary history, are less perturbed by the kinds of chaos that a polo field might present.

The authors identified the remains of at least three donkeys in Cui Shi’s tomb. For animals more traditionally connected with the peasantry than the elite, this was an unusual find for the grave of a woman whose family moved in the higher circles of the imperial aristocracy. But the family’s status was also connected to polo: written sources document that Cui Shi’s husband, Bao Gao, was promoted by the emperor to the rank of general on the strength of his skill in the sport. The bones of the donkeys themselves also show signs that they may have been used for playing polo, as they show patterns of growth reflecting strong and sudden stresses, such as animals suddenly starting, stopping, and changing direction on the polo field would experience, rather than those typical of animals used for carrying burdens or pulling carts.

This find is both an example of how archaeological and literary evidence can support one another and a view into the lives of elite women in ancient China who weren’t content to let the men have all the fun of donkey polo!

Image: Tang dynasty polo players via Wikimedia (tomb of Prince Zhang Huai, Qianling Mausoleum, Xi’an; 706 CE; wall painting)

Hey, look! We found a thing on the internet! We thought it was cool, and wanted to share it with you.

Accessibility Ramps at Ancient Greek Sanctuaries

A recent article in the journal Antiquity by archaeologist Debby Sneed argues that some ancient Greek temples were built with ramps to make them more accessible to people with limited mobility.

The argument begins from the observation, already familiar to archaeologists, that some temples had stone ramps leading from ground level up to the sanctuary. While in some places these ramps clearly seem designed to facilitate the movement of carts or chariots as part of religious rituals or the delivery of supplies and offerings, many are too narrow to be explained this way. Nor can these ramps be explained as part of the building process, since they are permanent and built in stone—far more difficult and expensive to construct than the packed earth ramps that would have been used in building—and they reach only to the level where people would have entered the temple, not all the way to the roof where building materials had to reach.

The interesting observation that Sneed adds to the discussion is that the distribution of these ramps is neither universal nor random, but they are particularly associated with temples connected with healing, and especially with temples where the evidence of inscriptions and votive offerings show a special focus on healing afflictions of the legs and other impairments to mobility. This pattern of distribution, while not definitive, does suggest that the ramps were purposely built at these particular sites to make it easier for people who might have difficulty climbing steps to gain access to the temple structures where they could participate in prayers or healing rituals.

Once built, of course, these ramps could well have served other purposes as well, such as making it easier to bring in offerings or supplies such as wood or wine needed for the routine operations of the temple, but this is also true of mobility accommodations today: once there’s a ramp in place, lots of people can use it for lots of different purposes. The planners of these sanctuaries may well have had this kind of multiplicity of functions in mind when building the ramps. Nevertheless, the fact that these ramps tend to appear at healing sanctuaries and not at others does indicate that the particular needs of those temples and their patrons were an important factor in the design.

The study of disability and its accommodation in history is a growing field. Studies like this one show how revisiting familiar evidence with new questions in mind can yield fertile new observations and interpretations.

Sneed’s full article can be read at cambridge.org.

Image: Artist’s reconstruction of the Temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus, Sneed, Debby, “The Architecture of Access: Ramps at Ancient Greek Healing Sanctuaries,” Antiquity (2020): 1-15, 9.

History for Writers looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.

A Rich Anglo-Saxon Burial Chamber Found in Essex

A new-ish Anglo-Saxon burial chamber found at Prittlewell in Southend-on-Sea, Essex, in southern England has all of the markings of a valuable find, both in terms of quality and quantity of the grave goods and of historical significance.

The male body was placed within a wooden coffin in a timber room. The burial most likely dates to the late 6th century (575-605 CE). It was first discovered in 2003 in remarkably good condition.

MOLA Prittlewell Burial Chamber Drawing

Artefacts from the burial were studied at Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), and the most impressive items are now on permanent display at Southend Central Museum in Southend-on-Sea. MOLA has also created an interactive website for the find.

Just some of the items discovered include a gold belt buckle, two Frankish gold coins, a beautiful sword, iron-bound buckets, a huge metal cauldron, latticed glass beakers, a tall iron candelabrum, a folding iron stool, a basin and a flagon made from copper alloy, a silver spoon, a painted wooden box, and an Anglo-Saxon lyre.

MOLA Prittlewell Blue Glass Decorated Beaker

Incidentally, the wooden box is so far the only surviving example of painted Anglo-Saxon woodwork!

MOLA Prittlewell Painted Wooden Box

MOLA The Guardian Prittlewell Gold Copper Item Collage

There are two interesting implications for the burial. Firstly, two gold foil crosses were likely placed on the body’s eyes. If the burial can indeed be placed at its earliest possible date, it makes the connection to Christianity remarkable because it would predate Augustine’s mission to convert the British in 597. A royal connection has been surmised (Seaxa, a younger brother of king Sæbert of Essex, whose mother Ricula was Æthelbert of Kent’s sister) but not confirmed.

(King Æthelbert of Kent married a Merovingian Christian princess called Bertha in 580, so Roman Christianity was known to Anglo-Saxons to some degree by the end of the 6th century, but to my knowledge we had previously not known of other converts outside their court prior to 600.)

Secondly, although Essex has earlier been seen as an Anglo-Saxon backwater of sorts, this rich burial chamber suggests otherwise. Indeed, some of the luxury items come from the near-by continental Europe (the Frankish gold coins), but others have much more far-reaching origins (the Byzantine or Syrian copper alloy flagon, for example).

Having studied Anglo-Saxons myself and witnessed Erik’s research on the side, I keep being amazed at how much paraphernalia is extant from the Roman period and early middle ages onwards. Not only that, but how much of it is still being discovered! If you tour any of the major museums of Roman history in Germany, for example, you will see massive (massive!) amounts of metalwork, gold, silver, glass, and pottery. And what’s on display doesn’t even account for the remnants in storage.

People from old cultures had as large incentives as we do today to dress up and surround themselves with ornate household goods—after all, we are humans who like their stuff, right? Their ability to do so naturally depended on the resources available in the area and era, and—despite what most of us seem to have been taught—early history is full of times when our predecessors were able to produce items on a massive scale and the richest in those societies did have the wherewithal to go all out.

Like the Staffordshire helmet, the Prittlewell burial will be of immense importance to our understanding of Anglo-Saxon history and culture. I’m so delighted it was found!

Images by MOLA; collage of the gold and copper alloy items by MOLA via The Guardian.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

Building a Castle From the Ground Up

An unusual and ambitious project in experimental archaeology has been under way in France since 1997 and will soon reach completion: the construction of a castle entirely using the technology and techniques available in the thirteenth century.

Castle Guédelon is an attempt to recreate the work of medieval castle construction from the quarrying of stone and cutting of timber to the finishing of the completed structure. The construction materials come from local sources and are brought to the site using only the technology available in the thirteenth century where they are assembled according to plans for a typical small French castle of the period. Laborers on the site even wear recreations of period clothes for a fuller immersion in the historical realities of building.

A full fictional backstory has been created for this castle, conceiving it as the home of a local minor noble. Work is imagined to have begun in 1229, and this imaginary timeline helps guide the details of the plan and its construction. The project is expected to be complete in 2020 (or 1252, in the castle’s imaginary timeline).

The site is open to the public. Revenue from visitors helps finance the construction project. This is an extraordinary piece of experimental archaeology with the potential to provide valuable insights into the practical realities of large building projects in the pre-modern world.

Images: Towers and wall under construction, photograph by Christophe.Finot via Wikimedia. Great hall near completion, photograph by Paul Hermans via Wikimedia. Blacksmith at work, photograph by Francois de Dijon via Wikimedia.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

The Graceful Curves of the Vogelherd Horse

Like the Stone Age twig horse I blogged about a few years ago, this ivory horse is rather magnificent:

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datei:4_Pferd_Vogelherd_Kopie.jpg

Found in the Vogelherd cave in south-western Germany, it’s carved from woolly mammoth ivory with flint tools in the Aurignacian period, from 40,000 to 28,000 BCE.

Like other animal figurines found in the same layers, the horse appears astonighingly lively and graceful. I’ve done a little bit of wood carving in my life, and—like all sculpting—it definitely takes not just skill but also pre-planning. I can’t imagine what carving ivory with flint would be like, but I’ve no doubt there are quite a few tricks that go into it.

Whatever the use of the Vogelherd horse was, it’s clear that the maker(s) invested time and significant effort into making their art—a good indication that the creativity, dedication, and determination of the modern human do have deep roots.

Found via The Ice Age (@Jamie_Woodward_) on Twitter.

Image: horse figurine from the Vogelherd cave via Wikipedia (Baden-Württemberg, Germany; c. 32,000-35,000 BCE; ivory)

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

A Drink from an Octopus

Some ideas are so good they come around again, even thousands of years later. I recently stumbled across this beautiful glass bottle adorned with a sinuous octopus on Etsy seller Elstwhen’s shop. You can find this particular bottle here.

The Beast of the Void by Elstwhen

 

It reminded me of Minoan pottery, which is often adorned with vividly rendered sea life. While Elstwhen’s work is not a copy of the Minoan style, it makes similar use of asymmetry, flowing lines, and strong contrasts to create a similarly impressive effect.

Minoan flask, photograph by Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia (Archaeological Museum, Herakleion; c. 1500 BCE; painted pottery)

 

(We have no connection, financial or otherwise, with Elstwhen.)

In Making Stuff, we share fun arts and crafts done by us and our fellow geeks and nerds.

The Staffordshire Helmet Reconstructed

The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest and perhaps the most magnificent find from Anglo-Saxon England. The hoard dates from the 7th century and comes from the Kingdom of Mercia. It was found in 2009 by an amateur archaeologist with a metal detector, and is now owned by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils on behalf of the nation.

The vast majority of items in the hoard are war gear, especially sword fittings. Among the items, all of which are of exceptionally high quality, is a helmet. Two copies of a reconstruction completed in 2018 are now available for public viewing, one in Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Birmingham, England) and the other in The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England).

And it’s utterly breathtaking!

Twitter Staffordshire Hoard Helmet on Model Sm

Potteries Museum Staffordshire Helmet Sm

The so-called Staffordshire Helmet is very rare—only five other Anglo-Saxon helmets are known—and looks exquisite: the gold filigree with red accents make an arresting combination, and the dyed crest adds to the wearer’s height.

Birmingham Museum Staffordshire Helmet Sm

As Erik pointed out, ancient Greeks and Romans portrayed northwestern barbarians as violent, ignorant, savage, and lacking in technology and social organization. On the basis of the Staffordshire Hoard alone, whatever else they were, there’s absolutely no basis in calling Anglo-Saxons technologically unskilled!

Visit The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery or Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery for more.

Found via Express & Star on Twitter.

Images: Staffordshire Helmet worn by model via Staffordshire Hoard on Twitter. Side view via Staffordshire Hoard. Front view via Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.