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The Tarkhan Dress (courtesy Petrie Museum/UCL)

An over-5,000-year-old linen dress was recently confirmed as the world’s oldest woven garment. The Tarkhan Dress, named for the Tarkhan cemetery south of Cairo in Egypt where it was excavated, had a long road to its title, from its use as clothing and then a shroud, and later being lost amidst a grimy bundle of overlooked textile.

The V-neck dress is on view at the University College London (UCL) Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, with its flax fiber linen stitched carefully over a modern silk shirt, so as to exhibit it in its intended dimensions. The “dress” title is a bit of speculation, as no one can confirm the original length of the textile. Flinders Petrie (for whom the Petrie Museum is named) unearthed the dress from a tomb in 1913. It wasn’t identified until 1977, when it was transported with other weathered textiles to the Victoria & Albert Museum for conservation.

The Tarkhan Dress on view at the Petrie Museum at UCL (photo by Nic McPhee/Flickr) (click to enlarge)

In its release, UCL states that radiocarbon testing last year at the University of Oxford affirms, with 95% accuracy, that the dress dates from between 3482 and 3102 BCE. Alice Stevenson, curator at the Petrie Museum, and Michael W. Dee, who led the Oxford testing, published their study in the Antiquity review, writing that due “to its association with a First Dynasty tomb, as well as Naqada IIIC1-type stone vessels, the Tarkhan Dress (as it became known) has been claimed to be Egypt’s oldest garment and the oldest extant woven garment in the world. In the absence of a secure context, however, its date has been contentious.”

Among its rivals, they cite a pair of pants from the late second-millennium BCE found in Central Asia, cord skirts from Bronze Age Denmark, and a linen kilt from early fourth-millennium BCE Jordan. However, the dress bests them all. The creasing, as well as its discovery inside-out, also indicates it was worn in life, and its detailed stitching and tailoring, for either a teenager or a slender woman, suggests it was for a member of the elite. Janet Johnstone at UCL has a handy “How to make the Tarkhan dress” step-by-step guide relaying the elaborate process of turning three pieces of fine linen into the pleated garment.

Most textiles from antiquity were preserved through the arid cemeteries of Egypt, such as those now on view in Designing Identity: The Power of Textiles in Late Antiquity at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. The Tarkhan Dress is among those rare textile survivors that reveal life in the ancient world through the fashion of the departed.

The Tarkhan Dress on view at the Petrie Museum at UCL (photo by Nic McPhee/Flickr)

The Tarkhan Dress is on view at the University College London’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (Malet Place, London).

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...

6 replies on “A 5,000-Year-Old Linen Dress Is the World’s Oldest Woven Garment”

  1. When Black (Kemet) Egyptians was designing creating and weaving these beautiful garments European- Neanderthals was living in caves and eating raw meat. Now they want to lecture the black man about been civilized.

    1. Dear B. Blackman,

      First of all, I don’t understand the need to put one group down in order to raise another group up. If we look carefully (or not so carefully) I would suggest that we can find ‘up’ points as well as ‘down’ points for virtually everyone.

      Second. Who is the ‘they’ “that want to lecture the black man about being civilized”?

      I’d say that one sort of generalizing is about as unfounded as another.

      While there’s a lot of work do to, in doing it, let us look for the good in ‘others’. I’ve found it’s a lot less stressful, and a lot more productive.

      mai

    2. “When Black (Kemet) Egyptians was designing creating and weaving these beautiful garments”

      Egyptians weren’t black, they were brown arabs.

  2. Why even respond? History clearly shows the acceleration of civilizations relevant to migrations northward and an era where “civilization” stagnated in some southern regions while growing exponentially in Europe. We now live in a world where kids walk around with their Iphones, as well as hunters still using bows and spears; enjoy it while you can. Oh and i believe it is “neanderthals were living in caves”, not “was”; and I’m not clear, are neanderthals lecturing? I’d love to see that. Homo Sapiens are very adaptable; sad to see some are not.

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