Hello, and welcome to the Thin End of the Wedge. The podcast where experts from around the world share new and interesting stories about life in the ancient Middle East. My name is Jon. Each episode I talk to friends and colleagues, and get them to explain their work in a way we can all understand.
Often the most basic aspects of life in ancient Iraq are the most elusive. Clothing is one of those things. It was a key part of how someone represented themselves in society, and could convey all sorts of messages. These ancient clothes have perished.
So how do we know anything about ancient textiles? What materials were they made of? Who made them? What did they look like? Who would do the laundry, and how often?
Our guest is an expert in textiles from ancient Iraq. She specialises in the first millennium BC in southern Iraq, the so-called Neo-Babylonian period. She’s the author of a major new book on the subject. In this episode she offers us a glimpse into the exciting new world of Babylonian textiles.
So get yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and let’s meet today’s guest.
Hello, and welcome to Thin End of the Wedge. Thank you for joining us.
Hello, Jon. And hello to the listeners of the podcast.
Could you tell us please: who are you, and what do you do?
So my name is Louise Quillien. I am a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research. I am an assyriologist, specialist of Babylonia in the first millennium BC. And I work mainly on the history of crafts and material culture through the textual data. I’m a member of the laboratory ARSCAN: Archaeology and Sciences of Antiquity, at Nanterre near Paris. And in 2016, have defended a PhD on textiles during the Neo-Babylonian period. And since then, I’m continuing to investigate the field of textiles studies, as well as other crafts, especially metal work and leather work.
Okay, so archaeologically, it’s true that in different parts of the world, different types of materials survive better or worse than in other places. So for ancient Iraq, textiles tend not to survive very well. So what sources do we have that allow you to study textiles for these cultures?
Yes, that’s true. Actual remains of archaeological textiles are very rare in the Near East. On the one hand because organic materials are poorly preserved, in local geo-climatic conditions. And on the other hand, because those responsible for ancient excavations, so the old ones in 19th and beginning of 20th century, were not very interested in the scientific potential of these remains. And they did not know how to conserve these very fragile fragments.
However, we have some textile remains for the Neo-Babylonian period, discovered, for instance, in Ur and Uruk in funerary contexts. And they are very valuable for the information they provide on materials and weaving techniques. So if the remains of archaeological materials are very rare, the cuneiform texts, to the contrary, very often mentioned fabrics and clothing. Texts have therefore been my main source. And indeed, textiles were very common in everyday life in Mesopotamia, because it’s supple material, at a time when plastic did not exist. So it was a basic craft production, and the objects concerned were extremely varied. It may seem paradoxical to study a material object almost solely from the written sources. But the texts give us complimentary information to the archaeology. So they give the names of the textiles. They explain who made them, for what reasons. They also inform us about the cultural, religious, socio-economic functions of these objects. So more precisely, we have two main categories of Neo-Babylonian texts providing information on textiles. So first of all the institutional archives from temples and palaces, and also private archives. About the institutional archives–the majority of them come from Uruk and Sippar; so, the big temples of the Eanna and the Ebabbar. And they concern the supply of raw materials, the manufacture of clothes offered to the gods to dress their statues. Also the textiles used in the cellas and the sanctuaries.
They also provide information on the protection of textiles of common use, given in rations to workers and soldiers working for the temples, and about priestly clothing. After these temple archives, the second major group, sometimes difficult to isolate from the first one, is that of private archives. These texts are less numerous, but they mention the clothes worn by the urban elite of the cities of Babylonia like Uruk, Sippar, Nippur, Ur, Borsippa etc. We thus have stories mentioning textiles: contracts, that evoke clothes given as a gift; letters where are mentioned purchase, shipments, or the manufacture of textiles.
Iconographic sources are also useful. But on the one hand, they are quite rare for the first millennium BC. We do not have the beautiful court scenes on palatial reliefs that we have for Assyria, for instance. And also, these iconographic depictions should be used with caution. Because the images on cylinder seals or stelas obey to conventions and are not always identical to the clothes actually worn.
And finally, one last interesting source are the textile imprints on clay. For example, I found textile prints on sheep accounts tablets from the Eanna of Uruk. These texts are made under the form of a table detailing the composition of the flocks. And these tables were filled out by scribes of the Eanna at the time of the shearing. And as the table was filled in several times, during the shearing, the scribe wrapped the tablet in a slightly damp cloth, so that it would not dry. The imprint of this cloth was preserved in the clay. And these imprints are very interesting and offer valuable information on the weave, the size of the threads, the density of the weaving, like number of threads per centimetres. As much information that the texts do not give. And I can use the small camera microscope to observe these imprints and make some measures.
Okay, that’s a very rich array of sources we have here. But perhaps we could start with a very basic question: what materials were clothes made of?
Yes, so in first millennium BC Babylonia, the main textile raw material was wool. Like in the whole history of Mesopotamia. Sheep flocks were a resource controlled in majority by the temples, and probably also by the aristocracy and private owners. They collected the wool, which was then redistributed to the population, partly through rations, and partly through sale, especially wool sent to merchants.
The second material used was linen. Flax is indeed one of the oldest domesticated plants in the ancient Near East, and one of the oldest textile fibres used since prehistory. In the sixth century BC Babylonia–so where wool was dominant–linen was a more luxurious fibre. It was used to make tunics and undergarments, sheets, curtains etc. A great use of linen is attested in the temples, and it was also a favourite fabric for funeral clothes. Flax was cultivated locally in Babylonia. But linen threads and fabrics were also imported from outside and especially from Egypt.
Concerning the other textile fibres, hemp is known in Babylonia. But it is used in pharmacopoeia, and not for its textile properties. Goat hair, on the other hand, is well attested. But it was not a very good quality fibre in Babylonia. It was not at all the cashmere quality for instance. Goat hair was much cheaper than wool. It was used to make strong fabrics like tent covers, also bags, chariot covers or ropes, for instance. And finally, a new fibre appeared in Mesopotamia in the first millennium–the cotton. Cotton compared to linen and wool was rare at the time. And the most famous mention of the cotton tree in cuneiform data is in the royal inscription of Sennacherib, who said that in his gardens in Nineveh, he planted wool trees that could be sheared to make clothes. Cotton fabrics have been found in the tombs of the queens of Nimrud. Also in tombs in Elam, in a Neo-Babylonian tomb in Uruk. And as for the Akkadian term for cotton, it has been debated, but it may well be the term kidinnû in Neo-Babylonian, which means a textile material. And I hope that new archaeological and archaeobotanical findings in the future will help to specify the chronology of the diffusion of cotton. So to sum up, despite this variety, [the] majority of textiles produced and worn Babylonia were made of wool.
Wool sounds rather uncomfortable in a hot climate. How practical would it have been for daily life?
It’s true that nowadays we are used to wearing wool in winter, and to keep woollen knotwears and scarves for the cold days. So for us, when we think about a woollen garment, it will necessarily keep us warm. And we can’t imagine wearing them in the middle of the summer when the temperatures are at a height. But the woollen clothes made by Babylonian craftsmen were different from those we have today.
First of all, the wool was woven and not knitted. The knitting technique appeared quite lately in history. And in Mesopotamia, wool was used to make woven fabrics that could have different degrees of fineness, density, and different touches depending on the type of wool or yarn used, and also on the finishing techniques of the fabrics. So we can have a fine and breathable wool fabric. Moreover, the wool has thermo-regulatory properties. So that we know well to fight against the cold, but which are also useful to fight against the heat. It is a breathable material. It absorbs moisture very well and keeps the body dry, while insulating it from the outside. It has also anti-bacterial and anti-odour properties and protects the skin from the UV rays. So wearing wool was not necessarily uncomfortable in the everyday life.
So who made these textiles then? Is this like a domestic situation where everybody makes the clothes for their own household? Or are their specialists mass producing? How does it work?
In fact, it depends on what kind of textiles. Textile manufacturing in antiquity is usually considered, as you said, a domestic production and also a female domain. For instance, we have a famous book on textile production in antiquity by Elizabeth’s Barber called Textiles: a women’s work. And Babylonia in the first millennium is not an exception, since the majority of textiles used in daily life were produced by women in domestic context. However, these women are almost invisible for the historian[‘s] eyes, because very few texts describe their work carried out inside the home. We have traces of this production when it is exchanged, sent, sold, or when an authority like the father of the family or the temple is giving wool to a woman in exchange for her producing a garment.
However, in the temple archives, we have a completely different picture of the gender balance in textiles crafts. In the temple archive, which concerns the manufacture of textiles for the cult, all the workers were men. This workforce was highly specialised. We find weavers, garment washers, linen and flex specialists, launderers, specialists in dyeing and making coloured woollen decorations, menders and bag makers. These craftsmen worked in teams and have different statuses from prebendary priests to oblates and slaves. Outside of this religious context, men were also working as specialist craftsmen in the city. They worked for the urban clientele. And they could have specialised jobs like weavers, launderers. They were making also very specific textiles like bags, carpets or tapestries, decorated clothes, etc.
So we have women’s textile work confined to the domestic sphere, despite its economic importance as their production enriches the patrimony of their families. And we have men performing specialised textile work in the temples or as independent workers in the urban shops, where they took apprentices, for instance.
With this variety in the manufacture of textiles, are there differences? So were clothes plain, or would they be coloured or decorated in some way?
There are not many details about the decoration and patterns of textiles in the texts, unfortunately. Nevertheless, we know that clothes used to dress the statues of the gods were colourful, for instance. They were made with linen–white linen–and wool dyed in red, purple-blue, red-purple. More rarely in yellow, green, and blue. These colours were obtained with precious dyeing products. So the alum, the mordant; madder, perhaps kermes, and imported purple wool. The coloured wool was certainly used to form patterns. Either by weaving, or by adding embroidery, or trimmings to the clothes.
We have a very interesting Hellenistic ritual text, where we learn that the dresses of certain priests were decorated with representations of protective gods. Or also with complex celestial motifs like stars and rainbows. So this is one of the rare indications that Babylonian craftsmen were able to produce garments with complex figurative patterns.
The question of the dyeing and decoration of fabrics is posed differently outside this religious context, because we have very fewer descriptions for everyday clothing. Nevertheless, we know that the outfit of some soldiers for instance, were red, dyed with madder roots, and we have some mentions of coloured clothes in the dowry texts. In general, weaving techniques allow for fairly easy patterns. The weaver can play with natural shades of wool ranging from black-brown to beige-white, or he can also use common dye plants. There are many plants that dye yellow, for instance, like pomegranate bark and onion. We can so imagine the Babylonian wearing a great diversity of garments of different fabrics, colours and decorations. But certain shades like purple in particular, may be more expensive and reserved for the elite.
Following on from that, then, what could you tell about a person just by looking at the clothes they were wearing?
There are clear signs that social status, gender, and origin were expressed by clothes in Mesopotamia. Even [if] it’s not always visible in the textual documentation. Indeed, the garment and clothing terminologies are often generic in the texts. Nevertheless, one can see through the texts that soldiers and temple agents would have been recognisable through their uniform–the shir’am. The urban elite would wear expensive garments like the gulēnu or the guzguzu, for example.
There were probably dress codes, even if we have few clues about them in the texts. For instance, in a court document, a slave of the wealthy entrepreneurial family, Egibi, complains that he was attacked by a free man for wearing a purple garment. So this shows that from the point of view of a free man, the wearing of a purple robe was a sign of a certain social status, that he considered inappropriate for a slave. But for the slave himself, it is a sign of his success and of the responsibilities given to him by the Egibi family. So the outfit was a sign of social status.
We can also recognise a priest in a Babylonian street by his garments, as there is a clear difference in terminology between the garments for the priests and the garments for the people. The terms for priestly garments are common to the one used to describe gods’ statues’ wardrobe. And this vocabulary dates back to the Old Babylonian period, even if the exact meaning of the words may have changed since then. It’s probable that the aspect of this priestly clothing was archaic. And to the contrary, the terminology of the common garments worn in daily life by the Babylonians includes more new words.
About men and women’s difference in clothing, it’s quite difficult to know what the differences were. Because again, the terminology is often the same and generic for both. But in the religious sphere, we find that goddesses wore more colourful clothes, draped over their bodies, while the gods wore less colourful outfits fastened with belts.
What range of clothing then might somebody have in their wardrobe?
Thanks to lists and inventories of textiles in private archives, it’s possible to reconstruct more or less the different pieces of an outfit. For instance, the letter TCL 9, 117 notes all the textiles, its utensils and equipment, sent by the author to his superior. It registers several outfits made of one shir’am tunic, one belt, one fine rashutu–perhaps a headdress, and two gulēnu. This gulēnu can be worn as a coat over the shir’am. But they are also a piece of fabric with the market value. So basically an outfit for a member of the wealthy urban families usually consists of an undergarment in linen or wool, a tunic with a belt, sometimes with a shawl, a coat draped over it, and a headdress. On cylinder seals one sees how the garments could be one with several layers of draped piece of clothing, with fringes attached with a belt. But of course, the clothing of dependent workers of the temples is quite different from this pattern. And I found a cylinder seal showing a simple ploughman wearing a loincloth, particularly as his own garment.
We must not forget the textiles for the furniture. According to the dowry texts were very important. And the soft furnishing for the Babylonian house includes as a minimum a blanket, fabrics in coupons or rolls, and some pieces of clothing.
I’d like to know about washing clothes: how did it work? How often did people wash their clothes? And was that also gendered in the same way as production–would women do the household laundry, but men act as specialists for temples, say?
First of all, with which products people wash their clothes? We have some clues in the texts. So basically, they used water and a washing agent. But which one? In the temple archives we see that washermen received oil and a product named uhūlu. And this uhūlu was a kind of potash or soda obtained with vegetables using the ashes from specific plants. For example, the plants from the family of the Salsola, especially the Salsola kali grow in the Near East and they can be used for this purpose. Their ashes are put in water, then the water is filtered and it gives potash a basic or alkaline solution. By mixing the ash water with oil a liquid soap is obtained. And it was a very good way to wash and whiten textiles. I also found in a text of the Ebabbar archive, a mention of chickpeas given to textile craftsmen. And indeed, chickpeas contain sapolin, a powerful washing agent. So it was another possible option for washing clothes.
Then, the question of how often clothes should be washed is quite complex. In the temples, the garments of the deities were cleaned before or after each dressing ceremony. In Sippar, we know that this ceremony took place six times a year. As for the linen fabrics of the sanctuary, like the curtains, napkins, blankets, they were probably washed once a year during a specific ceremony, the tabû procession, when these fabrics were replaced and cleaned. It’s more difficult to know how often people washed their garments in daily life. It is clear that in past societies, clothes were not washed as often as today. For example, in France before the revolution, people did the grande buée, the big laundry, two or three times a year only, when the season changed. And it was a big and complete washing of all household linens and clothes.
In Neo-Babylonian documents, we have an interesting category of texts about the laundry of the urban families–the contracts in which rich families pay for the services of a washerman, to do the laundry for their house. And these texts were studied by Caroline Waerzeggers. According to these contracts, men specialised in the work of washing textiles, took in charge of the washing of all of the fabrics and clothes of a household for a given period, ranging from 10 days to one year. The contracts specify that this concerns all the clothes of the house, large and small. So it was not only the garments, but also blankets, cushions, and other textiles for furnishing the house. The washermen were paid in silver, and sometimes also in debt or barley.
But only rich urban families could afford the services of these specialised launderers. It is certain that in most cases, the laundry was washed at home. And it is very probable that it was women who were responsible for this work. For example, we have one text of Sippar referring to a slave woman as a specialist in the laundering work–pūṣa’iūtu–and she was working for her master. So the gender division of work in this domain of washing clothes was probably the same as for weaving. Women did the laundry in the domestic context. And men in the temples or for the urban clientele, in exchange for a salary. But it’s also interesting to see that this gender repartition [= division] of tasks depends on the social status. Because, for example, in a Babylonian washing contract, we have a woman from a wealthy family–Babu-sharrat, who gives her laundry, that of her children and slaves to be washed to a man, a professional launderer, in return for a salary. So rich women could delegate these kinds of domestic tasks to specialised male workers.
That’s really interesting. Can we say anything about the fineness of the fabrics that have survived, and how that compares to what we know about the history of textiles?
The textile fragments found in Babylonia for the period under study were discovered in generally in funerary context in past excavations, and they were not always fully analysed. But we have some data. We know that the textiles from Uruk tombs dated from Neo-Babylonian or Achaemenid periods were made of flax with a tabby weave. The tabby weave, also called plain weave, is when the weft thread passes over and then under the warp thread. And this is the simplest kind of weave. But we have no information of the fineness of these textiles from Uruk.
At Babylon, traces of fabrics were found during the excavation of tombs in the Merkes district, according to the excavation report, but they were not analysed. In Ur, according to Leonard Woolley, flax and woollen fabrics were found in a tomb dating from the eighth or the seventh century BC. According to Hero Granger-Taylor’s analysis, they are made of flax with a tabby weave and they show different densities between 12 and 30 threads per centimetres in warp or weft. Concerning the textile imprints on the Neo-Babylonian tablets that I’ve been able to study, they confirm this preference for the tabby weave. I observed also various fineness and densities in the weave, ranging from 12 to 22 threads per centimetre in warp or weft. And these data are consistent with the textile remains found for other periods of Mesopotamian history.
According to Catherine Brenniquet’s studies, the majority of textiles found in Mesopotamia have a tabby weave, but twill also exists. And twill is a type of textile weave with a pattern of diagonal parallel ribs. It is what is used today for making jeans, for instance. The density of the fabrics discovered in Mesopotamia and recorded in Catherine Brenniquet’s study for the third millennium BC ranges from 10 to 25 threads per centimetre. And therefore Neo-Babylonian textiles findings and imprints are not particularly distinctive. But rather confirm what is known from other periods, except perhaps the new use of cotton in first millennium.
What might these impressions of fabrics tell us in the future?
These fabric imprints are valuable, because they give information on the manufacturing techniques. And these informations, the texts do not mention them. They allow to observe the weave–so the type of technique used–,the fineness of the threads and therefore the spinning techniques, and the density of the fabric produced–the number of threads per centimetre. From the context and appearance of these imprints, information can also be deduced about certain scribal practices, like filling your tablet in several times. But most of the imprints I have seen on Neo-Babylonian tablets were not made on purpose. We also find fabric imprints on clay seals that were used to close jars. While the archaeological finds tell us about the technical aspects of textiles in the funerary context, the imprints are the traces of textiles used in everyday life. And this is why they are so precious.
You have a new book coming out about ancient textiles. Could you tell us a little bit about that, please?
Yes, so I recently published my PhD thesis, April, in the CHANE series–Culture and History of the Ancient Near East. The book consists of three parts, dealing with textile raw materials, manufacturing techniques, and uses. And you can find a glossary of Neo-Babylonian terms for textiles. I’m also in the process of publishing the proceedings of two workshops on material culture in first millennium BC Babylonia, together with Manon Ramez and Laura Cousin. And it was a project that took place inside an international project about material culture in Babylonia during the first millennium BC; a project directed by Francis Joannès and Michael Jursa. I hope it will be out perhaps in 2023.
Super, thank you very much.
You’re welcome. Thank you.
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