Radiocarbon dating has conclusively established the Tarkhan Dress as the world’s oldest woven garment at around 5,500 years old. The Egyptian garment spent five millennia in a tomb before being forwarded to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at University College London (UCL). However, it arrived at the Petrie entwined in a bundle made up of filthy rags and was overlooked. It was only discovered by chance as conservation experts sorted through the bundle in 1977.
Radiocarbon dating was completed by the University of Oxford in 2015, confirming the dress was 5,100 to 5,500 years old according to a recent UCL press release. The linen garment, complete with pleated sleeves, bodice and V-neck, is understood by experts to be an example of ancient Egyptian high fashion. Only a handful of garments around this age have survived and those were simply draped or wrapped around the body. With its narrow pleats and tailored sleeves, the Tarkhan dress would not look out of place in a department store of today.
The level of detail could only have been produced by a highly specialized craftsperson. Such a craftsperson only arises in a hierarchical and prosperous society, like ancient Egypt 5,000 years ago – the first time the kingdom was united with a single ruler.
In the press release, Dr. Alice Stevenson, Curator at the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, is quoted as saying, “The survival of highly perishable textiles in the archaeological record is exceptional, the survival of complete, or almost complete, articles of clothing like the Tarkhan Dress is even more remarkable. We’ve always suspected that the dress dated from the First Dynasty but haven’t been able to confirm this as the sample previously needed for testing would have caused too much damage to the dress. Although the result is a little less precise than is now routinely possible through radiocarbon dating, as the sample was so small, it’s clear that the linen for the dress was made at the cusp of the First Dynasty or even earlier.”
Fragments of textiles made from flax are known to have existed from Egyptian Neolithic times at least, while evidence exists of people using horizontal looms for weaving in the early fourth millennium. It’s also accepted by experts that linen garments such as the Tarkhan dress are relatively easy to perform radiocarbon dating on because flax fibers take a short time to grow.
Very few pieces of early clothing made from animal skins or plant fibers have escaped disintegration, thereby making the Tarkhan dress an extremely rare discovery. Textiles which have been excavated from archaeological sites are typically less than 2,000 years old. Although it resembles a shirt in tatters, the hem is missing so it’s probable the Tarkhan dress was longer originally. Additionally, creases at the armpits and elbows indicate someone wore the dress at one time; it was not just ceremonial.
The Tarkhan Dress is on display at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at the University College London.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user: LordHarris