It doesn’t look like much, but this tattered piece of clothing found buried in an ancient Egyptian cemetery has been confirmed as the world’s oldest dress as well as the oldest woven garment known to archaeologists.
Called the Tarkhan dress, the remarkable garment has now officially been dated by University College London researchers to between 5100 and 5500 years old. That places it way back to the First Dynasty of ancient Egypt, and possibly even earlier.
The Tarkhan dress was originally discovered in 1912 in an ancient Egyptian cemetery just south of Cairo. Archaeologists didn’t think much of it at the time, letting it languish in a “great pile of linen cloth”. Then, upon its rediscovery in 1977, it was sent to the Victoria and Albert Museum for conservation. Scientists knew it was old, but its exact date has been a matter of controversy. But new radiocarbon analysis, performed by UCL’s Alice Stevenson and Michael W. Dee, finally confirm the item’s antiquity.
“The survival of highly perishable textiles in the archaeological record is exceptional,” write the researchers in Antiquity, the journal in which the new study is published. “The survival of complete, or almost complete, articles of clothing even more so.”
Indeed, the Tarkhan dress is offering unique insights into the fashion of the times. Though it looks like a shirt, similar clothing from a few centuries later suggest the garment was once a floor-length dress; the original garment was likely much longer. It features tailored sleeves, a V-neck and narrow pleats. The dress also exhibits signs of wear, which means it was used in real life and was not some sort of fancy ornamentation. “The contexts of its use, however, remain unclear,” write the researchers. “Although it appears to have been an elite article.”
Other ancient garments of note include a pair of late second-millennium BC trousers from eastern Central Asia, and early Bronze Age cord skirts from Denmark. “The Tarkhan Dress, however, remains the earliest extant example of complex woven clothing, that is, a cut, fitted and tailored garment as opposed to one that was draped or wrapped,” conclude the authors.
Top image: The Tarkhan dress. Credit: Petrie Museum