Object of the Week: The world's oldest woven garment from a prehistoric Egyptian tomb

By Ben Miller | 17 February 2016

Object of the Week: This week we bring you the dress recently confirmed as the world's oldest garment, at the Petrie Museum

A photo of the world's oldest woven garment, the Tarkhan Dress at the UCL Petrie Museum
© UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
Originally excavated by Egyptologist Flinders Petrie in 1913 from a First Dynasty tomb at Tarkhan, an Egyptian cemetery located 50km south of Cairo, this dress lay undiscovered with various other textiles until 1977, when the bundle was sent to London’s Victoria and Albert Museum for conservation work.

Radiocarbon testing has dated it to the late fourth millennium BC, confirming it as the world’s oldest woven garment – 95% certain to have been made between 3482-3102 BC.

Although the dress was thought to be Egypt’s oldest garment and the oldest surviving woven garment in the world, its precise age was previously uncertain. But a team from the University of Oxford, led by Dr Michael Dee, measured a 2.24mg sample of the dress to determine how much radiocarbon - a radioactive isotope of carbon - remained in the linen.

A photo of a piece of yellow Neolithic Egyptian textile excavated in Egypt against a black background
A Neolithic Egyptian textile excavated in Egypt© UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
Linen is especially suitable for radiocarbon dating as it is composed of flax fibres that grow over a relatively short time.

It’s not possible to know the precise length of the dress but the dimensions suggest that it fitted a young teenager or a slim woman. Although the exact context of its use remain unclear, there are visible signs of wear.

Dr Alice Stevenson, a Curator at the UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, where it is on display, says the survival of the dress is “even more remarkable” than the “exceptional” record of these kind of perishable textiles.

“We’ve always suspected that the dress dated from the First Dynasty but haven’t been able to confirm this,” she explains.

“The sample previously needed for testing would have caused too much damage to the dress.

“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.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Latest comment: >Make a comment
In the 1960s and 1970s this style was worn by hippie chicks and hippie guys, too. It was mostly found in Indian import shops and made of light weight cotton.
It is so basic and ancient and contemporary at the same time. It's a wonder to see!
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