Saturday, July 19, 2014

3,200 year-old trousers found in Silk Road graves

A recent study of remarkable finds from the Silk Road appears to confirm the assumption that the development of modern day trousers was closely connected with the beginnings of horse riding.

Some years ago, an archaeological team discovered fragments of trousers contained within two separate tombs. The woollen fabric has been radiocarbon dated to between 1300-1000 BC.

Warrior horsemen

The Yanghai cemetery near the Turfan oasis, western China was discovered by local villagers in the early 1970s, and by 2003, more than 500 tombs had been excavated. The contents of two of these graves were of interest to this particular study; the first being a chamber containing a mummified body of a 40 year-old individual. Altogether, the burial contained 41 well preserved artefacts made of bronze, wood, gold, stone, shell, leather, and wool. A leather bridle decorated with bronze buttons and plaques and an attached wooden horse-bit hung from a stick near the interred individual’s head. Tell-tale indications that this was the grave of a warrior came from the battle axe and leather bracer that were included within the burial chamber.

A second tomb revealed another less well preserved pair of trousers that were similar in style. The deceased individual was again approximately 40 years of age at death and his grave goods included a whip, a decorated horse tail, bow sheath and bow.

Trouser construction

The trousers were made of three independently woven pieces of fabric; rectangular pieces for each leg spanning the whole length from waistband to ankle, and one stepped cross-shaped crotch-piece which bridged the gap between the two side-pieces. The cloth did not appear to be cut, but each part was made on the loom to the correct size in order to fit a specific person. The crotch-piece was made substantially wider than needed for a normal stride. Instead it was made to allow sideward movement of the legs in a wide arc, allowing the wearer maximum freedom to take big strides forward as well as to mount and straddle a horse.

Dating to around 3,200 years old, the trousers come from a time when the first warriors on horseback appeared in the steppes of Eurasia and represent the earliest modern type trousers found so far. As a comparison, the Xinjiang mummies from the Xiaohe burial site which pre-date the Yanghai finds by three to six centuries were dressed in string skirts, leather boots and felt hats, but not in trousers.

Silk Road fashion

The investigations are part of the project “Silk Road fashion: communication through clothing of the 1st millennium BC in Central Asia”.

The project aims to reconstruct techniques and body knowledge, social structures, resource availability and trade networks in Central Asia between 1200 BC and AD 300. Methods of archaeology, textile and leather research, dye analysis, ornament custom, cut analysis, paleopathology, vegetation and climate research, cultural anthropology and linguistics are applied to clothing and equipment.

“Clothes maketh the Man” – this saying is valid as much today as it was 3000 years ago, because, like a second skin, clothes envelop the human body and provide a method of identification, even before a word is spoken. Communication via clothing is a means of expressing lifestyle and thought; it is an indicator of union or isolation. The project “Silk Road Fashion” devotes itself to this subject by investigating textiles, some 3000 years old, uncovered in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwestern China. These extraordinary relics, which were naturally conserved due to the extremely arid climatic conditions prevailing in this region, are of great value in the investigation into the lives of the eastern central Asian population between 1000 BC and 300 AD.

The project analyses apparel that comprise approximately 100 finds and object groups. When, where and why did people wear a particular form of clothing and how was that clothing produced? Does it reveal gender, age or status specific features? If so, which technical methods were used to create those differentiations and can they be characterized as specialized fashions belonging to individual groups? An interdisciplinary group of five German and two Chinese partners, jointly co-operating, examines these questions for the first time.

Past Horizons. 2014. “3,200 year-old trousers found in Silk Road graves”. Past Horizons. Posted: June 7, 2014. Available online:

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