The first evidence in ancient Egypt for “leather” (dḫr) occurs in Neolithic graves of the Badarian (c.5500–4000 BCE) period. These Predynastic dead were provided with leather aprons and cloaks, occasionally decorated with painted geometric designs in black, blue, white, and yellow, as well as sandals, cosmetic bags, and cushions (their leather covers stuffed with vegetable matter). Leather, throughout Egypt's history, was manufactured mainly from the skins of calfs, gazelles, goats, and sheep. Predynastic leatherworkers tanned skins by drying, smoking, salt curing, and coating in ocherous earths. Sometimes skins were softened by the use of dung, fat, and urine; they were tanned by the use of oils and they were tawed with alum (any of a group of astringent mineral salts). Although a rather stiff leather, alumed goatskin sandals were found at Mostagedda and at Thebes in Upper Egypt. The seat of a stool from Tutankhamen's New Kingdom tomb was also of goatskin, but his sandals were of calfskin.

From a Predynastic tannery at Gebelein in Upper Egypt, pieces of leather were found to be treated by a liquor made from the pods of the acacia tree (Acacia arabica), also found there, that contained about 30 percent tannin. A scene in the New Kingdom tomb of the vizier Rekhmire at Thebes probably shows a leatherworker removing a skin from a similar tanning liquor. Before tanning, skins were stripped of hair and flesh by flint scrapers (later by metal scrapers) after a long soaking in brine; they were then steeped in clean water to remove the salt, dirt, and blood. The tanning process included one or more soakings in the tanning liquor. After tanning, hides were dyed red, yellow, or green. They were then stretched and dried over wooden trestles and smoothed with stones. Alum was basic to the finish, acting as a mordant for fixing dyes to leathers. The dyes used included kermes, a purple-red color made from dried female insect bodies (genus Kermes or Coccus ilicis), and madder, a red created from the roots of the madder plants Rubia peregrina and Rubia tinctorium. Yellow may have been obtained from the rind of the pomegranate (Punica granatum); green from a combination of the woad plant (Isatis) with yellow.

The production of footwear has accounted for many of the known leather artifacts. An example of a shoe developed from a sandal design was unearthed at Illahun, a twelfth dynasty workers' town in the Faiyum, although a cobbler's shop has not yet been discovered there. In the tomb of Rekhmire, wall scenes show workers cutting hides into sandal soles and straps with a semicircular bronze knife. This knife cut around a hide's circumference to make lengthy thongs, which were used for stitching leather; they were also twisted into ropes, particularly for ships' cordage. Leather or rawhide thongs were used to lash handles to adze and ax blades, and for making furniture joints. Other leather working tools included copper and bronze awls for piercing holes, horns for the enlargement of holes, and bone (later copper) needles and bodkins for sewing and assembling leather pieces. (Replica and reconstructed ancient tools perform well on both thick and thin leathers.) These tools and techniques produced leather goods for many purposes. Military personnel were supplied with leather footwear, loincloths, shields, body armor, quivers, and wrist guards. Chariots had floors of interlaced leather strips, as did stool and chair seats. Chariot wheel coverings, axle bearings, harnesses, and decorative bodywork were also of leather. Leather was also fashioned into funerary goods, bracelets, dagger sheaths, wall hangings, writing materials, box coverings, mirror cases, and clothing.

Leatherworking is depicted in private tombs that date from the fifth to the twenty-sixth dynasty at Giza, Saqqara, Deshasheh, Beni Hasan, and Thebes. Workshops were likely established near these cemeteries, since commissioned work by the wealthy conferred prestige and favor on highly skilled leatherworkers. An illustration in the fifth dynasty tomb of Ti at Saqqara depicts sandals being offered for sale. A sandalmaker's workshop is shown in the twelfth dynasty tomb of Amenemhet at Beni Hasan in Middle Egypt. One of this nomarch's titles, “Overseer of Horns, Hooves, Feathers, and Minerals,” probably indicates a responsibility to collect leather taxes for the government. This, in turn, implies that all leather goods possessed recognized values. For example, the price of a pair of shoes during the New Kingdom equaled 1 to 2 deben, a standard weight in copper. The system of payment for work by the state, by high officials, and by the temples included leather goods, often leaving workers with surpluses that could be traded for necessities or other goods. A regular international trade in leatherwork is not certain, but in the eighteenth dynasty Theban tomb of Huy, viceroy of Nubia, and in the nineteenth dynasty temple of Ramesses II at Beit el-Wali in Nubia, leather furniture and shields are shown being brought into Egypt as tribute.

Bibliography

  • Brunton, Guy, and Gertrude Caton-Thompson. The Badarian Civilisation and Predynastic Remains near Badari. London, 1928. Authoritative account of the excavation of leather goods from Badarian graves.
  • Carter, Howard. The Tomb of Tut.Ankh.Amen. London, 1923. Describes the leather artifacts and the circumstances surrounding their discovery and excavation.
  • Davies, Norman de Garis. The Tomb of Rekh-mi-Rēʿ at Thebes. New York, 1962. Illustrates and interprets New Kingdom leatherworking scenes.
  • Harris, J. R. Lexicographical Studies in Ancient Egyptian Minerals. Berlin, 1961.
  • Lucas, Alfred. Ancient Egyptian Materials and Industries. 4th rev. ed. by J. R. Harris. London, 1962. Offers a comprehensive discussion of techniques and materials employed by ancient Egyptian leatherworkers; extensive references. (A revised edition is in preparation.)
  • Petrie, W. M. Flinders. Deshasheh. London, 1898. Illustrates and interprets Middle Kingdom leatherworking scenes.

Denys A. Stocks