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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East What is This? Provides comprehensive coverage of the history and scope of archaeology in the Near East.


Archaeological remains of garments are scarce, with usually only fragments of textiles recovered. What is known about clothing often can be deduced from accessories, which are generally of metal; from the tools used to manufacture cloth—spindle whorls, loom weights, pattern sticks, spools, and needles; and from representations of garments on stone and terra-cotta statuary cut in stone reliefs, engraved on ivory or metal, painted on ceramic, or executed in mosaic. There are text references, but relating them to the archaeological evidence is not reliable. [See Textiles.]

In the ancient Near East, the basic garment for men was a simple wraparound skirt—a strip of cloth perhaps 60–75 cm wide wrapped around the waist, descending to just above the knee. In Egypt it was worn to just below the knee and was of plain white linen (ANEP 3, 16); in Syria-Palestine it was a brightly patterned linen or wool fabric and often had colored fringes (ANEP 3, 6, 35, 36). Early Sumerian carvings show this skirt made of fleece, with hanging locks of wool (ANEP 23, 24, 27, 163).

Reliefs and wall paintings show this cloth skirt held in place by a sash of woven cloth, usually in a colored pattern and ending in knotted fringes and tassels (ANEP 6, 40, 56). The pin found in burials at the hip of skeletons indicates that it could also be pinned. [See Grave Goods.] This was the garment commonly worn by workers (ANEP 84, 85, 106) and soldiers (ANEP 1, 177) in warm weather; additional upper-body clothing would have been necessary in the cold rainy season (ANEP 35).

In Syria the basic garment for women was also wrapped and draped over one shoulder, leaving the arms bare, and reached to mid-calf or slightly below. It was held in place by a pin at the shoulder and was woven in a great variety of bright patterns (ANEP 3). In Egypt women wore plain white linen wrapped around the torso and sometimes held in place by a strap over the shoulder. A more elaborate version was gracefully pleated (ANEP 407, 408).

Men too wore an over-one-shoulder garment (ANEP 3) or sometimes a long garment formed of two separate lengths of cloth woven in elaborate design that were wrapped around the lower body to reach the ankles. The upper ends covered the chest and back and were brought forward over the shoulders to form a cape (ANEP 43, 52, 54; ANEP II, 3). They may also have worn a separate cape (ANEP 5, 62).

In tomb paintings and stone reliefs, in addition to the sash, common clothing fasteners are frequently illustrated: the simple pin, toggle pin (Bronze Age), and fibula (Iron Age and later). The first was of metal or, more commonly, of bone (it can be distinguished from a needle because the needle, whether of metal or bone, has a hole in its upper, thicker end). The bone pins found in many excavations are 5–10 cm (2–4 in.) long, smoothly polished so as not to snag or tear the cloth, and usually have a small head to keep them from slipping through fabric. Many also have decorative bands incised around their circumference. Fashioned out of the bones of domestic animals, they were probably the cheapest clothing fasteners to produce, except perhaps for pins of wood or thorn, which have not knowingly been found in excavations. Small, graceful bone pins were used in all periods to fasten light clothing of linen or wool.

The toggle pin was metal, 15–25 cm long. [See Jewelry; Metals.] It had a hole through it halfway down the shaft, through which a fastening cord passed, and decorative bands were worked around it (ANEP II, 5). Its size, diameter, and weight indicate that it fastened a coarsely woven heavy woolen cloak rather than a light summer garment, as it would damage a fine fabric.

The fibula (Lat., “safety pin”) is a light metal rod fine enough to be bent into a circle and a half in the middle, to form a spring. To use it, both ends are squeezed together and the sharp end is placed into a bend at the other end; when the pressure is released, it fits there firmly. The bent end is sometimes in the form of a tiny metal hand, whose fingers clasp the pointed end; this whimsical form endured for centuries. Both plain and “hand” fibulae are frequently found in excavations.

The number of needles excavated attests to how extensive sewing was in the ancient world. The needles are of metal or bone. [See Bone, Ivory, and Shell.] Sewing was essential for tent making, for joining tent panels, and for reinforcing the bands that kept the tent poles from piercing the roof panel. [See Tents.] Sewing was also essential in agriculture: folded lengths of heavy cloth were stitched up their sides to make the numerous bags needed for storing the year's harvest of wheat, barley, and lentils; after the bags were filled, they were sewn closed across the top.

Sewing was less essential in the manufacture of clothing because the most common garments had no seams (see above). However, garments did need mending or the decorative colored stitching apparent in carvings and paintings. Those garments that would have needed sewing had an opening at the neck (ANEP 3), down the front, or at the arm openings. Garments with sleeves (tubular sleeves, in contrast to a fold of cloth hanging off the shoulder) also would have required sewing. Egyptian tomb paintings show men's robes from Syria with sleeves to the wrist; the seams are covered with decorative embroidery in a contrasting color (ANEP 2, 4, 5, 45, 46, 47).

Common headgear for both men and women was a headband tied to hold the hair in place (ANEP 3, 4, 5, 6, 27, 43, 54). What may be a hat from the Neolithic period was found in a cave in Naḥal Ḥemar in Israel. To judge from stone reliefs, hats were also commonly worn by men in particular social classes and reflect status or public office (ANEP 11, 26, 36, 37, 61; ANEP II, 47). Tall, elaborate, and symbolic hats identify deities in monumental stone reliefs and small sculptures, distinguishing them from humans; special hats or crowns commonly appear on reliefs of kings and dignitaries. Ivories from Late Bronze Age Megiddo show women in stiff caps with fabric hanging down behind, like a short veil, but one that does not cover either the face or the ears. (ANEP frontispiece, 125) In the Assyrian relief of the conquest of Lachish (ANEP 373), women wear hooded cloaks. [See Megiddo.]

Sumerian reliefs show men wearing fleece skirts and jackets. Leather was used for shoes and clothing—probably more commonly for military clothing—but it is difficult to identify it in art. Two types of shoes are, however, identifiable in reliefs and paintings: the sandal and the closed shoe. In Egypt, at Beni Hasan, a tomb painting shows women wearing closed shoes with high tops that reach above the ankle; the men are wearing sandals (ANEP 3, 39, 40). Both kinds of footwear appear to be of leather, although less costly sandals of woven plant fibers were probably common. Hittite reliefs show men wearing closed shoes that are turned up at the toes, to facilitate walking on rocky terrain (ANEP 36). The earliest reference to the different fit of right and left shoes also comes from Hittite culture, from about 1500 BCE.

The Mari tablets and other ancient contracts stipulate that workers are to receive one new garment a year as part of their wages. This rule of thumb indicates that in good times each person would possess more than one garment—perhaps one best dress and several worn ones. The latter would gradually be cut down for children's clothes and the scraps reused for household and pastoral/agricultural purposes. Scraps of cloth could be used to patch other garments, to strain milk, wrap cheese, drain yoghurt, tie small packages of spices, hold seeds, cover the udders of goats when weaning the young, and to wash with; they were also useful as diapers, as parts for donkey and camel harnesses, and as saddle blankets.


  • Barber, E. J. W. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton, 1991.
  • Barber, E. J. W. Women's Work, the First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. New York, 1994.
    This and the work above are careful and thorough surveys of textile evidence; because so few garments exist, the study of clothing before the Coptic and Byzantine periods relies on scraps or pictures of textiles
  • Houston, Mary G. Ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Persian Costume. 2d ed. London, 1954.
    Well-illustrated work that considers garments mainly from a technical perspective, analyzing their construction
  • Pritchard, James B. The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament (ANEP). Princeton, 1954.
  • Pritchard, James B. The Ancient Near East, vol. 2, A New Anthology of Texts and Pictures (ANEP II). Princeton, 1975.
  • Schick, Tamar. “Perishable Remains from the Nahal Hemar Cave.” Journal of the Israel Prehistoric Society 19 (1986): 84–86, 95*–97*.

Dorothy Irvin

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