Nubians at Hierakonpolis: Week 1:
A Loincloth in Tomb 9
Tomb paintings in Egypt, at any rate, indicate that leather loincloths were worn over a linen undergarment in order to protect the linen and the wearer from hard use. A handful of complete examples exist to tell us how they worked, the most spectacular being in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Found by Howard Carter long before he discovered Tutanhkamun, it belonged to a very interesting man called Maiherpra, who was granted the considerable of honor of being buried in the Valley of the Kings. Discovered at a time when many great finds were being made in Egypt, the tomb, the man, and his loincloth have perhaps not received the attention they deserve (see Maiherpra).
|Left, An Egyptian loincloth with the typical cut-out diamonds. (British Museum 2564). Right, Egyptian sailors wearing a variety of leather cut-out loincloths over linen undergarments. Tomb of Pere. Dynasty 18. (From N DeG. Davies and A. Gardiner, Ancient Egyptian Paintings 1936).|
The large mesh of most of the Egyptian New Kingdom examples would have made a linen undergarment an obvious necessity, but whether the same is true for the finer slit work garments known from Nubia, where linen was not commonly worn, remains to be seen.
Although it took some time before Maiherpra's loincloth was identified as such, from tomb paintings, it is clear how they were worn. The wider part of the loin cloth was placed along the back and tied around the waist, the solid panel placed over the buttocks, while the rounded end was pulled up between the legs and tied in front. In the extant examples, the garment is made from a single piece of soft hide, often gazelle skin, with a wide band of solid leather across the top and the edges. Except for a solid rectangle worn at the rear, the rest of the piece is a mesh-work of cut-out slits, or, more commonly in Egyptian examples, large diamonds, producing a flexible, light, and certainly breezy garment.
These well-preserved examples all differ from our "loincloth" in a number of ways, which may be due to time differences--Tomb 9 probably dates to the Middle Kingdom--but it may also have to do with where it was made.
Only fragments of cut-out leather work have been found in Nubia itself or within Pan Graves, but these show basically the same slit pattern as the pieces from Tomb 9. Unfortunately not enough of them are preserved to tell whether they were made from a single skin, but the one in Tomb 9 is definitely not. It took some time, but after laying out all of the many pieces in a specially constructed cat-proof room (apparently old leather smells a lot like mice), Fran managed to make sense of it all--well almost--but also a lot more.
Carefully scrutiny suggests that we may have two garments: one with larger rectangular cut work; and another with fine slits. Whether they are loincloths as described above remains a very good question, for what we have appears to be complicated and labor intensive to produce.
Gingerly prodding the best-preserved piece, Fran was able to observe the great amount of work that went into the garment, whatever it might be. Unlike the museum specimens, it was created from a seemingly vast number of small precut panels of leather that had been cut with a specific number of rectangles per row, leaving special margins around the edges to allow for sewing together. The majority are long thin rectangular panels, 3-4cm wide, with approximately five cut outs per cm, ranging from 3 to 5mm in length. Just to make it more intricate, there are also wider square panels with somewhat finer cut work, also of standardized dimensions. These panels were then fitted together perhaps for decorative effect and carefully sewn, but into what?
We have only a limited number of clues to guide us. Fran was amazingly able to discern within the crumpled mass the waistband, a band of leather with four lines of very fine slashes (not cut outs) that was sewn onto the solid leather tab or tie string. From there she could start to piece together what she saw on paper, and her best efforts are given in the sketch. The junction of the tie string with the waistband and the rest of the garment was reinforced with small solid panels, no doubt to bolster the strength of the garment at this stress point. The garment's construction also allowed for many intentional gathers and folds suggesting that it flared out in various ways that are difficult to understand for a loin cloth. Perhaps this technique was used to tailor a more form fitting item, though what form that might be is hard to envision. Could it be part of a skirt or a kilt instead?
It was much easier to see the piece-work construction technique on the fragments of the finer cut-work leather as the pieces lay flat. It is made up of small panels--only 3cm in width and 10cm or more in length--that were sewn together along their solid margins. The quality of this leather work is breathtaking. With 14 slashes across set three rows per centimeter, that makes 42 of these tiny cuts in one square cm. This work compares with the finest known anywhere: the loincloth of Maiherpa with its 40 staggered little slashes across per inch!
Although we found the coarser "loincloth" and pieces of the fine leather in close proximity, we can see no evidence that they were part of the same garment. The sewing of the seams of the two pieces differs markedly, suggesting that we do indeed have two separate items of apparel. The quality of the workmanship alone should not preclude this fine leather from being part of a loincloth, as Maiherpra's example shows, yet unexpected clues from Tomb 9 suggest an entirely different function.
It was only after Fran had nearly gone blind counting miniscule cut-out rectangles that it finally dawned on her where she had seen something before just like it: the left ear of the skull. And not just the ear. A good look at the skin preserved on the chin showed the same telltale stains of fine cut outs, suggesting that this leather item had been placed over the head and tied under the chin.
After much dinner table discussion, we decided to discount the possibility that this was some kind of a hazing ritual involving the wearing of underpants on the head or even a posthumous insult when the family finally could express their real opinion of the deceased. Instead it may be possible that "loincloths" were one of those all-purpose articles of clothing, kind of like bandanas, so that when not need to gird the loins they could keep the hair in place. Nevertheless, it seems a whole lot simpler to imagine that, contrary to generally held opinion, leather cut-out work was not used exclusively for loincloths. This exceedingly fine leather work may in fact be exactly what it appears to be: a hair net.
In this regard, it is interesting to note that a loincloth in the British Museum (see above), at the time of its purchased in 1835, long before the function of loincloths was understood, was described as the cap of a boy. Although this, of all the known loincloths, shows the most evidence of actual use (fragments of linen still adhere to one side, and the creases in the leather from being bunched up between the legs are still evident), this description suggests that leather netting had been seen around the head of other bodies more than 150 years ago, at a time when preservation of ancient remains was much better than it is now.
Why the Nubians used a construction method involving so many small panels is unclear. In the case of cut-out leather, it may have provided additional strength, but it seems to have been the preferred method for constructing all items of leather apparel and the owner of Tomb 9 had several.
A great deal of leather was found in this tomb, much exhibiting the same patchwork construction but involving solid pieces of fine leather that had been dyed or bleached shades ranging from beige into orange and brown tones to deep purple, but it seems that pink (white leather with red pigment applied) was the color they liked the best. And it that wasn't colorful enough, additional squares or diamonds in contrasting hues were applied with a running stitch at appropriate points.
Amid all the seams, appliqués, and backings, it is really amazing that Fran was able to make any kind of sense out of any of it at all. Yet the large mass of leather along the side of the tomb, which we found overlying part of the arm, does appear to be a sleeve, as well as a fashion statement. Although we have no depictions with which to compare it, panels of white and brown leather arranged in alternating horizontal stripes with each stripe gathered at each lower edge apparently created a tapering sleeve. A doubling of the leather near the top suggests a reinforcement at the shoulder.
It must have been quite an outfit--hair net, loincloth (?), jacket, and matching (or contrasting) kilt--who would have imagined the Nubians to be so colorful and that is even before we add the beads! So, who was wearing this? We have conflicting information. Loincloths are considered articles of the male wardrobe while tattoos are almost exclusively found on women. Perhaps once we know the sex of the occupant we can revise or confirm some of our interpretations, but this must wait for the arrival of our physical anthropologists. Enough of the body (including the entire pelvis) was recovered, so we remain hopeful for a definitive answer. Once we know for sure, we'll let you know who exactly it was who was so pretty in pink.