Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Oh, Those Fashionable Steppe Ladies

More fashion from the past.

Amy Eckhardt, director of the International Program at the University of Pittsburgh, models hemp dresses decorated with designs found on 5,000-year-old horse-bone figurines. (Courtesy Sandra Olsen/Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

This Old Thing?
Volume 61 Number 1, January/February 2008
by Sandra Olsen

And here we have a lovely daytime frock in handwoven hemp, featuring geometric details in vogue on the Eurasian steppe 5,000 years ago. This design is comfortable and practical to wear at work while milking the horses, sweeping out the pit house, or collecting dung for fuel.

As an archaeologist, I'd never before addressed the question of how prehistoric people made and decorated their clothing. But after a series of unexpected discoveries in northern Kazakhstan, my colleagues and I found ourselves particularly interested in the wardrobes of the ancient Botai people.

These early horse-pastoralists lived during the Copper Age, between 3700 and 3100 B.C., on the steppe of present-day Kazakhstan. They occupied a few permanent villages, the largest of which we now know as Botai, and lived in small, square semisubterranean houses.

Although the Botai people lacked innovations such as agriculture and the wheel, they were one of the earliest groups to domesticate the horse--and they had a sense of style too.

These ancient nomads left behind a clue to their fashion sense in the unlikely form of figurines made from horse toe bones. At the site, archaeologists from Petropavlovsk University in northern Kazakhstan recovered 45 of these figurines, mostly from houses. The Botai may have kept them in their homes to ensure protection by a hearth spirit. The shape of the nearly four-inch-long toe bones resembles a woman's torso, so it provides a natural framework for the figurines. We interpreted the incised lines on the bones as representations of dress or tunic designs.

Some of the fine carved lines on the figurines suggest the Botai decorated their clothing with embroidery, applique, or weaving; it's possible they even painted patterns on the garments. We found that geometric ornamentation was usually featured on the front of the piece, while rows of horizontal dashes running down both sides probably represented the seams. Necklines varied, but 10 of the figurines are depicted wearing V-necks.

At the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Deborah Harding, our anthropology collection manager, took handwoven hemp cloth from Hungary and made it into a dress with side seams and other features shown on the figurines. She chose hemp because it is native to Kazakhstan; it was also one of the most common fibers used in ancient times on the Eurasian steppe.

Our experimental garment raised more questions than it answered. For example, the length of our dress made the A-line (or flared bottom) skirt restrictive for bending, so perhaps a slit in back or on the sides would have been advantageous if one really did want to wear it while sweeping out a Copper Age pit house. Of course, it's possible they also wore these garments for special occasions. At the very least we think they probably regarded these dresses as fine enough to adorn their domestic goddesses.

Sandra Olsen is a curator of anthropology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
© 2008 by the Archaeological Institute of America

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