Textile, Fashion, and Gender Semiotic Studies in the Ancient Near East (1/2)

These two blogs, which will appear successively, report the preliminary results of three conferences I participated within the framework of “gender studies.”

Kouzehgari, Z. 2022, “Textile as Social Status Marker: Textile and Collective and Individual Fashion in Mesopotamia” (in Smart Textiles: from Antiquity to Modern Times, April 28- 30, Lille, France)

Kouzehgari, Z. 2022, “Towards a Globalize Symbolized Feminine Fashion and Jewelry in the Bronze Age World: Kaunakes and Double Spiral a Case Study” (in Parures désincarnées. Les ornements corporels de l’âge du Bronze comme traceurs des échanges, journée thématique APRAB, 4 (?) March 2022, Saint-Germain-en-Laye- France)

Kouzehgari, Z. 2021, “Development of International Religious, and Royal Fashion for Women in the Ancient Near East During the Bronze Age” (in Old Textiles – More Possibilities,  14-20 June 2021, Copenhagen, Denmark)

Complete articles will appear in the proceedings of the related conferences. The primary purpose of these blogs is to discuss the importance of textile and fashion archaeology in gender studies.

Part 1 explores the role of women in the textile techno-economy of the Bronze Age societies, and Part 2: concerns the socio-cultural aspects of textile function for women.

Part 1: Gender Study and Fashion in Archaeology

Gender study is new in the archaeology of the Ancient Near East. The scholarly literature contains little of gendered examinations during these periods (Pollock & Bernbech, 2016: 152- 153). The study of women in the archaeology of the Middle East is complex. This is because women are rarely represented in the visual art and contextual records from this region (Marcus, 1994 : 3). One of the remarkable points in the surviving imagery of women in the ancient artworks is the sense of representation of their dress, personal decorations, hairstyles or their ‘fashion.’

As a sociological topic, fashion lies at the crossroads of several core subject matters of the discipline, including collective and personal identity dynamics, production, consumption patterns, social distinction, and imitation mechanisms (Aspers & Godart, 2013:172). In this regard, clothes are a source of non-verbal communication which sends messages about who we are, where we come from, and what we do. Fashion and dress and other personal appearance cues are expressions of deep-seated social, cultural, and spiritual values. Thus, as dress and self-decoration in modern societies helped to define and communicate individual and social group identities, being extensions of the body and hence signals of the self, they should likewise serve to clarify personal and social roles in the past. Dress and body adornments may also be seen as symbolic and rhetorical devices, having the ability to move people to act in culturally prescribed ways. Also, a further issue is a relationship between adornment and gender and the understanding that ornamenting the body is a way of constructing and objectifying a set of gender-based social distinctions that are not otherwise visible in the archaeological record (Marcus, 1994 : 3).

Textile Study and Archaeology

Textile research has become an essential field of archaeology in recent years. It has enormous potential to reveal economic, social, chronological, and cultural aspects of its producers, traders, and consumers. The production of textiles, on the one hand, is a result of technology and society, and on the other hand, is the result of peoples’ needs, wishes, and choices, which in turn influence the exploitation of resources (Strand, 2012: 21- 22).

Given that the development of social groups was the most significant transformation in the emergence of an economically and socially complex society (McCorriston, 1997: 517), fabrics take a significant place in the representation of these social classes.

Textiles were widely produced and exchanged throughout the Bronze Age. Cuneiform texts attest to creating several types of textiles made of different materials in royal and other workshops. According to the texts, each kind of fabric was exchanged with varying materials with different values. In this respect, the various clothes worn by different figures could provide valuable clues in studying different social classes and their social status in the Bronze Age societies.

The nature of the evidence

One of the problems in studying textiles is that they are made of a material that rapidly decays, and thus is rarely possible to study a large corpus of ancient textiles. Actual textiles tend to be archaeologically invisible (McCorriston, 1997: 518). In this respect, the study of textile is possible through synthesizing all available secondary evidence, including rare fragmentary remains of textile or their imprints on unbaked clay, representation of clothing on statuary of humans, gods, and goddesses, engravings on seals and sealings, and artworks. However, most evidence for ancient textile production comes from prehistoric tools and historic texts kept by several institutions (royal temples, private estates, and even a few private letters). (McCorriston, 1997: 518; Wright, 2013: 395)

These data generally provide us with two main groups of information about the Bronze Age societies of the Ancient Near East: 

  1. Techno-economic, including  reconstruction of their production techniques and processes and trade patterns
  2. Socio-cultural, including textile function and significance in different social groups and contexts and their application in fashion.
Women in textile techno-economy

The early evidence of textile production demonstrates that women played a fundamental role as the main actors in the field in the Ancient Near East throughout the Bronze Age.

As documented in the imagery from the Late Uruk and Jemdet-Nasr periods (ca. 3300- 2900 BCE), the newly raised urban life depended economically on women’s labor. The so-called ‘pig-tailed’ ladies are represented in activities requiring specific skills, including pottery and agriculture, notably textile and textile-related activities. These seals and sealings are reported from a vast geographical area, including Ur, Jemdet-Nasr, in southern Mesopotamia, Susa, and Choga Mish, in southwest Iran and Tell Brak in the Diyala region (Breniquet, 2016: 13- 23, Figs. 3- 8), as well as Madinat Zayed (Abu Dhabi) (Frenez, 2019: Fig.5) (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Modern impression of seals from Late Uruk and Jemdet-Nasr Periods from Southwest Iran, Southern Mesopotamia, and the Diale region (after Breniquet, 2016: 13- 23, Figs. 3- 8)

The formation of different social classes, including royalty, noble men, different warrior groups, and other social classes during the Early Dynastic Period (ca. 2900- 2250 BCE), as is represented in the Standard of Ur (Early Dynastic I-II), resulting in high demand for different types of textiles to meet the needs of these groups, as well as the furniture required to furnish the palaces, temples, and other monumental and private buildings.

As is evidenced in the written sources, a ‘wool revolution’ occurred in Mesopotamia as the main woven material (Cécile, 2014: 111). The total number of individuals recorded in textile and other related industries reveals that the production of woven fabrics drastically expanded over twenty years. According to these texts, women were the major textile and cloth industry actors. These women served as fullers, felt makers, leather workers, and weavers were organized in groups. However, men mostly managed these workshops (Wright, 2013: 406). In parallel with long-established domestic production, the period corresponded to large-scale textile production (Cécile, 2014: 111).

Although it is difficult to trace the textile production in the preceding Akkadian period (ca. 2350–2150 BCE) through the texts (Wright, 2013), contemporary imagery documents indicate the production of different textiles used in various fashions and styles.

In contrast to Akkad, the royal archives of the second kingdom of Ebla (ca, 2400- 2000 BCE) provide us with a wealth of data concerning textiles’ production and economic functions. These texts were short administrative documents listing fabric, wool, or food leaving the state’s assets. Interestingly women shared a significant part in the consumption of the fabric produced in Ebla. The court ladies and women workers each received specific amounts or types of textiles or wool according to their importance and on various occasions, even with no event. According to their importance, the court ladies also received a portion of wool to make fabrics, blankets, pillows, cushions, carpets, ropes, and textiles for deities. Court ladies and female workers of Ebla received different types of textile on different occasions, including particular ceremonies such as the ritual of royalty or other festivals, as well as births of princes and princesses, inter-dynastic marriages, marriages of princesses with Eblaite high functionaries, princesses going into some temples as priestesses, deaths of queens in other kingdoms, religious ceremonies according to specific rituals with the participation of women of the royal family, etc. They also received textiles when moving from one place to another. The princess was also supplied with a large amount of textile as their dowry on their temple entrance as priestesses. The queen’s mother and the queen had their own chariots, regularly received fabrics for animals or the chariots, and traveled specially to visit some sanctuaries of the goddess Išhara. They could also have sedan chairs (Biga, 2016: 71- 79).  

The Ur III period (ca. 2112- 2004 BCE) provides a large corpus of written sources concerning textile production. These documents show that the weaving and textile-related activities were one of the most documented tasks of the period (Breniquet, 2016: 23). The total number of individuals (male and female) recorded in the texts indicates a growth in the number of textile producers compared to the reduction of workers in other occupations (Wright, 2013: 406; Breniquet, 2016: 23). The number of weavers increased from one-third to two-thirds of the total number of women and children that were employed throughout the year (Wright, 2013: 406). Accordingly, the production of textiles expanded during the twenty years. All aspects of life were affected by the production and consumption of cloth and garments. On the other hand, these establishments applied similar textile production standards. Several types of textiles were graded differently, for example, noted as standard, combed, northern black, or a type which is described as “expensive,” including a fabric listed as “summer cloth” (Wright, 2013: 406- 408).

Women constituted the most significant number of workers in these workshops. The workshops, as in the Innana Temple at Nippur, belonged to the Temples or the princesses. These workshops were set up, financed, and managed by the princesses or their non-royal consorts.  The royal organizations were administered by women with their own seals and may have had scribal training in Sumerian. Women supervisors managed teams comprising twenty and thirty people and received monthly allotments higher than rank-and-file workers. Men also led groups of weavers in supervisory capacities and did not weave cloth (Ibid: 408- 409).


Aspers P. Godart F. 2013. Sociology of Fashion: Order and Change, Annual Review of Sociology 39: 171-192.

Biga, M. 2016. The Role of Women in Work and Society in the Ebla Kingdom (Syria, 24th century BC). In B. Lion & C. Michel (Ed.), The Role of Women in Work and Society in the Ancient Near East, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 71-89

Breniquet, C. 2016. Weaving, Potting, Churning: Women at work during the Uruk period: Evidence from the cylinder seals. In B. Lion & C. Michel (Ed.), The Role of Women in Work and Society in the Ancient Near East, Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 8-28

Cécile M. 2014. The Assyrian Textile Trade in Anatolia (19th century BCE): From Traded Goods to Prestigious Gifts. In K. Dross-Krüpe (Ed.), Textile Trade and Distribution in Antiquity (Textilhandel und -distribution in der Antike), Harrassowitz Verlag: Wiesbaden, 111- 122

Frenez D. 2019. Cross-Cultural Trade and Socio-Technical Developments in the Oman Peninsula during the Bronze Age, ca. 3200 to 1600 BC, Ocnus 27:9-49.

Marcus M. I. 1994. Dressed to Kill: Women and Pins in Early Iran, Oxford Art Journal 17/2: 3-15.

McCorriston. J. 1997. Textile Extensification, Alienation, and Social Stratification in Ancient Mesopotamia, Current Anthropology 38/4: 517-535.

Pollock, S. Bernbeck, R. 2016. And They Said, Let Us Make Gods in Our Image: Gendered Ideologies in Ancient Mesopotamia. in Rautman, A. (Ed.), Reading the Body: Representations and Remains in the Archaeological Record, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 150-164

Strand E. A. 2012. The textile chaîne opératoire: using a multidisciplinary approach to textile archaeology with a focus on the Ancient Near East, Paléorient 38,1/2: 21-40.

Wright, R. 2013. Sumerian and Akkadian Industries: Crafting Textiles, In H.E.W. Crawford (Ed.), The Sumerian World, Routledge Press, 395-417


Zahra Kouzehgari est spécialiste de l’archéologie des armes, des guerres et des sociétés de l’âge du bronze récent et de l’âge du fer en Iran. Membre de l’UMR 5133-Archéorient, Lyon.

Pour citer ce billet : Zahra Kouzeghari. Textile, Fashion, and Gender Semiotic Studies in the Ancient Near East (1/2), ArchéOrient - Le Blog, 9 septembre 2022, [En ligne] https://archeorient.hypotheses.org/19874

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  1. 3 octobre 2022

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