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

Part 2: Socio-cultural aspects of textiles and women

This is the second part of the blog entitled “Textile, Fashion, and Gender Semiotic Studies in the Ancient Near East” this part deals with the socio-cultural aspects of the textile functions by women the ancient societies. The main source of evidence for this part is iconography and imagery documents.

Along with the reference to various types of textiles in written sources, iconography is the other source of evidence for textiles, although this is quite rare. Textiles are represented in the scenes engraved on cylinder seals and sealings in the form of cloths/garments/cloaks on the figures or in the statues of the period under study. They are rendered plain, with straight lines, zigzag lines, diagonal lines, or with leaves/feathers, which are known as ‘kaunakes.’ These distinctive styles used in textile representation provide insight into the different types of textiles themselves. 

The pig-tailed ladies, portrayed on seals during the Late Uruk and Jemdet-Nasr periods (ca. 3300-2900 BCE), are depicted wearing plain clothing, although on a small scale. Another contemporary image, the blue stone in the British Museum, as well as the lady associated with Innana on the upper register of the Warka Vase in the Iraq Museum, illustrate ankle-length belted dresses made of plain textiles (Fig. 1A-B).

Fig 1: A: Blue stone recording of the first woman known by name, Jemdet Nasr–Early Dynastic period, ca. 3000–2750 BC, (Hansen, 2003: 9), B: A pig-tailed woman (probably Innana) represented in the top register of the sacred or votive vase of Warka.  Warka (ancient Uruk), southern Mesopotamia, Jemdet Nasr period, 3000-2900 BCE.

With the development of the priest-kings during the Early Dynasty I-II (ca. 2900- 2250 BCE), several types of textiles appeared in the iconography of the period, as seen in the robes and kaunakes dresses. The textiles shown in the figures represent the person’s social status.

The standard of Ur which represented different social classes shows that different social groups wear distinct groups of clothes. Only the major figure, sitting at the upper register wears a kaunakes robe (Fig. 2. A). At the same register, a pig-tailed woman (probably a singer) is depicted wearing a plain fringed robe (Fig. 2. B). The noble men, sitting opposite the major figure, and the men in the second register all wear fringed robes. The soldiers wear the same skirt under their cloaks (Fig. 2. C).

Fig. 2: A: details of the major figure depicted on the upper register of standard of Ur, B: The male and female musicians on the standard of Ur, C: The soldiers depicted on the Standard of Ur (after Read, 2003:  97- 100, Cat. 52.)

A variety of statues depict female worshipers or priestesses during the Early Dynastic II period, who wear mantles over their left shoulders and have their hair styled differently. However, although the mantels are the same in style, there appears to be a difference in the fabric used, including plain, fringed end plain, and kaunakes (Fig. 3. A-D). Men are also displayed with robes made from the same textiles as the female statues.

ig. 3: A: Standing female worshiper, Early Dynastic IIIa, (ca. 2600- 2500 BC), from Nippur temple of Inanna   (Level VIIB), the Sumerian goddess of abundance, Metropolitan Museum (Legrain, 1927: 224).  B: The figure wears a mantle over the left shoulder; fringe at the bottom; Early Dynastic Period III, Ur VII,  (Woolley, 1976: 83). C: Standing female,  wearing wears a kaunakes over the left shoulder leaving the right shoulder and breast bare, she is holding a cup in her right hand and a branch in her left hand, Early Dynastic II, Sin Temple VIII, Khafaje, Oriental Institute (Frankfort. 1939: 31- 37, Pl. 87F-90F, no. 136) D: Female statue wearing a so-called kaunakes, Early Dynastic Period, Temple of Sin, Khafaje, (ancient Tutub), Oriental Institute (Budin, 2022: fig. 13).

An example of a standing female worshiper is found at the temple of Inanna, Level VIIB, Nippur. She wears an elegant, plain knee-length mantle (Fig. 3. A). A further example can be found in Ur VII, during the Early Dynastic III period. The statue is shown wearing a plain fringed end shawl (Fig. 3. B). The statue from the temple of Sin at Khafaje (ancient Tutub) is depicted wearing kaunakes and having its hair elaborately coiffed (Fig. 3. C). The last female statue from the Sin Temple, Khafaje, is dressed in kaunakes. The lady holds a cup in her right hand and a branch in her left (Frankfort. 1939: 31- 37, Pl. 87F-90F, no. 136) (Fig. 3.D). A scene depicted on the Standard of Ur from Mari indicates that the textile used for the kaunakes was also used for the furniture.

As the royal courts developed with enthroned kings in the last phases of Early Dynastic III (ca. 2550-2250 BCE), noble women assumed more social positions. As a result, they became involved in political, social, and religious affairs. They served as queens, royal wives, mothers of princesses in palaces, and high-ranking nuns in temples. Artwork from this period represents women in similar positions with the same significance as men. The plaque from the Sin Temple at Khafaje depicts two major male and female figures sitting on thrones at the same levels. They are depicted in a banquet scene, sitting next to their servants while holding beakers in one hand and bindles in the other (Frankfort, 1935, fig. 35; Andre-Salvini, 2003: 73, ca.32). The clothes they are wearing are different. The man is wearing a fringed skirt, and the lady an ankle-length, mantel. Both clothes seem to be made from the same fabric (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: The Upper part of a wall plaque with banqueters and musicians, Khafajah, Sin Temple, Early Dynastic IIIA (ca. 2250- 2400 BCE), The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (A12417) (after Andre-Salvini, 2003: 73, cat. 32)

A votive plaque from Ur (modern Tell el-Muqayyar) depicts two women participating in a libation scene in front of a temple façade (Andre-Salvini, 2003: 74, cat. 33). The women wear different styles of clothing and have their hair coiffed differently. Considering their position in the scene, the women are of different social statuses. A woman in front, shown in frontal position, is dressed in a belted robe and an ankle-length cloak made of thick, plain fabric. She wears a headdress and has elaborately coiffed hair. Finally, we see a woman in profile wearing a plain knee-length mantle that covers her right shoulder and leaves her left shoulder uncovered. Metal bands are used to collect this lady’s hair at the back (Fig. 5). 

Fig. 5: The lower register of Wall plaque with a libation scene, Ur, Early Dynastic III, ca. 2250- 2250 BCE, British Museum BM 118561 (after Andre-Salvini, 2003: 74, ca. 33)

Two other women are depicted on a cylinder seal in the Berlin Museum (Reade, 2003: Fig. 37). They are shown standing in front of a temple façade, in the presence of a god. The woman in the front wears a belted ankle-length robe with her hair styled in pigtails. This woman is holding a spouted vessel, and it appears that she is in charge of the libation. The next woman, behind her, is wearing a cloak made of a kind of thick, plain fabric. Her clothes and hairstyle are similar to those of the woman on the votive plaque mentioned above (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6: Modern impression from a marble cylinder seal showing two women in front of a god, Early Dynastic III. Ca. 2550- 2250 BCE, Staatliche Museem zu Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum (VA 3878) (after Reade, 2003: Fig. 37

On two cylinder seals from Queen Puabi’s tomb at Ur, women are depicted participating in banquet scenes with men. Both men and women appear in separate scenes with their attendants or servants. The men are dressed in plain, fringed skirts. The ladies are shown wearing different dresses and hairstyles. The leading lady sitting on the throne, which is probably the queen, is draped in an ankle-length mantle made of plain fringed-end fabric. She has her hair gathered at the back with metal (gold) bands, similar to those found in royal tombs at Ur. The other two women wear similar mantels but have their hair styled in different styles (Fig. 7). The royal women’s dresses may have been lavishly embroidered with gold, lapis lazuli, and carnelian beads as discovered in the royal tombs at Ur.

Fig. 7: Modern impression of a cylinder seal from Queen Puabi royal tomb, showing banquet scenes of groups of people wearing fringed robes,  Early Dynastic Period, ca. 2600 BCE (after Reade, 2003: 109, n.60a)

The political unification of Summer during the Akkadian period brought about significant changes to the organization of society. It is likely that state-organized workshops would have taken precedence over other institutions, although textiles were still produced on a small scale in temples and at “private” estates. Iconographic evidence indicates that these changes also resulted in visible changes in elite dress and clothing styles (Wright, 2013: 407).

The iconography of this period represents a highly stratified society in which each rank is associated with a particular fashion and style. Accordingly, fashion served as a “social status marker” during the Akkadian period. Clothing was a means of distinguishing queens, goddesses, semi-divine characters, princesses, servants, and other ordinary women. 

From the Akkadian period, the significant goddesses are depicted wearing kaunakes with multi-horned headdresses, which characterize their high religious position. In the iconography of the period, Ishtar appears most frequently. The modern impression of a seal in the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago (A27903) shows Ishtar wearing a long kaunakes dress with her left shoulder bare (Fig. 8. A). 

There is another female figure on two discs in the Pennsylvania University Museum, in addition to Ishtar (Hansen, 2003: Figs. 60, no. 120). This lady wears a long dress made of kaunakes, which is similar to the garments worn by the female statue from Mari during the Early Dynastic III period. In both scenes, she is depicted wearing ‘polos’ (Fig. 8. B, C). She is associated with Enheduanna, daughter of Sargon I, high priestess of Zirru, and wife of Nanna. Consequently, her dress and polos reflect her high status as a princess, high priestess, queen, and goddess.

Fig. 8: A: Part of the modern impression of a cylindrical seal representing Ishtar in kaunakes and multi-horned headdress, Akkadian period (ca. 2334–2154 BC), (after Tamur, 2021: Fig. 18), B: Representation of a priest, presumably Eheduanna, daughter of Sargon on a calcite alabaster disk, the priest-princess wears a kaunakes and a ‘polos’ headdress (after Hansen, 2003: fig. 60), C: Enheduanna represented on her disk, Ur (modern Tell el-Muqayyar), Akkadian period, ca. 2300 BCE (after Hansen, 2003: 128)

A new type of dress/garment made of a distinct type of textile, striped/pleated, was introduced into the iconography during the Akkadian period. Women wearing these dresses wear single-horned headdresses. The figures are depicted in front of the main gods or goddesses wearing kaunakes dresses and multi-horned headdresses. An Akkadian seal depicts a figure, wearing a striped/pleated long dress and a single-horned hat, as Nanše, sister or nephew of Ishtar (Fig. 9. A). An image of a woman playing the harp is depicted on a baked clay piece. She is wearing a striped/ pleated dress (Fig. 9. B). Her headdress and the upper part of the plaque are not clearly visible, but the style of her long, straight hair with upward curved ends can be compared to Nanše.  A female figure from the Elamite period in Iran is wearing a similar stripped dress and single-horned hat. She is standing behind a male figure wearing a multiple-horned hat (Fig. 9. C). Compared to the Mesopotamian figures, this Elamite lady is distinguished by her long hairstyle. Mesopotamian women have curved ends of their hair, while Elamite semi-goddesses have straight ends.

Fig. 9:  A: Representation of goddesses Ninishkun, on the modern impression of a cylinder seal, Akkadian period (detail from Tamur, 2021: Fig. 18), B: Plaque with a female musician playing harp, Ischali, baked clay – Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago (Public domain), C: Perforated stone, with Linear Elamite text. Louvre Museum Sb6 Sb177.

As in the Early Dynastic III period, another group of women was depicted on seals wearing a particular dress, similar to Queen Puabi. Their hair is gathered with golden bands at the back of their heads. The women in this group appear to represent royal or court women (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10: Cylinder seal (and modern impression) with mother and child attended by women, Ur (modern Tell el-Muqayyar), PG 871, Akkadian period (ca. 2334–2154 BC); University of Pennsylvania, excavated 1928; B16924. (Tamur, 2021: Fig. 19).

Due to the systematic production of textiles, they were utilized in the society of Ur III in a systematic manner. Different seals and sealings from this period depict male and female figures dressed in different garments. Accordingly, their positions in the scenes are reflected in their dresses and headdresses as well. During this period, goddesses are still depicted wearing kaunakes with horned headdresses. The semi-goddesses and goddesses of lower rank wear long, stripped/pleated dresses with horned headdresses.

The Mesopotamian seals portray another group of women wearing long dresses made of plain textiles with embroidered shawls. These figures have their hair styled with metal bands at the back of their heads. Therefore, these figures are interpreted as semi-divine or royal in nature (Fig. 11).

Fig.11: Greenstone cylinder seal; a goddess wearing a striped robe and a multiple-horned head-dress stands with both hands raised behind a worshipper (owner of the seal – Hash-hamer?) in a fringed robe, bald and clean-shaven, who raises his right hand. He is being led by the second goddess in a flounced robe and multiple-horned who raises her left hand (after Evans, 2003: no. 310)

There are representations of women wearing dresses with embroidered shawls in the female statues of this period. On various statues reported from Tello (Fig. 12. A-C), these dresses are represented in distinctive styles.

Fig. 12: A: Terracotta figurines, Tello, Louvre Museum (after Horst, 1991, 41), B:  Limestone statue of a high priestess, dressed in the style of the Gudea period. Ca. B.C. 2400 BCE,  Babylon, University Museum, (Legrain, 1927: 236), C: Statue, Neo-Sumerian Period, Girsu, Tello, Louvre Museum (Heuzey, 1902: 97).

The statuary of Elam, from contemporary contexts, depicts female status with long dresses and embroidered shawls (Fig. 13). Throughout the Neo-Elamite period, this style is evident in the iconography of Elam. 

Fig.13: Shell, the figure of a lady in a floor-length fringed shawl that extends obliquely from under her right arm up her left shoulder, drapes over the right side of her body, Susa, Early second millennium BCE. (Prudence et al. 1992: Fig. 59).

In summary:

Throughout the Bronze Age, weaving was a craft practiced by women. Written sources and images document this fact. These newly developed urban centers, which emerged during the Late Uruk and Jemdet-Nasr periods, greatly depended on the labor of these women. This is also reflected in the mythology of the time period. Weavers are represented with spiders on seals and sealings from this period, symbols of “Uttu, goddess of weaving”. 

During the subsequent, Early Dynastic Period, stratified political and social structures were developed, resulting in the systematic production and consumption of textiles for clothes and garments.

Various garments/clothes are worn by female figures according to their social and religious status in artistic representations. These garments are completed with headdresses, hairstyles, jewelry, or general ‘fashion’ in the following periods. 

During the Akkadian period, there were more stratified functions for several types of textiles. Religious figures, goddesses, goddesses of lower positions, and semi-divine or royal characters are represented in different fabrics and fashions. There is a distinct style of dress and hairstyle for the royal ladies.

During the Ur III period, it became a convention to depict deities and divine characters in kaunakes and long, stripped/pleated dresses accompanied by horned headdresses. The court ladies, including the queens and princesses, are portrayed in a particular style, consisting of plain textiles with embroidered shawls. While this style was used to describe court ladies throughout the Ancient Near East, each region (court) had its own distinctive style, as evidenced by the statues from Susa, Tello, and Sumer. 

Selected bilbiography

Andre-Salvini, B. (2003). Tello (Ancient Girsu), in J. Aruz (Ed.), Art of the First cities; the Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus (pp. 68- 78), New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Frankfort, H. (1935). Oriental Institute Discoveries in Iraq, 1933/34. OIC 19. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Frankfort, H. (1939). Sculpture of the Third Millennium B.C. from Tell Asmar and Khafājah. Oriental Institute Publications 44. Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Reade, J. (2003). The Great Death Pit at Ur, in J. Aruz (Ed.), Art of the First cities; the Third Millennium B.C. from the Mediterranean to the Indus (pp. 120- 132), New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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


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 (2/2), ArchéOrient - Le Blog, 16 septembre 2022, [En ligne] https://archeorient.hypotheses.org/19942

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