Neither here nor there, as this post is supposed to be about tartan – or plaid, as some Americans say. Tartan is not a Scottish invention. Nor is it an Irish invention, which would otherwise be a logical conclusion, as the Scots originated in Ireland. Ancient Celts – from which both the Irish and, by association, the Scots, are descended – were known for their love of tartan, further borne out by the finds in Hallstatt, Austria. This is believed to have been the heartland of the Celtic culture back in the 8th century B.C., and the prehistoric burial grounds, as well as the old salt mines, have turned up quite a number of bits and pieces in tartan – skilfully woven twill cloth with horizontal and vertical stripes of different colours.
For us modern people, it is difficult to fully comprehend the effort that went into making clothes in the past. Most of us wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a plain weave or a twill weave, we never consider the work that has gone into the garments we so casually pull off the rack to wear.
For the truly ancient people, clothes weren’t much of an issue. The cave dwellers used skins to cover themselves with, and given the general conditions in which they lived, this was a smart choice. But I bet you that already back then, someone was decorating their leather covering with whatever they could find, transforming a shapeless garment into an individual fashion statement.
Millennia rolled by, and people learnt to farm. In Egypt arose cultures where clothes were definitely of importance, but given the heat, the thinner the better, and so the Egyptians concentrated on linen and cotton, on light colours to reflect the glare of the sun. I am sure the skilled Egyptian weavers would now and then decorate the products from their looms with a contrasting line in red, or blue, but to go as far as a colourful tartan, that they did not.
Textiles don’t do well over time. They rot, they get degraded to rags, end up thrown in the fire. As a consequence, only rarely do we find any remnants of the clothes worn by people who died thousands of years ago – unless they were buried in very dry conditions, such as the Andean altiplano or the Tarim basin in Central Asia, home to the Taklamakan desert, the most arid place on earth. And it is to this rather inhospitable area that we must go to find the oldest known tartan specimens in the world. Asia, you say, having major problems envisioning a Japanese kimono in Black Watch tartan. Yup, Asia.
For very many years, the Eurasian Steppe was considered a one-way street. The Huns, for example, came from the east and moved west, causing destructing and chaos as they went. Some centuries later, and it was Djingis Khan, leading his Mongol Horde from east to west. Only recently have we begun to realise that some migrants went the other way, travelling from west to east. Some of them apparently ended up in the Tarim basin, developed a flourishing culture that survived for several centuries before they disappeared, floating off without leaving much of a trace – except for two things; documents in a now extinct language, and the Ürümchi mummies.
Some of the Ürümchi mummies are old. Very old, well over 3 000 years. They are also remarkably well-preserved, having been buried in almost perfect conditions from a preservation perspective. Astoundingly, the mummies seem to be Caucasian – very strange in Chinese Turkestan, where the predominant population is either Chinese or Mongol. But the mummies have blond hair, they are tall (very tall) and fair-skinned, they have high-bridged noses and round eyes. Interestingly enough, this tallies with descriptions in ancient Chinese texts, referring to a neighbouring people of great height, with fair or red hair and deep-set blue eyes. These Nordic hunks hung around in one form or other until somewhere midway through the first millennia A.D. They were the Tokharian.
|From "The Mummies of Ürümchi" by E.W.Barber|
Suddenly, there was a lot of wool. Spindles were invented, and looms were adapted to handle this new material, rather different from flaxen thread/yarn. Plain weave was replaced – or complemented – with twill weave (in which two threads of the warp are looped together by the weft, with an offset between the rows, thereby creating a diagonal pattern that runs through the fabric). Twill had the advantage of allowing for a tighter weave, thereby making the resulting cloth warmer. All of this seems to have happened in present day Turkey or thereabouts, a remnant of twill having been found in a 3 000 B.C. grave in central Turkey.
At the time, Anatolia and the Caucasus was a veritable melting pot for humanity. Innovations were made at an impressive speed: domesticated horses, carts, sheep, woollen textiles. All these novelties were shared between the peoples, probably using some sort of proto Indo-European language. And then, for whatever reasons – maybe they fell out, or maybe the grazing became restricted, or maybe some of them just wanted to see the world – began the exodus from the Caucasian heartlands, with some going east while the majority went west.
If you want to read more about the Ürümchi mummies and their fascinating textiles, I strongly recommend “The Mummies of Ürümchi” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.
Anna Belfrage is the author of four published books, A Rip in the Veil , Like Chaff in the Wind, The Prodigal Son and her latest release, A Newfound Land. Set in seventeenth century Scotland and Virginia/Maryland, the books tell the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him. For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website or her blog.