Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Of Tartan, Celts and Long-dead Mummies

by Anna Belfrage

Say “tartan”, and people will immediately think of Scotland – and of kilts. The word conjures up images of stalwart warriors, dressed in skirts as they charge the English soldiers of centuries long gone by. From what one can read on the internet, the combination of a tartan skirt and a hairy male knee is about as close to heaven as one can get, and while having nothing against kilt-wearing men – I find them both handsome and ruggedly male, as they walk about in their heavy swinging garments with God knows what on underneath – I do not necessarily consider hairy knees to be a “die-for” vision.

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.

While our Ancient Egyptians were experimenting with monumental architecture and innovative farming, an entirely different way of life existed on the large Eurasian steppe, that endless roll of grasslands that extends from modern day Ukraine to China. Here people had for generations lived as herdsmen, leading their flocks from one new grazing ground to the other. Being a herdsman was being a nomad. Belongings were transported in carts, entire tribes travelling together as their flocks moved south or west or east. Home was not a permanent residence, home was what you could carry with you, and so fabrics became important, the quality of your textiles shouting to the world just how successful you were.

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
Although the mummies have been found in various locations within the basin, and vary in age, they all share one further common feature; the high quality of the woven textiles they were buried with, many of them with a tartan pattern. Even more intriguing, the tartan patterns uncovered in Chinese Turkestan resemble not only those of the old Hallstatt culture (bi-coloured twill weave or three coloured plain weave) but also those of Scottish tartans (multi-coloured twill), which are not found anywhere else. So, are we looking at very ancient Scottish emigrants? Or are these people the ancestors of present days Scots?

Let us take a step back. Tartan patterns are generally restricted to woollen textiles. To make wool, one needs sheep, an animal that was domesticated well over 8 000 years ago. At the time, the sheep wasn’t woolly, it was hairy, more like a goat. It was bred for its meat, but with the passing of years and a conscious breeding effort, the hairy sheep became a woolly one, so that about 4 000 B.C. we had our classical white fluffy animal (and those of you with a more than passing acquaintance with sheep will know that rarely are they fluffy – or white).

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.

Tokharian princes
Our Ürümchi mummies – or their ancestors – obviously went east, leaving most of their tribe to go the other way. Maybe they went to Hallstatt, Austria and the salt mines, where they would develop into the people we call the Celts. Our voyagers on the eastern road carried with them an Indo-European language. (As late as in the 6th century A.D., a people in the Tarim basin spoke Tokharian, an Indo-European language that has a clear resemblance to the Celtic languages.) Those long-dead travellers also took along a love for their tribal tartan patterns, a love so strong that it would survive the long, slow trek across the endless Eurasian steppe. While none of this is conclusive evidence, I believe the mummies of Ürümchi were, in fact, a side-branch on the Celtic tree.

So where does tartan comes from? I guess it sprang out of love for colour and textile, a silent ode to the world that surrounded the weaver. Maybe she had her eyes captured by the spectacular colour of a winter sunrise, when the muted purplish grey of the receding night is shot through with strands of glowing pink. Maybe she was trying to capture all those elusive colours that lie trapped in the soft caress of an evening breeze - or maybe she was foresighted enough to realise, that somewhere down the line, men would look good wearing a kilt.

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.


  1. What a fascinating post, Anna! Not only do we take our fabrics for granted these days, never realising how much effort used to go into making them, but we also take the colours they are dyed in for granted. Before the invention of chemical dyes in the 19th century, the fabric colour palette was much more muted and limited. Wool and other animal-origin fibres take natural dyes much more easily than do linen and cotton - which explains why the Egyptians didn't wear tartan!

  2. Great blog , I really love your writing style that you are using for your posts and stuff,

  3. That is fascinating.. there really isn't anything new under the sun, is there?

  4. A very interesting post, Anna. I have the book and have also seen a documentary on the mummies; it always fascinates. :)

  5. I love the history of the tartan and the celts. Though my primary focus is on the Picts, I've read eagerly about the celtic origins and loved hearing about the mummies. I've got the book on order. Thank you!

  6. As a hand spinner and weaver, I love this post! I am always talking about how hard it must have been to clothe a family before the Industrial Revolution. I love looking at mummy wrappings and other cloth in museums and am always amazed at the quality of the spinning and weaving.
    I also write historical romances and often mention someone spinning or weaving in my books.

  7. Yes, Michele, I think it was really hard work keeping your family clothed. Personally, I have developed a fascination for plain weave and twill, driving my husband crazy as I study his shirts, my clothes. He finds this especially amusing as he has seen the rather sad resultss of my textile efforts....
    Thank you all for your positive comments!


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