Early Medieval (mostly) Textile #19

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you are all having a wonderful festive season. To start 2022 off with a bang, I am really pleased to be able to bring you a post by Nadeem Ahmad, who is taking us to 5th-century Central CE Asian culture of Sogdiana.

Nadeem is the founding member and lead of the UK-based re-enactment group “Eran ud Turan”, which was founded in 2014. “Eran ud Turan” focuses on the history, art, archaeology, and culture of early medieval Central Asia, especially Sogdiana (located in what is now eastern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and nearby territories in the 7th – early 8th Centuries CE. Nadeem works closely with archaeologists and historians to present the most historically accurate representations of the material culture and writes many of his notes, insights, photosets, and short articles on his Patreon site, which is also his only source of funding (see links below). Nadeem is working towards publication of a photobook which will pair historical reconstructions together with original art and archaeology, including some of the less well-known finds from Central Asia.

In this post Nadeem will be telling us about his work interpreting a 5th-century man’s costume from Old Termez, Uzbekistan.

Replica male costume from Old Termez (5th century)

I recently got this replica of a costume set, which is based on finds from Old Termez burials and dates to the 5th Century CE. The set was made by Yuliya Kavaleuskaya and is fully handstitched (and now that I’ve seen hand-sewn re-enactment clothes, I don’t think I can go back to machine made clothing – the difference is really visible!). The fabric with horses is made by Kazar Bazar, after an example in the Al-Sabah collection, which has been carbon dated to 390 – 480 CE, and published in Pre-Islamic Carpets and Textiles from Eastern Lands (Al-sabah Collection). The set comprises of a tunic and trousers, based on the finds from Termez, with a few minor changes.

Costume sets from Old Termez include three pairs of trousers, one man’s tunic, one woman’s tunic, and two children’s tunics, as well as socks and a hat. They were made of cotton and some of them have silk edgings. They are thought to represent the clothing of the common people of northern Tokharistan in the Hephthalite period (5th – 8th centuries CE). They have been published extensively in Maitdinova, ‘Значение костюмного комплекса для исследования этногенеза (по археолого-этнографическим данным Средней Азии)’,Одежда конца IV – V вв из Старого Термеза, and Исортория Таджикского костюма.

One of the characteristic features of this tunic is the neckline opening, which has a vertical slit opening on the left side of the chest. The opening is fastened by passing ribbons through a loop on the back.

This is an uncommon style of closing a tunic in this period and place. One of the children’s tunics from Old Termez had the same fastening and closure system, so it is likely to have belonged to a young boy. In iconography, however, this type of neckline is quite uncommon. One notable example is from paintings from tomb M4 in Diegengpo, published in De La Vaissiere, Two Sogdian(?) tombs from Gansu: a preliminary note‘. It’s possible that a few other depictions may have represented tunics with this style of collar – tunics with a square panel on the upper chest, such as worn by Farro in the Panel with the god Pharro and worshiper, a 3rd-Century Kushan painting in the Met Museum, New York.

Interestingly, a similar style of tunic is worn by Yashoda, an Indian deity in mythology who is the foster mother of Krishna and the wife of Nanda, in the Gupta era (4th-6th centuries CE) temple at Deogarh, India (many thanks to Laxshmi Greaves for sending me high quality photos of this relief). It is completely absent in Sogdian art, or the art of Gandhara (who inhabited what is now North-West Pakistan and Afghanistan between 800 BCE and 500 CE). Why what appears to be a fairly local style of fashion is being worn by a female deity in Gupta India is an interesting question that is, unfortunately, well out of my remit to answer (or maybe my survey of this type of tunic in art is incomplete, and it exists in India in other contexts too).

I made one major change to my tunic. The original tunic was huge(!), and would have fitted me very poorly. It probably belonged to someone much larger than me, and the sewing pattern was adapted by the local seamstress. In reality, the paintings from Diegengpo show tightly fitted tunics. In this case, I adapted the size and shape of the women’s tunic also found at Termez, which is the same sewing pattern used for the boy’s tunic.

Both the adult tunics, and one of the children’s tunics had multiple large holes in the fabric confined to bands down the front. These holes were made with a large needle, and are thought to be remnants of decorative stones that were stitched to the garment. Stones such as lapis, obsidian, and glass were found in the tombs. I have omitted these for now, but may add some later. On the men’s tunic, this decorative band extends down to the waist.

The trousers also have an interesting mode of fastening. Rather than making these trousers with a wide waist, drawn together with a drawstring, there are separate panels for the front and back, with slits extending downwards from the waist for about 40cm. The back and the front of the trousers are fastened separately with ties around the waist (no ties were found on the original, but they must have been present in some form to fasten the trousers). This slit allows for a very comfortable and flexible fit.

Should I be wearing underwear underneath these trousers? No underwear was found at the Termez site, although shorts are depicted from time to time in Sogdian and Bactrian iconography, due to a (not strict) artistic aversion against nudity (for Sogdian examples, see the Amazon cycle in Panjikent in the Hermitage, and the afterlife scene in Kala-i-Kahkaha, now in Dushanbe; for Bactrian examples, the best example is a seal from Gandhara in the Aman-ur-Rahman collection, published in Shenkar’s chapter ‘Intangible spirits and graven images’ in Intangible Spirits and Graven Images: The Iconography of Deities in the Pre-Islamic Iranian World. (For posting photos online, underwear is a must, although I have omitted them in a few photos with the trousers fully fastened, in order to show the slit better.)

Finally, the set is tied together with a belt. The iron buckle is made after a 4th-to 5th-century example from Ak-Tepe II, in southern Tajikistan, which is published in Sedov, Кобадиан на пороге раннего средневековья, and was made by Jason Green of Wieland Forge. The style of wearing the belt, with the buckle central and the loose strap dangling vertically downwards, is seen in the Hephthalite era (5th – 8th centuries CE) paintings from Dilberjin, now in Northern Afghanistan.

As it stands now, the costume is fairly versatile. It could have been the costume of the common people of late antique Tokharistan, or can be paired with some fancier accessories to make it a bit posher. Some accessories could include a fancier belt with a fancier belt buckle (a golden buckle with an inset stone was found at Kara Tepe near Termez in Southern Uzbekistan), various items of jewellery, and a sword and dagger, such as the examples from the Lyakhsh II burials in Northern Tokharistan or Ak-Tepe II in Lydia, or a cloak fastened with a brooch, such as the example from Lyakhsh II). The set also desperately needs shoes for completion!

Finally – a photo of the underwear I had for the same shoot. No underwear has been found in Central Asia, but some shorts were found at Moshchevaya Balka in the North Caucasus, 8th – 10th centuries CE, and I have simply adapted the sewing pattern and grafted it here. In reality, the fabric should probably be much thinner (the shorts from Moshchevaya Balka were outer wear), and there were probably some slight differences in the sewing pattern in Sogdian underwear, compared with these. But that is a topic for a future Patreon post.

I want to thank Nadeem for this fascinating post. He has shown how much we know and can learn (what needs extra research; there’s always extra research) from recreating and wearing items found in archaeological contexts. This insight into the people and material culture of Old Termez, a culture I knew very little about, has been really enlightening. Next month Fran Sales will be telling us about recreating embroidered hangings for the Norwich Castle: Royal Palace Reborn project.

Contact: If you would like to contact Nadeem or follow him on social media, please see:

Instagram and Twitter: @eranudturan

Facebook: Eran ud Turan

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/eranudturan

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGlbZZg5Zmm0_p5fzawuQWg


Седов, А.В., Кобадиан на пороге раннего средневековья (Institute of Oriental Research, Russian Academy of Sciences, 1987).

Maitinova, Guzel M. Исортория Таджикского костюма (Acad. Sciences Resp. Tajikistan, Institute of History, Archeology and Ethnography, 2004)

Maitdinova, G.M. ‘Значение костюмного комплекса для исследования этногенеза (по археолого-этнографическим данным Средней Азии’, Maitdinova (2001), 81-90

Одежда конца IV – V вв из Старого Термеза, (1996)

Shenkar, Michael,  Intangible Spirits and Graven Images: The Iconography of Deities in the Pre-Islamic Iranian World (Leiden, Brill, 2015).

 Spuhler, Friedrich, Pre-Islamic Carpets and Textiles from Eastern Lands (Al-sabah Collection) (London: Thames and Hudson, 2015).

de la Vaissière, Étienne,  ‘Two Sogdian(?) Tombs from Gansu: a Preliminary Note’, Journal of Inner Asian Art and Archaeology, 6 (2011),137-148, doi.org/10.1484/J.JIAAA.5.107590

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