Bronze Age Fashion

Clothes Make the Person?

Ruins of the outer wall and the “Damascus Gate” at Ebla. Ebla was an important trading empire throughout the 3rd millennium B.C.E. until it was destroyed during the 23rd century B.C.E. At its height, Ebla controlled an area roughly half the size of modern Syria. Ebla’s vast trading network is evidenced by artifacts from Sumer, Cyprus, Egypt, and as far as Afghanistan that have been recovered from the city’s palaces.
Credit: Mappo/CC BY-SA 4.0

Vestis virum facit—clothes make the man. While this quote has been (wrongly) attributed to the Roman educator Marcus Fabius Quintilianus, its dubious authenticity doesn’t make it any less true. Whether we intend them to or not, clothes say something about who we are. This is no less true now than it was centuries ago.

Using Ebla, a city in Syria, as an example, BAR author Alfonso Archi discusses what men, women, and even deities wore in the ancient city. Archi uses both archaeological finds and textual sources to present the fashion choices of kings, priests, and everyday people.

During the Early Bronze Age (c. 3000–2000 B.C.), the state of Ebla was organized as a redistributive system: The central administration goods collected from its own estates and from villages. The goods collected then provided for the elite and for employees of the state. Archaeologists have studied the textual records from these transactions, which describe the types and number of collected goods.

Garments worn by men or woman varied, depending on rank. A traditional outfit for men of higher status consisted of a robe or cloak, a skirt, and a multicolored kilt folded three times. Men of lower status wore a kind of kilt made of lower-quality cloth (this type of kilt would actually be worn as underwear by the king, with a type of prominent belt reserved only for the upper classes).

A woman of high rank would typically wear an outer dress that covered the whole body from the shoulders to the feet. Women of lower rank wore a long robe fixed in place with a toggle pin. They also wore a stole.

While the type of garment varied, as did color and fabrics, the men and women of Ebla would have paid close attention to what they wore. As Archi explains:

Dress qualified a person. In the same way that jewels and weapons decorated with gold conveyed wealth and status, particular articles of clothing were considered prestige goods.

To learn more about Bronze Age Fashion in Syria, including the names and descriptions of garments worn by deities and priests, read “Bronze Age Fashion in Syria” by Alfonso Archi, published in the Spring 2021 of Biblical Archaeology Review.


Subscribers, read more in the BAS Library.

Golan Gem: The ancient synagogue of Deir Aziz Of the approximately one hundred ancient synagogues from, say, 150 B.C.E. to 850 C.E. found in the ancient Land of Israel, an astounding 25 percent are located in the central Golan. How do we explain this?.

Rediscovering the Ancient Golan—The Golan Archaeological Museum by Shlomit Nemlich and Ann E. Killebrew. This remote, sparsely inhabited and sometimes desolate area might seem the last place in the world for a modern archaeological museum. But not to the 600 families who live in Qatzrin. What could be more logical than a museum to display the Golan’s archaeological treasures, to foster pride in the area, to attract tourists and, not least, to encourage scholarly research into the Golan’s fascinating and varied past.

From Ebla to Damascus: The Archaeology of Ancient Syria
by Marie-Henriette Gates. Eight thousand years in the history of ancient Syria are on display in a magnificent exhibit that is touring six American cities.a Collected under the title “From Ebla to Damascus,” its objects vividly illustrate a sweep of civilizations ranging from the simple settlements of the Neolithic seventh millennium B.C. to the great Mesopotamian cultures eventually conquered by the Assyrians, the Babylonians and Alexander the Great, to the rise of Christianity and the impact of Islam.

Subscribers: Read the full piece, “Bronze Age Fashion in Syria” by Alfonso Archi, published in the Spring 2021 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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