Written by Victoria Green
Archaeology can be a lot like a game of Cluedo. Trying to work out where, who, why, and what this all means in the grand scheme of things. For this reason, I did not shy away from the challenge of researching our Theban artefacts. I found myself quickly drawn into the debate surrounding our pieces; the jury had been out for a long time over whether or not the fragments were from a cap, or a pair of underpants.
Have you ever wondered what underwear looked like in Ancient Egypt? I know I hadn’t, at least not until I was introduced to the two examples of loincloths in the National Leather Collection. John Waterer, founder of the collection, was a keen acquirer. He prized the unusual and rare, and this is undoubtedly what drew him to purchase these items. The pieces aren’t particularly pretty, but they are a somewhat endearing, every-day memento from an age long passed.
John Waterer acquired these items from the Hilton-Price Collection. Frederick George Hilton-Price was an Egyptology enthusiast and also a bit of a magpie collector. He lived through the boom of antiquarian archaeology in Egypt, and amassed an impressive collection of antiquities by socialising in elitist networks with other archaeologists. Much of his collection was sold off after his death in 1909.
The undergarments, incredibly once misidentified as a cap, were excavated in Thebes (now within the modern city of Luxor). We can date them back to the New Kingdom, c.1550 BC, through a combination of typology and authentication by Dr. A. J. Arkell of London University and then-curator of the world famous Flinders Petrie Museum. The pieces are made from brown and black leather respectively; possibly of gazelle skin. There are few examples of such loincloths around the world, with knowledge of the items and their purpose mostly gained through mural depictions.
Images of Theban underwear in action are present in Tutankhamen’s tomb; painted on a box depicting battle scenes. Images of Nubian workmen are also seen on murals in Rekhmire’s tomb (c.18th Dynasty).
The items are interesting in themselves, just from the way they were fashioned. Made from a single piece of leather, they feature thick bands around the legs and hips, and an uncut portion to protect the buttocks. They display a Nubian style of working leather; a pattern of holes or slashes, evenly-spaced then stretched to give a netted appearance. This design would have allowed for freedom of movement. It’s breathable, and the meshing serves a dual purpose as decoration. The style of the garment undoubtedly suggests that it was Nubian in origin. The Nubians inhabited what is now North Sudan and Southern Egypt, and once controlled large portions of upper and lower Egypt. Henceforth, they were often at war with the Egyptians and were famed for their precision with bow and arrow.
How can one possibly misidentify a loincloth as a cap? Well, an auction at Sotheby’s in 1835 listed a similar item as the ‘cap of a boy’. The piece was sold to the British Museum and became part of the Henry Salt Collection. The listing in the museum acquisitions book also notes that the piece was ‘incorrectly identified as a cap’. The ‘in’ was later crossed through, thus changing the identification of the item. It would seem, however, that someone eventually did some real digging into the ‘cap’. At a later time, in the acquisitions book, a different hand from that of John Waterer wrote a tentative ‘not’ next to the description of the items.
So the undergarments from Ancient Egypt were at last properly identified. Their true provenance, however, still remains a bit of a mystery.