The Tarkhan Dress: World's Oldest Dress Dating Back Over 5,000 Years Is Most Exciting Archaeological Discovery of 2016

Kristine Moore

Many extraordinary archaeological events have taken place in 2016, but perhaps the most exciting one of them all is the dating of the Tarkhan Dress, which stretches back to over 5,000 years.

National Geographic reports how the Tarkhan Dress is an extremely rare find as no other articles of clothing have survived through the ages and remained as unscathed as this dress. Part of the reason for this is that most of the world's oldest clothes were created by using animal skins and plant fibers. As a result of the materials used, few pieces of clothing have escaped without disintegration. In fact, the curator of London's Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, Alice Stevenson, says that textiles that have been recovered from various archaeological locations are rarely older than 2,000 years.

Once upon a time, the Tarkhan Dress belonged to a heap of dirty linens that had been excavated by Sir Flinders Petrie in 1913 at a site that he called Tarkhan, named after a village that is 30 miles distance from Cairo. This dress wasn't thought of again until 1977 when researchers at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London were wading through old textiles in preparation for cleaning. Researchers took great pains to conserve the fabric and mounted it after sewing it on Crepeline to keep it stable. However, in 1977, the exact age of this dress was still not known.

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Archaeology reports that while the Tarkhan Dress had been dated to the late third millennium B.C. in the 1980s, the full dress hadn't been analyzed yet. It was only linen that was associated with the garment that had been analyzed originally, as the sample size needed to properly date the dress might have caused grave damage to it.

When Stevenson took a thread from the dress for dating, she described the process as "nerve-racking."

"You can't help but envision the whole thing suddenly unraveling before you. You're never pleased about removing a piece from an artifact, however small. But it's also exciting because you're presented with the opportunity of confirming the item's antiquity, and in many ways enhancing its cultural value."

Fortunately for history's sake, linen is very easy to analyze and date, as Michael Dee said.

"Linen is a robust plant fiber composed of the carbon-rich biopolymer cellulose. This is much easier to handle and date than proteinaceous fibers like those found in wool and leather. It was just so small, so I am actually pleased, and somewhat surprised, we were able to produce a date."
"We'd always suspected it was old, and even if it wasn't near the 1st Dynasty, even a 5th Dynasty dress is still pretty old by archaeological standards for this type of object. But this new dating has affirmed my appreciation of the garment. With its pleated sleeves and bodice, together with the V-neck detail, it's a very fine piece of clothing. There's nothing quite like it anywhere of that quality and of that date. It's amazing to think it has survived some 5,000 years."

While the Tarkhan Dress looks like it may be a shirt, other items of clothing from a few centuries later reveal that the garment would have been a floor length dress when it was originally worn. Furthermore, only the very wealthy could have ever afforded to have owned such a dress.

As the 5,000-year-old Tarkhan Dress was accidentally rediscovered decades after it had originally been found, what other discoveries might be made and re-dated in the coming years?

[Featured Image by Sean Gallup/Getty Images]