Versace, step aside. These 3,000-year-old pants were fashionable, practical, and multicultural.
|According to researchers, this 3,000-year-old pair of pants exhibits weaving techniques and decorative patterns influenced by cultures throughout Asia. M. WAGNER et al./ASIA ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH 2022|
What little rain falls on a gravelly desert in western China’s Tarim Basin evaporates as soon as it hits the scorching turf. In this parched wasteland, the ancient remains of people who made one of the biggest fashion statements of all time can be found.
Pants were invented by herders and horse riders who buried their dead in the Tarim Basin’s Yanghai graveyard between 3,200 and 3,000 years ago. Their deft combination of weaving techniques and decorative patterns — influenced by societies all over Eurasia — resulted in a pair of stylish yet durable trousers that are now recognized as the world’s oldest such garment (SN: 5/30/14).
An international team of archaeologists, fashion designers, geoscientists, chemists, and conservators has now meticulously recreated the trousers. The researchers report in March Archaeological Research in Asia that the vintage slacks tell a story not only of textile innovation but also of how cultural practices spread across Asia.
“In this garment, a diversity of textile techniques and patterns from different local origins, traditions, and times merged into something new,” says Mike Wagner, project director at the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin. “Eastern Central Asia was a laboratory in which people, plants, animals, knowledge, and experiences came from various directions and sources… and were transformed.”
Without saying anything, one man brought the pants to the scientists’ attention. His naturally mummified body, as well as the preserved bodies of over 500 others, were discovered during excavations at the Yanghai cemetery by Chinese archaeologists beginning in the early 1970s.
He wore trousers, a waist-belted poncho, one pair of braided bands to fasten the trouser legs below the knees, another pair to fasten soft leather boots at the ankles, and a wool headband with four bronze disks and two seashells sewed on it. A leather bridle, wooden horse bit, and battle-ax found in his grave indicated he was a horse-riding warrior.
|A model wears a woven recreation of Turfan Man’s outfit, which includes a belted poncho, pants with braided leg fasteners, and boots. M. WAGNER et al./ASIA ARCHAEOLOGICAL RESEARCH 2022|
Turfan Man is the name given to him by researchers because the Yanghai site is about 43 kilometers southeast of the Chinese city of Turfan.
Turfan Man’s trousers stood out as truly unique among all of his garments. The Yanghai pants were not only centuries older than any other example of such clothing, but they also had a sophisticated, modern appearance. The pants have two leg pieces that gradually widen at the top and are joined by a crotch piece that widens and bunches in the middle to allow for more leg mobility.
Other archaeological finds show that mobile groups across Eurasia began wearing pants like those at Yanghai within a few hundred years. The strain of riding horses bareback over long distances was reduced by woven leg covers connected by a flexible crotch piece. Unsurprisingly, mounted armies first appeared around this time.
People today wear denim jeans and dress slacks that incorporate the design and manufacturing principles of the ancient Yanghai trousers.
Despite his fashion sense, the ancient Yanghai horseman left researchers puzzled as to how his remarkable pants were made. Because there were no signs of cutting on the fabric, Wagner’s team suspected that the garment had been woven to fit its wearer.
Close inspection of Turfan Man’s trousers revealed a combination of three weaving techniques, according to the new study. A replica of the find, made by an expert weaver from the yarn of coarse-wooled sheep similar to those used by ancient Yanghai weavers, confirmed that observation.
Much of the garment is made of twill weave, a major innovation in textile history.
Turfan Man, in a nutshell, was the ultimate trendsetter.
The twill changes the character of woven wool from firm to elastic, allowing a person to move freely in a pair of tight-fitting pants. The fabric is made by weaving a pattern of parallel, diagonal lines with rods on a loom. Warp threads are held in place along their length so that a row of weft threads can be passed over and under them at regular intervals. For each subsequent row, the starting point of this weaving pattern shifts slightly to the right or left, forming a diagonal line.
The researchers discovered that variations in the number and color of weft threads in the twill weave on Turfan Man’s trousers were used to create pairs of brown stripes running up the off-white crotch piece.
When textile archaeologist Karina Grömer of the Natural History Museum Vienna examined Turfan Man’s trousers about five years ago, she recognized twill weave. Grömer previously reported that the oldest known twill weave was found in pieces of woven fabric found in Austria’s Hallstatt salt mine, where such delicate textiles preserve well. Radiocarbon dating places the Hallstatt textiles between 3,500 and 3,200 years old — about 200 years before Turfan man wore britches.
According to Grömer, who was not involved in the new study, people in Europe and Central Asia may have independently invented twill weaving. However, weavers at the Yanghai site combined twill with other weaving techniques and innovative designs to produce high-quality riding pants.
“This is not a beginner’s item,” says Grömer. “It’s like a Rolls-Royce for pants.”
Consider the knee sections of ancient trousers. The researchers discovered that a technique known as tapestry weaving produced a thicker, more protective fabric at these joints. To create a thick waistband, a third weaving method was used on the upper border of the pants.
The trousers also featured an unusual twining method in which two differently colored weft threads were twisted around each other by the hand and laced through warp threads, creating a decorative, geometric pattern across the knees that resembles interlocking T’s leaning to the side. The same twining method was used to create zigzag stripes on the ankles and calves of the trousers.
Wagner’s team discovered only a few historical examples of twining, including borders on Maori cloaks, an Indigenous group in New Zealand.
Yanghai artisans also demonstrated ingenuity by creating a formfitting crotch piece that was wider in the center than at the ends, according to Grömer. Trousers found in several parts of Asia a few hundred years after the Yanghai find often have woven legs connected by square fabric crotch pieces, resulting in a less comfortable and flexible fit. The trousers fit snugly while allowing the legs to clamp firmly around the horse in tests with a man riding a horse bareback while wearing a re-created version of Turfan Man’s entire outfit.
Denim jeans are now made from a single piece of twill fabric, using some of the same design principles that Yanghai pants makers used three millennia ago.
Turfan Man’s trousers, perhaps most striking, tell the story of how ancient herding groups carried their cultural practices and knowledge across Asia, sowing seeds of innovation.
The interlocking T pattern that decorates the ancient horseman’s pants at the knees, for example, appears on bronze vessels discovered in what is now China around the same time, around 3,300 years ago, according to Wagner’s team. The nearly simultaneous adoption of this geometric form in Central and East Asia coincides with the arrival of herders from the West Eurasian grasslands riding horses that they domesticated 4,200 years ago or more (SN: 10/20/21).
Pottery found at the horse riders’ homes in western Siberia and Kazakhstan also features interlocking T’s. Aside from its artistic appeal, the pattern’s deeper meaning is unknown. Wagner and her colleagues believe that West Eurasian horse breeders spread the interlocking T design across much of ancient Asia.
Similarly, a stepped pyramid pattern woven into Yanghai pants can be found on pottery from Central Asia’s Petrovka culture, which dates from around 3,900 to 3,750 years ago. The same pattern resembles architectural designs from western and southwestern Asian and Middle Eastern societies, including Mesopotamian, stepped pyramids, according to the researchers. Tapestry weaving, as seen on Turfan Man’s trousers, was also invented in those societies.
According to anthropologist Michael Frachetti of Washington University in St. Louis, it’s no surprise that cultural influences from all over Asia influenced ancient people in the Tarim Basin. Beginning more than 4,000 years ago, the Yanghai people lived in a region at a crossroads of seasonal migration routes followed by herding groups (SN: 3/8/17). These routes connected the Altai Mountains in Central and East Asia to Iran’s current location in Southwest Asia. Excavations along those routes show that herders also spread crops across much of Asia (SN: 4/2/14).
Cultural transitions may have begun even earlier in the Tarim Basin. Western Asian herders in oxen-drawn wagons traversed much of Europe and Asia around 5,000 years ago, according to ancient DNA (SN: 11/15/17).
Herders’ migration routes became part of the Silk Road, a trade and travel network that ran from China to Europe around 2,000 years ago. As thousands of local routes formed a massive network across Eurasia, cultural mixing and mingling intensified.
Turfan Man’s multicultural riding pants demonstrate that even in the early stages of the Silk Road, migrating herders brought new ideas and practices to distant communities. “The Yanghai pants are a starting point for looking at how the Silk Road changed the world,” Frachetti says.
A more fundamental question is how Yanghai garment makers transformed yarn spun from sheep’s wool into Turfan Man’s trousers. Wagner’s team is still unsure what an ancient Yanghai loom looked like, despite making a replica of those pants on a modern loom. No traces of those devices have been discovered.
The researchers believe that a loom designed to be operated from a sitting position could have produced intricate, twined patterns. Experiments with various weaving devices are the next step in determining how Turfan Man’s trousers were made, according to Wagner.
According to archaeologist and linguist Elizabeth Barber of Occidental College in Los Angeles, the makers of these ancient pants combined several complex techniques into a revolutionary piece of clothing. Barber has researched the history of cloth and clothing in West Asia.
really don’t know how clever the ancient weavers were,” Barber says.
Turfan Man may not have had time to reflect on his tailoring prowess. He was ready to ride with a pair of pants like that.
M. Wagner et al. The invention of twill tapestry point to Central Asia: Archaeological record of multiple textile techniques used to make the woolen outfit of a ca. 3,000-year-old horse rider from Turfan, China. Archaeological Research in Asia. Vol. 29, March 2022, 100344. DOI: 10.1016/j.ara.2021.100344.