1,700-Year-Old Sock Spins Yarn About Ancient Egyptian Fashion

This stripy toe sock appears to have warmed the foot of a tot in the late antiquity period

Child's left-foot sock (British Museum)
smithsonian.com

There are old socks, and then there are old socks. This stripy sock, discarded around the 3rd or 4th century, falls into the latter category. Fished out of a landfill during the 1913-1914 excavation of the Egyptian city of Antinooupolis led by English papyrologist John de Monins Johnson on behalf the Egypt Exploration Fund, the sock ended up in the collections of the British Museum in London. While previous research had pinpointed its age, not much else was known about the sock—or its partner, which presumably was lost to time (and did not succumb to whatever the late antiquity period equivalent is to being swallowed by the dryer).

Now, new research is unraveling the sock’s secrets. As Caroline Davies reports for the Guardian, a group of museum scientists hoping to better understand ancient Egyptian clothing manufacture and trade practices decided to analyze the dyes in the sock, along with several other textiles dating between about 250 and 800 A.D. Avoiding older techniques that required an invasive approach, they utilized multispectral imaging, which only needs to scan the surface of artifacts to test for pigments. Even if certain colors have degraded to the point that they’re not visible to the naked eye, multispectral imaging can detect minute color traces under different wavelengths of light. Think of it as a camera for invisible ink.

Sure enough, the analysis revealed that the sock contained seven hues of wool yarn woven together in a meticulous, stripy pattern. Just three natural, plant-based dyes—madder roots for red, woad leaves for blue and weld flowers for yellow—were used to create the different color combinations featured on the sock, according to Joanne Dyer, lead author of the study, which appears in the journal PLOS ONE. In the paper, she and her co-authors explain that the imaging technique also revealed how the colors were mixed to create hues of green, purple and orange: In some cases, fibers of different colors were spun together; in others, individual yarns went through multiple dye baths.

Such intricacy is pretty impressive, considering that ancient sock is both “tiny” and “fragile,” as Dyer tells Davies. Given its size and orientation, the researchers believe it may have been worn on a child’s left foot.

The sock offers insight beyond what was all the rage among youth fashion approximately 1,700 years ago. Analyzing its construction yields a lot of insight into the time period in which it warmed tiny feet. The period that comprised Egypt’s late antiquity is rich with history: During this time, Egypt experienced an enormous upheaval that ended with the Muslim conquest of the region in 641 A.D.

“These events affect the economy, trade, access to materials,” Dyer tells Davies, “Which is all reflected in the technical makeup of what people were wearing and how they were making these objects.”

As it happens, socks are believed to have been a mainstay for humans since the Stone Age—though the earliest versions, which were just animal pelts or skins meant to be wrapped around feet, may not bear much resemblance to that Fruit of the Loom six-pack you have in your sock drawer.

The ancient Egyptians employed a single-needle looping technique, often referred to as nålbindning, to create their socks. Notably, the approach could be used to separate the big toe and four other toes in the sock—which just may have given life to the ever-controversial socks-and-sandals trend.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a PhD student in Microbiology and Immunobiology at Harvard University and Co-Director Emeritus of Science in the News, a graduate student organization that trains young scientists to communicate science to the general public. She is also a 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow at Smithsonian magazine. Website: katherinejwu.com

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