In late January 2020, I was lucky enough to see Tutankhamen: Treasures of the Golden Pharoah at the Saatchi Gallery before the tour was prematurely shuttered by a global pandemic. I’m not always that keen on audio guides, but in this instance the exhibition had clearly been designed with audio guides as the primary interpretative method, so I put my headphones on and joined the other visitors in excited silence. Seven galleries in, I reached the artefacts from the burial chamber—the climax of the exhibit. The audio guide began breathlessly recounting the discovery: the huge sarcophagus with three coffins enclosed inside one another like Russian dolls. In his eagerness to reach the mummy within, the narration described, English archaeologist, Howard Carter tore through a layer of linen wrapped around the middle coffin.
In the hushed gallery, the woman standing in front of me turned and glared. I was a giggling teen being told off by an officious librarian.
Now, by all accounts, Carter and his team had actually taken care with the linen. However, in choosing to retell the story as it did, with language designed to entertain, the exhibition was teaching its visitors to value some artefacts less than others. The textiles were treated with indifference, simply as objects in the way of getting to the real goodies: the mummified body and all its golden accessories. And that is what made me gasp. With frustration. And it wasn’t the only place in the exhibition where this ‘hierarchy of importance’ was on display.
Of the 150 objects that made up Tutankhamen, only one was a textile: a beautiful, tapestry-woven, pair of linen gloves.
This imbalance does not reflect the contents of the tomb itself, or the cultural ideologies and value systems of the society that produced them. Rather it reflects the values of the modern world. Modern industrialization has increasingly separated consumers from the means of production. Moreover, as men’s clothing became ever more staid (particularly from the latter half of the nineteenth-century through the mid-twentieth), ‘fashion’ became increasingly seen as a frivolous feminine pursuit and thus not a topic worthy of serious academic study.
Most past societies would struggle to understand this mindset (which is wrongheaded even now), and indeed, the contents of Tutankhamen’s tomb tell a different story. Hundreds of textiles had been carefully stored with the young pharaoh, including clothing from his own life and clothing to be worn in the afterlife. There were sumptuous garments made of fine linen, precious dyes, and gold thread; stacks of carefully folded underwear; dozens of pairs of knit socks; a leopard-skin wrap; and even Tutankhamen’s baby clothes. A figure of Anubis was robed in fringed linen. Five gilded statuettes of Tutankhamen were also robed in linen, as were gilded statuettes of Kebehsenuf, Duamutef, Ptah, Tatenen, and Atum (the latter two were shrouded as well). The top of Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus was draped in a linen pall decorated with bronze rosettes.
Although Carter had originally noted the significance of the textiles to future scholarship, they were left untouched and unstudied for over 70 years. (In 2000, a research project, led by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood, produced 36 recreated garments for exhibition). Outside the sealed conditions of the tomb, and without necessary conservation, the 3,000-year-old textiles deteriorated very badly: most are now beyond repair. It’s unfortunate that Tutankhamen didn’t take the opportunity to educate its visitors about this loss (its causes and its consequences). It’s hard to conceptualise the cost to historical enquiry.
And then there is the wider problem: the textiles from Tutankhamen’s tomb are but one example of many.
Thousands of textile remains have been discovered in caves in the Judean desert, including the finest collection of garments from anywhere in the Greco-Roman world. If we narrow these remains by date, and look just at those that came from the Roman period (roughly the 1st – 3rd/4th centuries CE), the number is still in the thousands. If we look just from one site, the fortified-palace at Masada, the number is still in the thousands. Unfortunately, this spectacular collection has been plagued by the same problems in conservation and scholarly attention that led to the degradation of the textiles from Tutankhamen’s tomb. Most of the textile remains were packed poorly during their excavations (not given the same level of care as other artefacts), some were displaced and subsequently lost, many were left to decay, and proportionally few have been carefully studied. Of the roughly 4,000 textile remains from Masada, for example, only 129 have been published (by Avigail Sheffer and Hero Granger-Taylor in 1994). The few scholars dedicated to the preservation of this material can only do so much (Orit Shamir of the Israeli Antiquities Authority is a hero in this regard). If wider attention isn’t turned to these artefacts, many of them will be lost permanently. So too what they tell us about the past.
Textiles inform us about economic systems of production and trade; they tell us about agricultural practice, technological skills (in spinning, weaving, and dying), and cultural exchange (of manufacturing processes, fashions, and the ideologies that inform both). Clothing and dress behaviour (the way clothing and accessories are arranged on a body) is an intimate form of social and personal communication. What we wear, and how we wear it echoes our socio-economic, national, ethnic, and/or religious background, and it reflects (or outwardly rejects) social ideologies regarding gender, power, belief, and ritual practice. Identity is navigated and articulated daily through what we put on our bodies.
In recent decades, a growing number of Classical and Biblical scholars have realized the importance of textiles and clothing to historical comprehension. The burgeoning fields of Textile Studies and Dress History, specifically of the ancient world, have been over-turning the sort of value hierarchy on display in the Tutankhamen exhibition. But this remains niche. Related disciplines often don’t recognize, let alone incorporate, these conversations into their research.
Far too often, ‘the text’ is given precedence (produced by, and generally for men), if not sole attention, in the value hierarchy of scholarship, even when ‘the text’ addresses material culture.
Take, for example, an article published early last year on veils and veiling in 1 Corinthians: In a discussion on men and head-covering (relating to 1 Cor. 11:4), it is almost taken as a given that Jewish men in Antiquity would have covered their heads (the article’s author specifies with a turban). Evidence is drawn from the rules for priestly vestments outlined in the Tanakh, with no discussion of why we should consider this relevant to the dress practices of the common man, even in a prayer setting. Afterall, priestly dress is generally intended to mark the priests as different. Mention is made of how Persian court dress influenced the authors of Ezekiel and Isaiah, but there is no discussion on why this should have any bearing on dress practices during Paul’s lifetime (centuries later, and in an entirely different location). Roman dress behaviour during ritual worship is discussed, but with no consideration of why Jewish people at the time may have differed their dress behaviour in some ways. And a passage from the Babylonian Talmud (composed centuries after Paul and in a different geographic context) is quoted, without addressing the lack of consensus on male head-covering (or female, for that matter) found in the Talmudic literature.
Most glaringly, no attention is given to the archaeological record. If there had been, the author may have found it interesting to note the complete absence of any evidence of Jewish, male, head-covering during the Roman period. The textile record provides us with plenty of examples of: tunics and undertunics; mantles (draped outerwear) and cloaks; veils, headscarves, and hairnets (all for women); as well as, burial shrouds, scroll wrappers, and domestic textiles.
But no hats.
And no textiles that may have been part of a bound or wrapped headdress (akin to a turban).
Moreover, the earliest extant examples of Jewish self-depiction—though they date a few centuries later—do not show any male figure in a head-covering apart from a single representation of the High Priest Aaron. All the other male figures appear in Greco-Roman-style clothing (in keeping with the textiles remains found in the Judean desert) and with their heads uncovered.
In total, there is no evidence to suggest that Jewish men living within the Greco-Roman world covered their heads, either in prayer, or in daily life as a part of their Jewish identity. Moreover, this conclusion has been demonstrated, and repeated, across a growing body of scholarship. Even still, as Benjamin Edsall correctly pointed out in 2013, ‘the majority of discussions [on 1 Cor. 11:4-5] do not…interact with the increasingly compendious works on Greek and Roman costume’. Inevitably, this lack of engagement hampers both the questions being asked, and the conclusions being offered.
Textile and dress studies are certainly not the only disciplines often situated lower on the value hierarchy, and the consequences of such a placement extend beyond issues relating to material conservation and historical understanding. Regarding certain fields, disciplines, or historical questions as either more frivolous or less rigorous, can shape representation in the field; it can influence who is awarded grants, which articles are chosen for publication, who is invited to speak at conferences, and one’s long-term employment prospects. As with dress studies, many of these judgements relate directly to who the topic is associated with and/or who is doing the research. To put it plainly, topics particularly relevant to, or often researched by women and minority populations, may be undervalued simply due to that association.
Moreover, blind peer review, or any other anonymous review process, can unintentionally reaffirm the value hierarchy, and its consequences, under the guise of ‘fairness’ and ‘meritocracy’. During an on-going conversation on the ratio of male-to-female authorship in major Biblical / New Testament Studies journals, Dr. Emily Gathergood succinctly summarized the problem:
Blind peer review isn’t enough to protect from the (not always) subtle forms of discrimination that ultimately impact how we engage with, and understand, the past.
We require a broader cultural shift. We should consider tracking what topics are receiving more or less attention in journals, and among grant or prize recipients (in addition to DEI monitoring of the scholars themselves). We need more open discussion and awareness of the value hierarchies that are at play and the gendered and racialised thinking underpinning them. We need powerhouse exhibitions such as Tutankhamen, with a global audience, to give fair representation to all the objects relevant to their topic (in this case, all those carefully and purposefully put in the young pharaoh’s tomb).
And finally, a suggestion to all historians, from a scholar in an under-represented discipline: As you sit down to contemplate the person or past society you are interested in, ask yourself one simple question, “Were they naked?” In all likelihood, the answer is no. Throughout human history, far more people have clothed themselves than have written or read texts. There’s a lot being communicated there, and a lot to still be learned.
 Although audio guides can provide more information and creative delivery than text, and though they are useful for auditory learners, audio guides also isolate visitors from each other and suppress conversation. Collaborative conversation (with the friends, family, or colleagues you visit a museum with; or between visitor and museum employee) is also an important part of learning and engagement that is all too often forgotten in the increasing push for interpretation via audio guide.
 We find plenty of evidence in the written record and in wider-Greco-Roman art for functional hats, used to protect the wearer from sun or rain, and occupational head-coverings, such as headdresses worn by priests. There is limited direct evidence for these among Jewish populations, but there is little reason to presume they wouldn’t have worn these sorts of head-coverings when necessary.