Prehistoric underthings

Did you know that some of (or the?) oldest known clothing artifacts in the archaeological record are sexy undergarments? No? Me neither. The book I’ve been reading lately is Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years, and in it she traces the (pre)history of women’s development of fiber crafts from the Upper Paleolithic onward. There are many things that have jumped out at me thus far, such as the parallel development of floor and warp-weighted looms in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, respectively — a history that may sound decidedly uninteresting to some, but I find it interesting, and Barber’s telling of it definitely is. But one of my favorite stories so far is about a genre of garment that baffled archaeologists at first, and also apparently still baffles Homer scholars (which I discovered when I went searching for artistic renderings of Aphrodite’s “girdle”).

I thought I would share a short extract from the book here, from the section talking about the discovery, controversy and Barber’s analysis of so-called string skirts. Please don’t mind the page numbers — I included them in the transcription in case I want to go back and cite any of this in the future. (I got Women’s Work from the library so it has to go back someday.)


from Barber, E.W. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years. New York/London: W.W. Norton & Co. 1994.

[p. 54] Acquisitiveness is a Neolithic invention. String nets to catch a meal and carry it home for the family, plus wraps to keep warm and a few small tools and light containers to hold and prepare the food, for thousands of years were possessions enough. The heavier crafts like pottery awaited the advent of permanent houses to store things in.

Hence the first craft other than chipping stone blades and carving wooden implements (…) and the first important craft not dangerous to the children must have been the fashioning of objects of and with string and fibers. We have no direct record of who did what chores in that distant time, but we will not be far off in surmising that the women were already involved in this innocuous task while they tended their toddlers around camp.

It is also on a carving of a woman that we found our first clear evidence for fiber string. Let’s return to look at this woman again.

Her skirt is fashioned of cords suspended from a twisted hip band and hanging only in the rear. Almost all the Venus figures are completely naked, but a few others wear clothing. All these come from Ukraine and European Russia, which lie as far toward the eastern end of the Gravettian culture as Lespugue lies toward [p. 55] the western. A few of the Venuses from the site of Kostienki wear simple bands or sashes, but the Venus of Gagarino sports a string skirt: a shorter, tidier skirt than her French sister, and this time hanging only in the front, but covering just as little, which is to say, nothing at all of what modern Western culture demands that a woman keep covered.

A skirt so skimpy, made of loose strings, can’t have been very warm, and it certainly doesn’t answer to our notions of modesty. So what was it for? Why did people who owned so little go to all the trouble of making and wearing a garment that was so nonfunctional? And what’s more, why did women choose to wear such a thing for so many thousands of years? We have representations of women in little string skirts, here and there in this same broad geographical area through the next twenty thousand years, and even, around 1300 BC, some actual string skirts preserved or partially preserved for us in the archaeological record.

[p. 56] During the Neolithic, as people settled down in one place to practice the new art of farming (making it much easier for us to locate where they lived), we find an increasing array of clay figurines of women in string skirts, from sites in central and eastern Europe — the old heartland of Gravettian culture. (…)

In Denmark and northern Germany, moreover, in addition to figurines, we have the remains of string skirts on the bodies of young women buried in log coffins during the Bronze Age, late in the second millennium BC. One of these skirts, made of woolen cords stained a rich brown by the acidic groundwater that preserved it, is complete; we can inspect its mode of manufacture.

The thick plied cords that form the skirt were anchored by being woven through a narrow belt band, from which they hung down [p. 57] to a length of about fifteen inches. At the bottom they have been caught together with a twined spacing cord, which serves to keep them in order. Below that, the ends have been looped into an ornamental row of knots, making the bottom edge so heavy that the skirt must have had quite a swing to it, like the long, beaded fringe on a flapper’s dance dress. The belt band on which all depends is so long that the skirt was worn wrapped around twice, rather low on the hips, and tied in the center front with the generous ends of the band. Other finds of less well-preserved string skirts show much the same design features, except that some were finished off at the bottom by encasing the ends of the cords in little metal sleeves. These, too, would have given the skirt a consider-[p. 58]able swish to it, by their weight, as well as caught the ear with the click and the eye with the gleam of metal.

European scholars were horrified, when the complete skirt was dug up at Egtved, that their ancestresses should have worn so indecent an apparel and proclaimed that the lady must have worn a linen shift underneath it, now disintegrated without a trace, to hide her nakedness. The figurines indicate otherwise. The Egtved girl at least wore a woolen blouse, but the spry young girls in the bronze images wear nothing at all but a string skirt of the same design, and a rather short one at that.

[p. 59] In no case do the string skirts — whether Palaeolithic, Neolithic, or Bronze Age — provide for either warmth or modesty. In all cases they are worn by women. To solve the mystery of why they were maintained for so long, I think we must follow our eyes. Not only do the skirts hide nothing of importance, but if anything, they attract the eye precisely to the specifically female sexual areas by framing them, presenting them, or playing peekaboo with them. In all the Venus figures the breasts, belly, and pubic area are heavily emphasized; that is how the sculptures came to be called Venuses. Hands, feet, and head are often barely carved at all. (…)

Our best guess, then, is that string skirts indicated something about the childbearing ability or readiness of the woman, perhaps simply that she was of childbearing age, having reached menarche but not yet menopause, or perhaps that she had reached puberty but was not yet “married” (whatever that might have meant in the particular society: still a virgin, or still without child, or still without regular mate) — in other words, that she was in some sense “available” as a bride. The notion of marriage, as opposed to mere mating, is so important to the human race that the need to negotiate this problem has been seriously suggested as one of the most powerful drives toward the development of language. Indeed, [p. 60] clear signals as to the marriage status of women are common around the world, from the tiny gold band around the fourth finger to signs visible from far away, such as the squash blossom hairdo of the unmarried Hopi girl and the glittering coin-covered cap of the newlywed Mordvin wife. Depending upon the society, such a marker might carry with it a considerable sense of honor and specialness, certifying the wearer as possessing the mysterious ability to create new human life.

If this is the case, then we do well to look at the gently comical tale which Homer tells, in the fourteenth book of the Iliad, of how Hera set about to seduce Zeus.

Hoping to divert her all-powerful husband’s attention from the battlefield of Troy for a while, Hera goes to her divine apartments to dress herself in a way that her spouse will not ignore. She washes, puts on perfume, braids her hair, and dons a “divine garment” and golden jewelry. Then she carefully ties around herself, for this special occasion, her girdle fashioned with a hundred tassels.” Finally she goes to Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love, and asks sweetly if she might borrow Aphrodite’s girdle as well. In other words, to make very sure of her quarry, she asks to use the divine archetype of all such girdles, into which, Homer says, “have been crafted all the bewitchments — in it are Love and Lust and Flirtation — persuasion that has stolen away the mind of even the carefulest thinkers.” Aphrodite obligingly takes off her special girdle (she wears it constantly, it seems, as a badge of her office) and places it in the hands of the queen of the gods, instructing her to put it on under the fold of her breast. (This is the literal wording and describes exactly how the Venus of Gagarino wears hers. But the modern translators, not understanding the garment, usually tamper with the passage.) Aphrodite tells Hera that with this girdle on, “what you wish for in your mind with not go unaccomplished!”

[p. 61] Nor does it. Zeus spots Hera coming toward him on the mountaintops, forgets everything else, and demands that she lie with him then and there.

What could this be, this “girdle of a hundred tassels,” but our string skirt? The form is right, in fact unique, and the signal that Zeus picks up — that it has to do with making love to a woman — is very close to what we have surmised. That the archetypical one is owned by Aphrodite falls closer still; in her hands we might almost call it a mating girdle.

The string skirt is still alive and well, preserved in many a folk costume in the old heartland of the Gravettian culture of twenty thousand years ago: south-central and eastern Europe. What’s more the symbolic function that we deduced from the ancient examples is preserved right along with the form.

Far to the east lie the Mordvins, just east of Moscow and west of the Volga River and Ural Mountains. They speak a Uralic language related to Finnish and the other northernmost languages on the European continent. Well into [the twentieth century] custom had it that a Mordvin girl would don a long black string apron at the time of her betrothal. Hanging only in the back, like that of the Venus of Lespugue but wider, it marked her as a wife. Its function, claims a Finnish woman who has researched the local costumes thoroughly, was that of “the symbol of a married woman,” and as such it “belonged to the same category as the woollen and often fringed loin drapings of the Southern Great Russians, the Bulgarians, the Serbs and the Rumanians.” Women wore very simple ones for every day, but quite elaborate ones for festive occasions.



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