Most ancient pile carpet made of fermented wool

The secret to the persistence of the brilliant colors in the world’s most ancient pile carpet has been discovered: fermented wool. The sheep wool carpet now in the collection of the Hermitage Museum dates to around 400 B.C., making it six centuries older than the next oldest dated examples of pile carpets. The carpet is in exceptional condition, preserved in the permafrost with only small areas of loss. The reds, blues and yellows are still vivid.

It was discovered in a 1947 excavation of the largest burial mound of the Pazyryk culture in the Altai mountains of what is now Kazakhstan. It is unique on the archaeological record, although there is a comparable piece of Persian origin, suggesting that it may have reached Altai region via trade networks or perhaps been made locally by copying a Persian piece. It was knotted with the symmetrical double knot, a technique also known as the Turkish knot, which creates an exceptionally dense pile.

In the central field has six rows and four columns of boxes, each containing stylized lotus buds arranged in a cross shape. Around the central field are five borders. The first features 28 boxes containing griffins. The second is a wide band with 24 fallow deer bucks grazing. The third is a thinner band with lotuses again but smaller and red against a yellow background. The fourth is the widest to make room for 28 horsemen, both mounted and dismounted, against a rich crimson background. The outer band features the boxed griffins of the inner border.

To investigate the remarkably enduring color of the carpet’s colors, researchers at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) penetrated deep into the knots of the carpet using high-resolution X-ray fluorescence microscopy (µ-XRF) to analyze the distribution of pigments in a cross-section of individual fibers. This is the first use of the technology on carpet fibers; previous studies in the field have all used scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Indeed, FAU researchers already had samples of the carpet because they had been sent to them for SEM analysis in 1991.

SEM imaging can identify fermented wool from its raised outermost cuticle layer, but that only works with newer textiles because the outer cuticle layer wears off over time. The surface of the Pazyryk  carpet’s fibers is damaged with the cuticle layer missing entirely in some areas, as one would expect for a textile that was woven 2,400 years ago.

Into the breach stepped µ-XRF. Samples of fibers from the Pazyryk carpet dyed with red madder were embedded in epoxy and cross-sectioned for scanning. For comparison, recently prepared wool was obtained from Anatolian weavers and fermented according to the traditional technique, and samples were taken from an 18th century Konya carpet.

We conclude from our studies that both the eighteenth century Konya carpet and the Pazyryk carpet have been manufactured from wool that was fermented prior to dyeing. This means that the people of the Pazyryk culture not only already had sophisticated knowledge about pile carpets, but were also highly skilful textile dyers achieving colour fastness superior to modern industrial production. Our results also proof that the fermentation technique was in ancient times not only restricted to Eastern Anatolia and may have played an important role in traditional dyeing craftsmanship.

The way fermentation works is the wool is soaked in a suspension in sourdough and wheat bran which feeds a beneficial culture of G. candidum yeast. The microorganisms keep the pH steady at 4.4, prevent putrefaction and after about three weeks, decompose the fats inside the cuticle layer greatly enhancing the wool fibers’ ability to absorb the dye. It is a more effective and cheaper means to maintain color fastness than bleaching, but it does have certain downsides. It takes a long time and if you don’t get the fermentation balance, you end up with putrefied wool. (I had a batch of fermented hard boiled eggs go wrong once, and my ferments were messed up for months after that. Fermentation is beautiful and terrible as the dawn. All shall love it and despair.) The Pazyryk carpet’s intense, vibrant color shows why it’s a risk worth taking.

2 thoughts on “Most ancient pile carpet made of fermented wool

  1. D’oh, the fermented egg story sounds indeed serious.

    Dyeing in general can be a messy business. Isatis tinctoria (woad) for blue and Rubia tinctorum (rose madder) for red were commonly used.

    In addition to the Pasyryk necropolis there are the ones at Bashadar, Tuyekta, Ulandryk, Polosmak and –close to China– Berel (Берель).

    That carpet was found in the fifth kurgan, of which there is a sketch, in the Pazyryk necropolis. Apparently, the grave was robbed in ancient times, water got in and then turned into an ice lens, preserving the carpet:

    These people had the bestiarium from their carpets also tattooed into their skins. Also, “in a corner of one grave chamber of the Pazyryk cemetery was a fur bag containing cannabis seed, a censer filled with stones, and the hexapod frame of an inhalation tent –these are believed to have been utilized at the end of the funerary ritual.”

    Apparently, they really DID(!) inhale, as Herodotus writes in Bk.4.74-75 about the plant and its use for tents:

    74. “Now they have hemp growing in their land [“κάνναβις”], which is very like flax except in thickness and in height, for in these respects the hemp is much superior. This grows both of itself and with cultivation; and of it the Thracians even make garments[…]”

    75. “The Scythians then take the seed of this hemp and creep under the felt coverings, and then they throw the seed upon the stones which have been heated red-hot: and it burns like incense and produces a vapour so think that no vapour-bath in Hellas would surpass it: and the Scythians being delighted with the vapour-bath howl like wolves. […] Their women however pound with a rough stone the wood of the cypress and cedar and frankincense tree, pouring in water with it, and then with this pounded stuff, which is thick, they plaster over all their body and also their face; and not only does a sweet smell attach to them by reason of this, but also when they take off the plaster on the next day, their skin is clean and shining.”

  2. [i]but were also highly skilful textile dyers achieving colour fastness superior to modern industrial production.[/i]

    And there, as so often, is the abyss between ‘them’ in their ancient wonder world and ‘us’ as modern, industrialised human beings.


    [i]For comparison, recently prepared wool was obtained from Anatolian weavers and fermented according to the traditional technique.[/i]

    So where is the abyss if there are modern, industrialised human beings to whom ancient techniques are still well known? Is there factory not shiny enough?


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