Justified and Ancient: Babylonians at Birka

The Earliest Period.
The Final Frontier.
The Alpha to our not-yet-happened Omega.
The Cradle of Civilization.
The Mesopotamians.

I am insane. As if my entry to the Garb Challenge last year wasn’t crazy enough, I had to find a way to one-up myself. Because that is what I do.

It’s not a challenge unless you’re actually challenged.

Her Majesty Thyra called for a “celestial” theme for the Birka garb challenge for this year, leaving it fully open to the interpretation of the artistes.

When I think of “celestial,” two things come to mind: the zodiac and tea. As funny as it could have been to dress up as an interpretation of Celestial Seasonings (that idea is totally attributed to my Laurel’s husband) I figured that the zodiac would be more cool. After all, Leo is by far the most superior sign in the entire sky, and with 1/12th of the world’s population, we should really be ruling it. Those other guys? Peons.  Meh.

I’ve been toying with the idea of the Earliest Period for a while. There’s just not much to work with but an interesting artistic record and old books on the subject. Plus, the majority of what’s been done is for religious plays, so sources are more  theatrical, rather than historical. In the end, I ended up getting a pleasant mix. Let’s get started.

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“GET OFF MY ZIGGURAT!” (I love this frieze way too much.)

The Babylonians and their sister Mesopotamian cultures (Sumerians, Assyrians, Ugarites, etc.)  invented  the origins of what we consider as our Western Zodiac and modern astrology. So they’re responsible for your bad hair days during Mercury Retrograde, and your incompatibility with Libra.  They also didn’t wear much, and left behind just enough for us to get the gist. As for sources, I was only able to get my paws on a couple:

Jenkins, David. The Cambridge History of Western Textiles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2003.

Houston, Mary G. Ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Persian Costume. Mineola: Dover. 2002. Reprint by Dover of a 1920 edition.

What they DID leave us, is jewelry. Holy smokes.

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An “attendant” to Queen Puabi found in the Great Death Pit find at Ur. Source: http://sumerianshakespeare.com/117701/118101.html

It was actually my husband Geoffrey that alerted me to this. I was going to make some sort of turban or hat. In fact, I came up with this bright idea while he was away on deployment during the Fall. So he had no idea how I planned to torture him until he got home. At first, he looked at me like I had six heads. Then I told him that he didn’t have to play, and he could just help me with some projects. Then I didn’t see him for weeks once the brass came in.

Anna’s job: Design the costumes and do all the soft parts.
Geoffrey’s job: Execute the metalwork and jewelry designs.

Anna’s work:

Before Geoff was even home, I got the fabric ordered. My plan of attack? Vintage sarees. Did the Babylonians wear sarees? Well, no. And certainly not ones out of cotton, silk, and polyester.  They wore a lot of wool actually, and from what I gathered, sheep fleece made into fringe. However, they did wear spiral wraps, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they did have influence on the fashion of the Indian subcontinent. In their existing artwork, you see tons of interesting motifs, including palms, various vines, and geometrics. Sometimes the wraps were over tunics, sometimes they weren’t. Sometimes they were nakey, but that wouldn’t fly for January in New Hampshire. So I had to play around with what we could do. First: Color.

There’s a variety of options out there for saris, but the zodiac has their own colors assigned to them. Most of my research (See also: Fast Google Search) returned that Leo was yellow, and Aries was red. Easy enough. Geoff can wear red. I can wear anything because I’m fabulous. I’m also a fan of orange, previously established last year, so I had to include it again. Some charts said Leo could wear orange, so…let’s do this. I decided on flame colors for Leo: Yellow, orange, and gold. And decadent shades of red and gold for Aries. Both signs are fire signs, so the gold needed to get in there. Other details I discovered was that Leo is ruled by the Sun, while Aries is ruled by Mars. We were also both Rising Capricorn, whatever that means, which involves purple and silver. So, I thought of throwing a stripe in there somewhere, and then decided not to.

I found a variety of sarees to work from in the eBay store of a seller in India. I bought so many that they sent it via FedEx for free, and I had a package from India in less than a week. I love the internet.

Once I had supplies in hand, I started the design process. Surprisingly enough, men seemed to have more convoluted options than women, so I started with myself first.

Women were usually depicted wearing the spiral over the left shoulder. Sometimes with a tunic underneath, but usually not. I decided to go FOR the tunic, as the materials I got were rather sheer, and well, January.

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An image of Ishtar wearing the spiral, with attendants that I THINK are wearing sleeves.
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Image from Houston, I think this is a dude, but there’s the tunic.
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Another image from Houston from a cylinder seal that shows women.

I decided that the yellow saree would be the tunic, and the orange and pink one I got would make a nice spiral. This would give me a flame-like appearance. I got a new dressform for Christmas, so I got to play. \m/

First, I played with the spiral.

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Once I got in the 20yds of fringe, I trimmed it. I got asked by my apartment manager why I needed 20 yards of fringe when it came in. (I’ll cover the jewelry in a bit.)

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Tunic time. This took some thought. How would I cut the sari to best accommodate the ornamentation of the fabric. I ended up going with my simple dalmatica pattern, which would probably be the most reasonable way the Babylonians may have sewn something without tailoring.

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It was very sheer and oversized.

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And I got to use scraps as a headband like a rockstar.

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I recycled the fall from the bottom edge of the saree as the belt. So sheeeeeer.

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So I went ahead and wrapped the spiral up, folding down some layers to be able to build the dress, and voila. Finished garb.

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Onto Geoffrey as Aries. This is where it got tricky. The tunic would  be a given, but there’s a fairly large amount of fantasy Babylonian out there because of religious plays, and some old, old plates from Victorian costume books. I needed to do what I could to make it less theatrical and more historical, despite the gaudy sarees.

His tunic was the same pattern, then I took the trim from the edges of the saree and added an accent to the sleeves and collar, which is actually pretty Roman-looking. Aries is more decadent than Leo, so I decided to give him more metallics than myself. I would have enough bling with my jewelry.

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I cut the pallu off of another saree, and trimmed the bottom of this tunic to make it longer and to mimic some palm designs I’ve seen in artistic record.

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Now for his spirally goodness. I used the saree that I had cut the pallu from for his wrap, added the fringe, and looked at some art. This one has men dressed in several types of wrapping, so it’s clear that there was no set method.

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So I kept it basic for the drape test.

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And then I had the prettiest mannequins in Portsmouth. My work was pretty much done.

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I had to make him a hat. We debated for a while on which shape was best, but I ended up going with the “fez” shape, as it seemed the most reasonable for the application of his horns and wireform Aries symbols. Easy enough. 2 layers of felt and extra saree trim. It was still a bit squishy, but workable.

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….And then we had the jewelry.

By the time I was on the website for Fire Mountain Gems, Geoffrey said we were going big, or going home. In that case, we were going to spend the money for actual semi-precious stones, rather than glass or lower-quality rocks. So, yes, our necklaces are all real lapis lazuli and carnelian. Fortunately, a friend of ours went in on the Fire Mountain order and saved us over $100. The gold tone beads are plated brass, as there’s no way we could afford that much real gold.  We based most of the necklaces off of pictures from this page that was wonderful for reference shots. http://sumerianshakespeare.com/117701/118101.html

They were just simply threaded on monofilament. We couldn’t find a hemp or linen cord thin enough for our use, plus, we are planning on taking these apart and re-using them for other projects or selling them. So for temp stringing, the fishing line would do just fine.

I could string beads, the rest was up to Geoffrey.

Geoffrey’s Work:

Geoff has been exploring the intricate world of jewelry a bit. He’s the only active coinmaker in the East (as far as we know) and he’s been doing great work with pewter casting. These pieces couldn’t be cast, so he finally got to dust off the pitch plate he purchased at Pennsic (nice alliteration there) and enter the wiley whimsical world of chase and repousse embossing. (He has his own blog and you should follow it at www.jeffthemoneyer.wordpress.com. I do maintain the page, he’s not very websavvy.)

He purchased the sheets of brass from onlinemetals.com. We originally wanted bronze, but the price was a bit higher than what we wanted to pay because the cost of tin is up, and they didn’t have a good thickness anyway. He used brass sheets that were probably still too thick at 24 gauge.

The original circlets from this period had leaves. They’re absolutely stunning. However, in order to not appear presumptuous and pay honor to the Order of the Laurel which I am not apart of, we decided to go with round medallions instead of leaves. Each of the large medallions he hand cut, repoussed, soldered, and wheel polished. This took days. DAYS. It took so long that we had to cut the process short for the other circlet, and just go with smaller medallions he could use punches with.

The large medallions have the Leo symbol, and a Babylonian sun motif that is connected to the sun god, Shamash.

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Lap top metalwork in the bathrobe. Yep. This is how we roll.
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The beginning of the first piece.
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Symbol of the sun god, Shamash.
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The first completed sun.
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He got a polishing wheel from Santa, and put it to good use.
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The finished medallions!
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The first layer of carnelian and lapis, following the same pattern as the original circlet.
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Original circlet.
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My Leonine circlet of shiny and messy hair. The test fit.

He did the same thing for the smaller medallions, only with one row of beads instead of two. And polished up a hammered brass circlet he had made me previously. Combined with the necklaces, and brass earrings from Thailand, I had my first full costume fitting:

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Next, we moved onto Aries. He hammered the “horns” for the traditional hat right out of cut pieces of brass.

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So much shiny, and this is PRE-polishing wheel.

And I made 2 dozen wire formed Aries symbols for dongles to sew onto the top of his hat in place of the feathers, and some ornamentation on his sleeves. This sucked. Anna is not a jeweler. Anna LIKES having skin on her fingers and not smashing her hand with a hammer. I also made Leo symbols that I ended up not using. C’est la vie.

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Those got attached to his hat by hand. Sewing the upside down fish hooks on was enough of a challenge for me. He had to rivet on the horns with pieces of brass wire he soldered on. This made the hat uncomfortable. The horns also made it a bit snug since he didn’t form them to his head enough. He was going to be in some pain when this was done.

They say props are everything:

I made two cuneiform tablets out of terracotta Sculpey, with a stylus Geoffrey formed for me out of a brass dowel.

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The tablets read:

Leo: “Remember this: Leo rules and Aries drools!” (He wasn’t happy about that one.)
Aries: “If you can read this, you’re pretty damn smart.”

They are in English, not Akkadian,  and I just translated them into cuneiform using this website: http://www.paleoaliens.com/event/babylonian/ (PaleoAliens sounds like a legit source!)

 

The finale:

After all was said and done, we did our test wearings, and figured out the best ways to wrap the spirals on our bodies. You need to start at the belt like a saree, and work it up your body, carefully folding to create the tiers. For Geoffrey, we brought it up to about his sterum, and used his kidney belt to secure it. Mine was safety pinned in the back to hold the drape in place.

Over all, this was an exercise in experimental archaeology and making fancy kinda-accurate showy garb. If anyone is serious about looking into the persona of the Earliest Period, I recommend you actually attempt dreadlocking your own sheep fleece for the fringe. 😉 Other than that, I don’t have much to say on the subject of garb from this period. What you see is what you get until more artifacts are found.

As for women, if you’re curvy like I am, this may not be the best option. I’m not sure how Mesopotamian women were shaped, but this garment is not figure flattering. It fits to the widest part of your body, and stays there. SO for me, it was my hips. I lost my waist entirely in the wrap, so the pictures coming in are mortifying.

I couldn’t get Geoffrey to wear a wig and beard, or even kohl on his eyes, but in the end, wigs and a fake beard would have no re-wear for us. So it would have been a waste of money. At least for the garments and the jewelry, most can be reconstituted into different pieces. His tunic is going to become a Byzantine kamision for him, and I will be taking the wraps and making loroi/pallae, and maybe a delmatikion. My yellow tunic can work under a Roman dress for a splash of sheer color. So everything can be re-worn as something else. This way the money and time we put into this won’t be for nothing.

But, we DID win Best Garb in the Early Period category for the Fashion Show! We didn’t win the overall Celestial Challenge, that went to a woman who made an AMAZING cloak with the planets from a 14th Century Manuscript.

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Here’s some pictures of us in action at Birka, enjoy!

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Artifacts of a Life. IT’S HERE.

On the discovery of the artifacts:

While on my backpacking across Sicily, I decided to stop at an inn for the night in the city of Syracuse. The inn, which was more of a bed and breakfast by American standards, was in an old annex to an even older house. I’m not one for architecture, but if I had to guess, it was built during the baroque period, with some parts perhaps even earlier, but knowing how homes in the older parts of the world had a tendency to be rebuilt many times, it was difficult to say.

I was the only guest for the evening, and the older couple who ran the establishment put out their nightly assortment of rich Mediterranean pastries and gave me a unique beverage that tasted of honey and vinegar. Not wanting to be rude, I accepted the drink and cookies without question, and joined them at their table. Meeting locals make these journeys more enjoyable, with the exception of course, being the language barrier. My Italian was shaky at best, the same with their English, but I learned that the drink was an ancient recipe, one that would revitalize me after my long day of backpacking through the city.  After some additional language struggles, I did manage to communicate the purpose of my trip.

“I’m studying to be a classical archaeologist, and I enjoy trekking through ancient regions.”

The couple became incredibly excited, and without a beat, asked, in perfect form, “Can you speak Greek?” The conversation officially began.

The couple, named Marco and Maria, claimed they had a fine collection of artifacts they wished for me to look at. They explained that Maria’s family had roots in the Byzantine Empire, and Marco’s had hailed from a town in Thrace. They had sought refuge in Italy when the Ottoman Empire sacked Constantinople in 1453, bringing only what they could carry. I was intrigued, and yet somewhat unsure if these older Sicilians were simply trying to pull a joke on me. One can never be too cautious when traveling alone. Reluctantly, I agreed to view their so-called collection.­­

Maria took my hand gently, and we followed her husband into a parlor, where he slid several modern cedar chests into the floor. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was expecting, but I do know that when they were opened, I nearly stumbled back. These weren’t just any artifacts; these were museum-quality heirlooms that spanned generations. Jewelry, silks, pearls, Bibles, manuscripts, this was an unbelievable haul of personal, priceless treasures that had been preserved lovingly to protect a lost cultural identity.

Maria reached into one of the chests, and removed a few items that were gingerly wrapped in stained ancient silk. She placed them out before me: A mosaic with a dolphin on it, a necklace of gold, garnets and pearls, and an Orthodox icon of the Archangel Michael. I sat and blinked. These were not the typical goods of a poor, refugee family.

“My grandmother told me as a young woman that these are the oldest.” Maria began, “From before the Crusades. Her name was Anna, and she was part of the imperial family in Constantinople.”

I knelt down to get a closer look, and she lifted the necklace for me to see. “I was told that when my ancestors fled the city after it had been destroyed by the Turks, they had to save what they could from the old homes and graves. Looting had already begun by the infidels, so they had to hurry. The necklace they were able to save from Anna’s grave. The icon was in the family crypt, and the tile was once part of a large floor in the palace apartment that Anna was said to have lived in. Dolphins are a symbol of our family, you see, and also the old symbol of Syracuse before the times of Rome. My family goes back before the times of Alexander.”

I was unsure of the provenance of anything, but I promised Maria that if she would let me take pictures, I could bring them home and do research, then send her all the information. She agreed, and then I proceeded to go through the rest of their impressive collection. I turned in for the night as my mind reeled on what it would have been like to have been the last of the Byzantines, fleeing with what bits and pieces I could from the crumbling remains of the once glistening empire.

The next morning, as I prepared to leave for my journey, Maria and Marco saw me off with a small package of leftover pastry and a cup of strong Italian coffee…and a small box with the artifacts of the life of Anna, Maria’s eleventh century ancestor. Despite my protests, she urged that I keep them as a gift. She had no daughters of her own to pass them on, and this way I could study them, and perhaps place them in a museum for the rest of future generations to enjoy. The final parting gift was a small bottle of vinegary smelling syrup. Marco told me this was called oxymel, the beverage they had served me when I arrived, it was to be diluted in water, and used just as the Romans and Byzantines did centuries ago.

I placed the goodies into my already-full backpack, but allowed myself to take on the additional burden for these people who had allowed me, a stranger, into their home and hearts for nothing more than a night.

I present for you these artifacts today.

Sincerely,

Angela L. Costello
University of Rhode Island