What are some primary sources archaeologists and historians use to find out what the Ancient Egyptians wore?
Primary sources are sources of historical knowledge that were produced by people with direct knowledge of the issue that is being studied. There are not many kinds of primary sources that can tell us about the clothing that the people in Ancient Egypt wore. This is especially true when it comes to the clothing of non-elite Egyptians.
Ancient Egyptians lived, of course, in a time before photographs. They lived in a time before widespread literacy. They also lived quite a long time ago. All of these things mean that there are not many kinds of primary sources about their clothes. We cannot look at family pictures. We cannot look at magazines. We cannot look at diaries that people kept that would refer to what they wore. In addition, because they lived so long ago, we cannot find much in the way of actual remains of their clothing.
Therefore, we have to rely largely on art. We have to rely on statues that they erected. We have to rely on paintings on tombs and other walls. We have to rely on the cases that held mummies. In other words, we have to rely on a few kinds of art that show Ancient Egyptians and the kinds of clothes they wore. This gives us more understanding than we would have about cultures that did not produce art, but there are not enough kinds of primary sources to really give us a completely clear picture of all aspects of how Egyptians dressed.
The ancient Egyptians lived before the time of photographs, but historians and archaeologists can use hieroglyphics and other pictures to determine what they wore. These pictures appear in pyramids and on pottery. By looking at these, one has an idea what life was like in ancient Egypt. Of course, not all sections of Egyptian society are represented equally in these, as the upper class are better represented in pyramid art. One can also find various descriptions of Egyptian life (including what they wore) on scrolls of papyrus from the period. While some of the clothing descriptions will not go into intricate detail, one can gain some clues. Finally, one can look at mummified figures from the period. This is mainly royalty, but one can get an idea of what they wore and what the Egyptians wanted to carry into the afterlife based on mummies. Of course, there are issues of preservation and grave-robbing to consider--the garments will have had to survive two thousand years in order for an archaeologist to discover them. While historians cannot describe exactly what all classes of Egyptians wore, they can provide good clues based on these clues from the time of the ancient Egyptians.
A primary source is one from the original period you are studying, whereas a secondary source is one composed after the period in question. Thus a text written in Egypt in 1500 BC would be a primary source, but a textbook written in English about Egypt (or an eNotes answer) would be a secondary source.
There are three major types of primary sources we can use to study Egyptian textiles:
- Archaeological remains of clothing: Some ancient Egyptian clothing has been found by archaeologists. For example, some of King Tutankhamun's clothing was placed in his tomb, and although it is not perfectly preserved, it can still be studied. Beads used to embellish clothing and jewelry do tend to be quite well preserved.
- Art: Egyptian artwork, including both sculpture and painting, shows clothing styles. Much of our knowledge of Egyptian clothing comes from art, although artistic representations are often stylized rather than realistic.
- Textual evidence: Ancient papyri are well preserved in the dry climate of Egypt. Many ancient written works describe clothing.