Archaeology and clothing (or maybe not)

Hee hee… I was down in the basement the other day when I came across a small stash of Ladybird books among all my files. For anyone not familiar with these, they were – and to some extent still are, though they’re not the same – a British series of books for children. The non-fiction ones were intellectually respectable, and they were much beloved by middle-class parents of a certain type. A type which definitely included my own parents.

Ladybird archaeologyLadybird books’ golden age was in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. My mother used to hunt them out in second-hand bookshops so some of mine are quite old, and the pics are fab. One thing that is quite noticeable is the fact that I held onto those featuring dress (like Clothes and Costume) or archaeology (such as Stone Age Man in Britain, yup, ‘Man’). The whole reason why I went on to read Archaeology may, indeed, have had something to do with my desire to stand around on sites in a white headscarf and yellow top, while an Indiana Jones type peered at pots (not that Indiana Jones had even been thought of when this was painted).

I just have to share some of the illustrations, so here are a few which really focus on what people are wearing.

Ladybird arch 2Skins, generally, it does have to be said. Often curiously fitted skins, sometimes daringly off-the-shoulder skins, but almost always skins.

Here we see two prehistoric bods actually making up their clothing (I can’t help feeling that cowboy movies may have had some sort of influence here). Note the apparent crudeness of the stitching – quite possibly using gut or sinew as thread, since they’ve evidently not progressed to the cord stage – but also note the interesting fact that he has managed to shave efficiently and she has successfully dealt with any underarm hair, so they were evidently more skilled than the stitching suggests. Her fringe is pretty cool, too. Unlike the hut roof, which I can’t help feeling would have blown straight off if anyone had so much as breathed on it.

Ladybird arch 4And here we have preparing the skins. I clearly remember this one, because I wanted to wear skins and prepare them like this (why, I do not know). Now, of course, my first thought on looking at the clothing is to wonder about the impact that entirely accurate historical epic One Million Years BC, featuring Racquel Welch in a skin bikini, had on the illustrator. Clearly it’s toned down for an audience of children, but I can’t help feeling there’s a certain reminiscent something in the tailoring.

I also remember asking my father what it would have been like to wear skins – I may have imagined that someone of such immense age (he must have been 37 or so) would actually know. He looked at the picture closely and said ‘draughty’. I caused a major diplomatic incident by complaining to my mother about this flippant response, but maybe it was better that he didn’t give me the practical demonstration I was demanding.

Ladybird arch 5Moving on a little, in actual Ladybird years, comes this contribution from the book on food and cooking, which must have been from the 1970s, given the dreadlocks.  I have an friend who was brought up on a hippy commune in Dorset – and looking at this, it’s all I can think of. Bare-arsed kids strolling about, cooking on a bakestone over an open fire, living in something that could almost be a bender, stereotypical roles ever so firmly entrenched… you can almost smell the fumes of a Camberwell Carrot carrying on the breeze.

There is one difference, though: cleanliness. Here, not there.

ladybird archaeology 6We do eventually move away from the skin clothing, and now we are in about 500BC. I know that, because this is from The Story of Clothes and Costume (originally published in 1964), which was clearly written for older children, and the text gives me some real information. As well as giving a rough date, it also informs me that this illustration is based on actual clothes from the period found in Denmark, and indeed some are clearly derived from garments discovered in bogs which come from about this time, like the Tollund Man‘s cap.

The female clothing, I’m less certain about; garments retrieved from Danish bogs tend to be full length and these dresses are more like something bought in Chelsea Girl, which may be where the artist found them. (It’s probably just as well that the artist did not use the Egtved girl’s clothing from the – much – earlier Bronze Age as inspiration, something which I wittered on about in my very first post on this blog, because there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that the girl wore anything under – or, for that matter, over – her string mini skirt.) I’m also intrigued by the colours, since much of what I manage to produce with natural dyes is… well, khaki or, as my mother once unforgettably put it, ‘shades of shite’. But then I don’t suppose that would have made a very fetching illustration.

But I’m not sneering, I really am not. These books captivated me, and did so to such an extent that I spent years up to my knees in mud or marking up bones in some breezy finds hut / tent / old outside toilet / broken caravan. There is something wonderfully atmospheric about some of the illustrations, and you can almost crouch over a guttering fire with a hunter as he tries to keep himself warm on a snowy day in the Neolithic, or walk up towards an Iron Age village on the downs in autumn:

Ladybird archaeology 7It was many years later that I learned the truth of Bettany Hughes statement that ‘just because you feel you can reach out and touch the past, don’t presume you can describe its face’. I’m quite glad, because you have to start somewhere, and being fascinated by a standing loom leaning against an Iron Age hut is certainly somewhere. Now where did I put my fluff?


4 thoughts on “Archaeology and clothing (or maybe not)

  1. Annie

    Have fallen so far behind with my blog reading catching up here has been a treat. And this post is a corker. I shall never look at my old Ladybird books in quite the same way again!

  2. Naomi Herzfeld

    I had a good laugh over your comment on the Egtvedt Girl’s skirt. I just closed my knitting store here in Rhode Island, but years ago, after reading Prehistoric Textiles by Elizabeth Barber, I knitted a tiny Egtvedt outfit for an American Girl doll and displayed it in the store. One little girl examined the doll while I explained that it was copied from girls’ clothes long, long ago. The child tugged her mother’s sleeve, then whispered urgently in her ear. The mother turned to me and said, “She wants to know why the doll doesn’t have any panties.” I answered, “Oh, sweetie, no one had panties then — they weren’t invented yet.” The girl’s eyes widened, and she looked down at her own skirt while her mind was processing this. Finally she shook her head and said with utter conviction, “Uh-uh. You can’t go outside without your panties on!”

    – Naomi Herzfeld

    1. kate Post author

      I would dearly have loved to see your Egtvedt skirt – well, the doll’s, I add, quickly…

      And this really made me laugh, thank you, so much. For that child to know she ‘shouldn’t go outside without panties on’, she clearly had been doing – or attempting to do – that very thing. You reminded me of a time a small friend of mine had been visiting (well, she had her mum in tow). She was about five at the time. After they were back on the ferry home I was clearing up and found a pair of purple knickers / panties stuffed behind the stove and another under the sofa; she’d clearly spent the weekend ‘going commando’. She would have been a natural for the Egtvedt skirt.


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