Ancient civilizations in Egypt left behind countless treasures, but an early-20th-century dig in Antinoopolis uncovered something uniquely incredible: a sock. Granted, such a common accessory might not seem to represent an exciting discovery. But this one was found to be 1,700 years old, and its fibers have an amazing story to tell.
Conventional Egyptian chronology marks the start of Ancient Egyptian civilization at around 3100 B.C. From then until the end of this period in the country’s history – it lasted until 646 B.C. – the Egyptians continually made the most of their resources to grow their population and improve their lifestyles.
For example, the Egyptians began using the routine flooding of the Nile River to their advantage. They came up with ways to irrigate crops and funnel floodwaters so that they produced crops in excess. This, in turn, allowed a larger population to grow and thrive – and build a storied culture of their own.
Egyptians also innovated when it came to the clothes they wore, although one thing remained the same. In making clothing, they relied on the materials and resources they found around them. As such, pastoral nomads typically wore clothes made from animal skins. In agriculturally focused areas, though, the Egyptians wore linen.
After growing flax, the Egyptians would soak it until it became malleable enough to split into fibers. They spun those strands into thread, which they could then use to weave and create cloth. Men and women styled outfits with the resulting textiles in their own distinctive way.
In Ancient Egypt, the men donned skirts. They wrapped them around their waists and held them in place with belts. Over time, fashion trends had men lengthening their skirts, shortening them and even adding pleats. Rich men had even more flair – they layered jewelry, headdresses and fabric-based embellishments over their skirts.
Similarly, women’s wardrobes were simple too. They wore long dresses, adorning the floor-skimming garments with one or a pair of straps. Eventually, they too became more creative with their clothes, draping or pleating fabric to create more ornate garments. And, just like their male counterparts, wealthy women spruced things up with accessories too.
To that end, the Egyptians did see jewelry as a sign of status – pieces made from more precious materials proved the wealth and position of the wearer. Not only would they impress their neighbors, but they would impress their gods by donning bracelets, necklaces, earrings, collars, pendants and rings.
Perhaps most surprising of all, the Ancient Egyptians even whipped up their own make-up. Both men and women accentuated their eyes with black kohl liner. Powdered minerals transformed their eyelids with green and blue tints. On top of that, they relied on henna for staining their lips and nails as well.
In spite of their obvious love for accessories and makeup, the Ancient Egyptians typically went barefoot. They did put on sandals if they had an important event to go to or if they had an activity planned that could hurt their feet. And, sometimes, they committed what might be seen as a fashion faux pas today. Yes, they wore socks with their sandals.
Between the third and sixth centuries A.D., the Egyptians started to wear knitted wool socks. They typically had separation between the first two toes and the last three so that they could be worn with sandals. The Ancient Romans also donned socks, especially when they traveled to territories far from their warm, humid Mediterranean home base.
But it would be an ancient Egyptian sock that would cause a stir among historians, albeit more than 100 years after its initial discovery. The man responsible for unearthing it was John de Monins Johnson. He had pursued a career in papyrology, meaning he studied the Egyptians’ writings – from literature to legal dealings – that had been preserved on papyrus.
So, between 1913 and 1914, de Monins Johnson helmed an excavation of the city of Antinoopolis. Greek emperor Hadrian founded the city in A.D. 130 to commemorate a friend named Antinous, who had died after drowning in the Nile River. Centuries later, Johnson hoped that he could dig up any lingering papyrus hidden there.
As it turned out, the papyrologist’s excavation gave him exactly what he sought. In fact, Johnson managed to find enough papyri to piece together a three-part publication called Antinoopolis Papyri, released in the 1950s and 1960s. But his dig for written remnants yielded many more interesting artifacts on top of the papyri.
Along with the papyri, Johnson discovered textiles, lamps, coins, shoes and even a wooden clapper. Supposedly, he and other experts didn’t have much interest in these items at the time that they discovered them. But, by 2018, new research showed just how interesting textiles – more specifically, a sock from Ancient Egypt – could be.
The sock in question eventually landed at the British Museum in London, where it sat as part of the Antinoopolis collection. At some point before 2018, experts were able to figure out the garment’s age – someone had woven the wool sock in about A.D. 300, making it more than 1,700 years old.
By 2018, though, new technology allowed the British Museum’s team of in-house scientists to learn more about the sock. That was because they had the option of using multispectral imaging, which uses the electromagnetic spectrum to gather data from different wavelengths, thus uncovering new information that a human eye cannot discern.
The scientists used multispectral imaging to reveal the types of dye used to color the multi-hued sock. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Ancient Egyptians relied on all-natural, plant-based dyes to color their woolen garment. For instance, they used madder root to create a red pigment – and madder is still used today for the same purpose.
The Egyptians had also discovered that the woad plant could help them dye fabrics blue. Today, woad has fallen out of fashion in favor of synthetic alternatives. Finally, they used the weld plant to make yellow pigment, a practice they shared with the Romans, who often made sunshine-colored wedding clothes with weld.
On top of that, multispectral imaging allowed the British Museum’s scientists to see just how the Egyptians had dipped fibers into dye to create different colors. They would also be able to see how intricate weaving techniques allowed the ancient civilization to create such a rainbow effect, a feat considering the trio of dyes they used.
And, amazingly, the team at the museum did all of this without compromising the age-old sock. Previously, they would have had to cut a piece from the garment for radiocarbon dating and analysis of the sock’s colorful dyes. Instead, multispectral imaging gave them a clear look at the technique and dye without inflicting any damage.
Scientist Dr. Joanne Dyer came up with the unique method of analysis while on the job in the British Museum’s Department of Scientific Research. She told The Guardian, “It was exciting to find that the different colored stripes found on the child’s sock were created using a combination of just three natural dyes.”
Dyer and the rest of the team shared their findings in a journal called PLOS ONE, wherein they further described the garment’s unique shading and weaving. The Egyptians had used their plant-based red, yellow and blue dyes to create the primary colors, as well as orange, purple and green.
And then, Dyer revealed, they used unique weaving and dyeing to complete the multicolored garment. In some places, she wrote, the Egyptians had spun multiple monochromatic fibers together to create a single shade. In others, they had dipped a single strand into multiple different dyes until they achieved the intended hue.
The British Museum could also describe the sock’s purpose, as well as the unique knitting technique used to piece it together. “This sock was for the left foot of a child with separation between the big toe and four other toes,” it revealed, which meant it likely conformed to sock-and-sandal wearing too.
The Egyptians could craft such an opening thanks to their unique style of knitting. They used “a single needle looping technique sometimes called nålbindning,” the British Museum team described. This method allowed them to sew each toe individually, thus creating enough separation between digits to fit a sandal.
Although the knitter made all of the toes out of dark green yarn, they went on to “join and work in bands of orange (four rows), purple (four rows), bluish-green (four rows), dark red (six rows), green (six rows),” the scientists described. The heel also had a multicolored pattern that incorporated shades of dark blue and yellow as well.
But, of course, the research didn’t just tell the world more about the garment. Dr. Dyer’s imaging method kept the sock in tact, and it was also less expensive and less intensive than the way scientists had analyzed age-old fabrics before. She told The Guardian, “Previously, you would have to take a small piece of material, from different areas.”
“And this sock is from 300 A.D.,” Dr. Dyer went on. “It’s tiny, it’s fragile, and you would have to physically destroy part of this object. Whereas with both the multispectral imaging and other techniques, you have a very good preliminary indication of what these could be,” she concluded.
With the sock in one piece, the British Museum’s scientists could more closely analyze its dyes and construction method, of course. But they could also theorize the reason for its existence in the first place. It turned out that the 1,300-year-old sock came to be during a period in Egyptian history that could further explain its ingenuity.
Long before the sock came into existence, the Ancient Egyptians had followed their own religion, under the auspices of which they had worshipped multiple deities. They believed that their gods had power over every aspect of their lives – as such, they routinely prayed and left offerings to get in their good graces.
On top of that, the pharaohs, who ruled over Ancient Egypt, were thought to be the connection between the people and their gods. As such, they regularly performed similar rituals and offerings – the state even funneled a large amount of resources to fund such ceremonies, as well as the many temples where the people honored their gods.
In the early to mid-600s, though, Egypt experienced a period of ongoing unrest as multiple empires invaded and conquered their country – and brought different religions along with them. Although Egypt had once been a part of the Byzantine Empire, which touted Christianity, the Rashidun Caliphate brought Islam to Egypt between 639 and 646.
In A.D. 641, the Muslim conquest reached Antinoopolis, which meant someone wove the sock together at a time of great unrest and constant upheaval. The garment, therefore, represented the type of resources that the city’s residents had during yet another fight for Egyptian territory.
As Dyer described to The Guardian, “Within [this] period in Egypt there are lots of things happening. There is the Arab conquest of Egypt, the Romans leave Egypt. These events affect the economy, trade, access to materials, which is all reflected in the technical makeup of what people were wearing and how they were making these objects.”
So the sock’s colorful sections created from just three different dyes were a remnant – and reminder – of this tumultuous time. We could speculate that perhaps the people had restricted access to resources. And as a consequence, they had to get as creative as they did with their double-dipping and thread-weaving techniques.
On a larger scale, the British Museum’s multispectral imaging success will spur further research into the construction of other ancient artefacts to reveal similar truths about other historical items. Dyer said, “It means we can look at more, and a larger variety of, objects. We can see the relationship between more objects and different time periods.”
Since the British Museum team successfully used multispectral imaging on the sock, other researchers have already done the same with their ancient objects. At the University of Rochester, for example, Professor Gregory Heyworth and his students used the technique to uncover a potential hidden text on a Torah in March of 2019.
They suspected that the Torah that they studied had come from around A.D. 1900, making it much newer than the Ancient Egyptian sock. However, the scroll had a compelling backstory. After the Nazis had invaded Moravia and Bohemia in 1939, the Jewish populations there had to hand over their religious books and objects. Their Torah could have come from a lost congregation, which Heyworth and his students can only find by deciphering the hidden clues.
And that was where multispectral imaging came in. Although Heyworth told the University’s Newscenter that the work was “exacting,” he and his students thrived on finding what they had sought. Much like the Ancient Egyptian sock, then, the Torah scroll had a story to tell – and it just needed the right people to try and uncover its truth.