Why is clothing on the dead so important? Because what we choose to put on our bodies conveys social meanings about our wealth, our status, and the social groups we associate with. Not only do we imbue our clothing with meaning, but others assign it meaning when they see us. For example, wearing a Go Green Spartan MSU t-shirt clearly demonstrates ones affiliation with the university, whereas wearing all-black with metal spikes and chains demonstrates affiliation to the ‘Goth’ or ‘Punk’ group. Clothing the dead is the last outfit they will wear, so often they are buried with garments that are highly reflective of their social status and group identity (unless dictated otherwise by religion). For civilizations that we know little about, finding clothing that demonstrates different group identities can help us better understand the broader social structure. Funerary attire is actually one of the best lines of evidence for understanding how a population dressed as it is one of the few areas where fabrics are more likely to preserve. However- its important to remember that funerary attire is usually selected by mourners, not the deceased themselves, and may reflect broader familial identities.
If you have a strong interest in the modern dressing of the dead, I suggest checking out the work by Pia Interlandi, who designs clothing for the deceased that symbolically dissolves with the remains. The goal of her work is to use clothing as a way for mourners to engage with the deceased and death itself- not hiding it, but presenting it in a beautiful format. But what about the dead in the past?
A new article by Baitzel and Goldstein (2014) examines the clothing found in the burial of a child from the Tiwanaku site of Omo M10 in Moquegua, Peru (700–1050 CE). For their purposes, clothing is defined as the fabric and other items that are worn on the human body in a manner that is both socially regulated and meaningful. In this sense, clothing is a way of communicating one’s identity to others. However, unlike tattoos or other permanent body modifications that share meaning, clothing can be changed repeatedly to match changing social conditions. Within the Tiwanaku region, clothing is displayed in iconography and art as being a very important indicator of social group and status. Despite the aridity of the region which does allow for cloth preservation, little fabric has been found in situ to allow for a better understanding of who was wearing what and what the different types of fabric meant. The cloth was primarily woven and then dyed with a range of colors in striped patterns.
The burial under examination comes from a larger cemetery complex found in Moquegua, Peru. The dead of all ages and sexes were primarily buried in a seated position, facing east. The bodies were wrapped in fabric and bound into the seated position by braided fiber ropes. Clothing was placed on the deceased as they would have worn it in life, or was placed over the head of the dead with the sleeves and other openings stitched together. In the over 200 burials found at the site, 266 textiles were found in 127 of the burials. In most cases, the fabric had degraded and the preservation was too low to allow for proper identification. Of these, burial M10S-16, was for the most part a traditional Tiwanaku tomb internment. It contained a single child who was placed in a cist, a stone lined tomb like structure. Due to the stones placed around the body, the environment within the cist was airtight and arid, allowing for improved preservation of the child’s clothing.
Like others, the child had been wrapped tight in a funerary bundle of cloth. First, the head of the child had been covered with a traditional piece of fabric called a pañuelo, which was used to cover the face and protect the head. After this, the child had a trapezoidal tunic draped around them with the head through the neck hole. It was a range of bright colors including yellows, blues and reds. Above this was a finely woven striped tunic that had been wrapped around the body like a sheet. Again, this tunic was a range of colors including red, yellow, white, pink, green and blue. The next step involved wrapping another tunic around the child that had more elaborate iconography of two geometric figures facing each other. Finally, the child was wrapped in a red-banded geometric tunic that was all held together by colored threads and braided ropes.
Despite being such a young age, the funerary clothing found on this individual suggests that they are of a higher status, and is potentially one of the best dressed individuals found at this cemetery. Baitzel and Goldstein (2014) conclude that this child was likely of a royal or noble lineage, and their death was especially traumatic for the family- perhaps because they were the last possible heir. What is interesting is that the grave goods found with this individual are fairly mundane and not indicative of status. If the clothing had not survived, as it doesn’t in most cases, we would not truly understand the complexity and importance of this burial. Perhaps this should lead us to question other burials as well? Perhaps there are many secrets about identities and status hidden in the clothing we so rarely find!
Baitzel, S., & Goldstein, P. (2014). More than the sum of its parts: Dress and social identity in a provincial Tiwanaku child burial Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 35, 51-62 DOI: 10.1016/j.jaa.2014.04.001