CLOTHES FROM THE XIONGNU WARDROBE (Based on Finds from the Noin-Ula Burial Mounds)

  • N. V. Polosmak Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography
Keywords: costume, Xiongnu, Noin-Ula, textile, silk, Mongolia, China.


Clothing has always served as a major ethnic marker by uniting people of the same community. Written and archaeological sources tell us a lot about the Xiongnu culture, but the appearance of these formidable rulers of the steppe remains a mystery, and we are still on our way to deciphering it.

Archaeological finds for reconstructing the Xiongnu costume come from the Noin-Ula burial mounds (Mongolia), the only site attributed to this people where objects from organic materials have survived. Many items of clothing were discovered as early as in the 1920s by Pyotr Kozlov’s expedition. New data were obtained from three large Noin-Ula mounds as a result of studies organized and directed by the author of this article at the beginning of this century.

The main conclusions that we have arrived at today are as follows:

The costume worn by the Xiongnu nobility was eclectic and consisted of items of different origin. Those were mainly robes made of expensive silk, which were manufactured at Chinese (Han) workshops and presented by the emperor as gifts to the chanyu, who then passed them, as was the custom, to his confidants.

Clothes for people of high rank were sewn from an imported woolen textile of the topmost quality. The clothes from this textile — caftans, trousers, leggings-were created directly in the Steppe, possibly by craftswomen at the chanyu’s base camp.

We do not know the design of the woolen caftans, but the small fragments that were found in Noin-Ula mounds 20 and 22 give us a clue of how bright and decorative they were: these caftans must have been completely covered with embroidery and trimmed with sable fur. A variety of silk textiles were also used in creating these clothing items. It is known that the Xiongnu received from the imperial court as gifts (disguised tribute) plenty of silks from the best workshops of China. These unique textiles were then passed to local craftswomen, who skillfully combined them with woolen textiles and fur. They created truly magnificent garments, as is evident from the surviving fragments of a caftan from Noin-Ula mound 20. In our opinion, it was these caftans that represented the costume of the Xiongnu nobility; i. e., the eclecticism of this costume manifested itself not only in a combination of items of different origin and culture but also in the fact that the clothing items that were created directly in the Steppe were made not only from local materials-felts, coarse textiles, birch bark — but also from imported woolen and silk textiles and embroideries. A good example of these clothes is the leggings from Noin-Ula mound 22. They were sewn by a local craftswoman from a magnificent woolen textile produced in the Mediterranean workshops and embroidered with silk by a Chinese craftswoman, of whom there were many at the chanyu’s base camp. Felt shoes sewn to the leggings were covered with Chinese silk, and their soles were carved from birch bark. This one item brings together three civilizations: Mediterranean, China, and Eurasian Steppe.

Even if we possessed actual clothing items from the burials, we would not be able to confidently reconstruct the Xiongnu costume because we could not be sure that the available items represented the entire wardrobe. Furthermore, we would not know exactly how these clothes were worn. The experience of studying the undisturbed Pazyryk mounds showed that only in those cases where we see all the details of clothes directly on human body, we get a correct idea of how related to one another and how they were worn.

The recent finds from the Noin-Ula mounds added a lot of new details to the description of the costume of the Xiongnu nobility. However, the costume itself, by which we mean not only a set of clothes from the headdress to the shoes but also the color scheme, hairstyle, jewelry, cosmetics, accessories, and manner of wearing, still cannot be reconstructed in its entirety. As of now, we can describe in detail only individual components of this costume. However, I believe that over time we will «assemble» the entire wardrobe and reconstruct the appearance of the splendid riders of the Mongolian steppes.


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Polosmak , N. V. (2020). CLOTHES FROM THE XIONGNU WARDROBE (Based on Finds from the Noin-Ula Burial Mounds) . Archaeology and Early History of Ukraine, 36(3), 431-444.