The History of Leather Part 3 – Ancient Egypt

Posted on 12/07/14

When leatherwork became leather craft? (3100 to 332 BC)

Some have emphasised the importance and quality of ancient Egyptian leather. Some have even gone so far as to credit the civilisation as the originators of all technical expertise in the field of leather and leatherworking – when leatherwork became a legitimate craft.

These are bold claims that not all historians agree with.

They point out that though depictions of leatherworking scenes and complex items of leatherwork have been recovered from Egyptian tombs, ceremonial tomb contents can’t be considered representative of day-to-day life in ancient Egypt. So I guess that’s scuppered my plan of being buried with a plunger, dustbin lid and a single wheel so that future generations genuinely think we were invaded by Daleks. Bloody historians.

At the same time, if ancient Egypt really was where all of our knowledge of leatherworking came from, judging by what they left behind for us to find, it certainly looks like they kept that knowledge fairly low key! Every leather item that has been recovered so far would be regarded as nothing more than an accessory by today’s standards. The only leather items we’ve found are sandals, bags, archer’s bracers and mummy labels (a sure-fire winner for my ‘most quintessentially ancient Egyptian item in this list’ award). For fully-fledged clothing, textiles were preferred – which is where they differ from their Stone Age forbearers.

If you want to get technical about it, and you’ll have to, because I’m going to anyway – the leather that they produced might not even be leather. Eh hem – cue the most nasal voice you can muster – true leather, that is, a water-resistant, durable material tanned with extracts of vegetable origin, was virtually unknown in ancient Egypt until they learned of the improvements to the craft of leatherworking pioneered during the times of ancient Greece and Rome. Instead, Egyptian pelt processing remained essentially Stone Age in its craftsmanship and innovation.

The relative unimportance of leather compared to textiles is thought to be due to the fact that leather was only salvaged as an afterthought from cattle that were ritually sacrificed. Even if leather did take something of a backseat in the times of Ancient Egypt, the core crafting techniques stayed true to the Stone Age traditions, and clearly leather, though perhaps not commonplace, was still relied upon for small but crucial day-to-day tasks, like carrying grain or protecting weary feet from the hot Egyptian sun. It was even considered worthy of being featured alongside a pharaoh’s most prized possessions in the elaborate pyramid tombs the civilisation is known for.

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