Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ancient leather: a retraction, and a revision

Many times on this blog I've talked about the excellence of vegetable-tanned leather for applications ranging from shoe soles and water bottles to scabbards and bowcases.

Unfortunately, my more recent investigations have led to more recent scholarship that calls into question the existence of vegetable-tanned leather during our period.  According to Carol van Driel-Murray ("Leatherwork and Skin Products"), the supposed references to "oak galls" in Mesopotamian literature probably instead refer to madder, meaning the processes described are not tanning but dyeing.  The earliest unambiguous references to vegetable-tanning are found in late Classical Greek literature, whereas "the usual method of dealing with skins in Antiquity" was fat-curing.

Fat-curing is a process whereby emulsified fats are added to a wet hide, which is then kneaded until dry.  Sound familiar?    Brain-tanning is a subtype, and although Classical fat-curing more often used oil or lard, the result was apparently similar; Todd Feinman has described it to me as "very soft like Chamois leather."  The process is attested in sources from Pharaonic Egyptian art to the Iliad.

Where does this leave us?  Well, without clear evidence of vegetable-tanning in the Achaemenid empire, the hide products available to us are very soft fat-cured, brain-tanned or imitation buckskin leathers, or rawhide.  Obviously this will require a revision of how we go about making a lot of kit.  In the next few weeks I'll go over some specific items and how they should probably be made.

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