Ancient World

The Middle East and North Africa

In Ancient Egypt, starting in the Fifth Dynasty (c. 2400 BCE), weavers began to insert stripes of blue into the borders of plain linen mummy cloths. Indigo became more widely used in textiles beginning in the Middle Kingdom (c.2040 BCE). It’s unclear whether indigofera tinctoria (common name: true indigo) or isatis tinctoria (common name: woad), was used in Ancient Egypt, but there are many examples of different hues of blue found throughout Ancient Egyptian textiles. 

True indigo is the only color to appear on the earliest linen textile fragments found in Palestine, and date to the second millennium BCE. Later on, wool textiles were also commonly found to have indigo dye. One notable example are the indigo dyed linen wrappers found in the urns that held the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Image: Textile fragment from Deir el-Bahri, Upper Egypt, c.2000 BC from the book Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans by Jenny Balfour-Paul

Some scholars suggest indigo may have been in use in the Ancient Near East as early as about 6000 BCE, as an early Neolithic site, Çatalhöyük, in Anatolia suggests the knowledge of dyes at that time. There is definite proof of the use of indigo in the third millennium BCE, as other colored textiles, including indigo, have been found in Anatolia. Babylonian texts dating from the second millennium refer to “garments dyed in blue,”  and the texts are supported by wall paintings where the use of indigo is also found. In 1993, cuneiform tablets from Babylon were discovered that include detailed instructions on how to dye wool and reference  the dyed material as “lapis-colored wool” or uqnatuaso. Scholars have determined that the blue dye is indigo.  

Indigo resist-dyed cotton and woolen dyed yarns dating to the second to fifth centuries BCE have been excavated at the at-Tar burial caves in Iraq, as well as textile fragments excavated from Palmyra that are dyed with indigo.  It is important to note that at-Tar was a popular Silk Road trading site thus indicating that indigo was traded along the Silk Road and was the trade route tothe Levant, the gateway to Europe and beyond.

Image: Cuneiform tablet (c. 600 BCE) from Ancient Babylonia that details written instructions for wool dyeing, including indigo recipes from the book Indigo: Egyptian Mummies to Blue Jeans by Jenny Balfour-Paul

Central, Eastern and Southern Asia 

At times it’s difficult to excavate textiles in Asia; much of the climate is too humid and tropical to be conducive for textile preservation. India has long been famous for its textile work, techniques, and industry. While textile samples from long ago are rare, it has been established that since the second millennium BCE, Indian textile work was extensive and highly developed. Scholars believe that indigo dyeing techniques were also in use by this time. There are written sources detailing the use of indigo, including the text from the first century CE, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, written by an anonymous trader in Egypt. India was incredibly important in the textile trade, and many of their techniques spread along these trade routes.

Image: Resist-printed and indigo-dyed cotton from Gujarat, found at Fustat near Cairo, 15th-16th c. CE, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

China, as well, has a long history of highly developed and highly prized textile work, especially the use of silk. Textiles were traded on the Silk Road, and many fragments dating as early as the third millennium BCE have been found. Numerous textiles from the Han Period (206 BCE – 220 CE) in particular have been found, all with wide ranges of colors and techniques. A large excavation of textiles dating from the Han to the Tang (618 CE – 906 CE) dynasties was found in the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas in Dunhuang. The artifacts demonstrate knowledge of various dyeing and weaving techniques, including reserve-dyed techniques such as clamp-, paste-, wax-, and tie-resists, indicating that these techniques were practiced from the first centuries CE. Many of these textiles included indigo. 

Trade between India, China, and other South and East Asian countries became more prevalent after the first millennium BCE.  In addition, many trading logs that survive from later periods detail several different dyestuffs and other dyeing ingredients, and include early references to the two most dominant colors, red and blue. 

Image: MAS.820.g, silk textile excavated from Dunhang, Gansu, China. Held at the British Museum

Central and South America

While woven textiles were important to daily life all throughout Central and South America, Peru stands out as its climate, much like Egypt, is much more conducive to the preservation of textiles than other countries. Notably, textiles have been excavated from Peruvian grave sites at Paracas, Nazca, and Chancay. The earliest textiles found were made from cotton, and some were of cameloid fibers. Because of these textiles, scholars suggest that by 700 BCE, the local communities had developed almost every kind of known weaving technique, along with knowledge of complex dyeing techniques and dyes, including indigo. In Peru, indigo symbolized prestige due to its relative rarity as opposed to other vegetable and insect dyes such as cochineal.

Image: Embroidered Fragment, c. 3rd-2nd century BCE, Paracas, Peru, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art 33.149.81

In later history, the Inca and the Aztec were both renowned for their weaving and dyeing techniques. Unfortunately, few Inca textiles remain due to the damp climate, but one grave that was excavated contained a box that held a spindle and balls of dyed cotton in an array of colors. The cotton that was dyed with indigo remained the most vibrant. 

Both the Maya and the Aztec also used indigo in their textiles (and it was also seen as a prestigious color in these communities), but also in other ways. The Aztec used indigo as medicine, and the common name for the herb comes from them: iquilite, or “blue herb.” The Maya used indigo to create paint, mixing it with a clay mineral to create the famous ‘Maya Blue’ paint, used for murals and ceramics. 

Image: Tunic, c. 1400-1500 (Inca), Peru, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art 2005.288.

The Greco-Roman World

Classical authors in Greece, Rome, and Hellenistic Egypt were some of the first to understand and note that the indigo pigment originated in India and was imported to the Mediterranean as a luxury item (used for paintings, medicine, and cosmetics). Although, due to the form indigo was traded in (bricks of pigment), many people thought it was a mineral, instead of a plant based dye. In the first century CE, both Dioscorides (a Greek pharmacologist and botanist) and Pliny the Elder (Discorides’s Roman contemporary) both realized and described the botanical nature of indigo, and Pliny also distinguished between two different types of indigo: describing one as coming from ‘Indian reeds’ (assumedly indigofera), and another as floating in a dye vat (assumedly woad or even shellfish purple). 

Image: De Materia Medica by Discorides, in the adaptation by Pietro Andrea Mattioli, published in Lugdunum (Lyon), 1554.

Scholars hypothesize that Romans in the first century CE primarily used native woad for blue dye because imported indigo was extremely expensive (it cost around 20 denarii a pound, which was five times the average daily wage). By the second century CE, Romans cultivated their own indigofera to use alongside woad, and had a flourishing trade with India. Indigo production and trade thrived in both Roman Palestine and Egypt, where many Roman textiles have been excavated. 

Image: Set of Fragments (Embroidered Linen), c. 500 BCE-440 BCE, Athens, Greece, held at the Victoria and Albert Museum T.220 to B-1953.