Bible Study Resource: Women of the Bible: clothes, jewelry, houses

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Facsimiles of gold leaf covered sandals, leather, from ancient Egypt; only for the very rich

What did people wear?

Minoan gold pendant, 17th century BC

Ancient Jewels

Young woman dressed in ornate jewelry

Esther, Bible woman
Beauty, cosmetics & clothing in royal courts  

Painting of an older woman/grand-mother

Families in ancient Israel

Reconstruction of an ancient village

Bible architecture: houses
Tents & houses: photos and architectural models


 

 


 




 

 


 

 

 


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Detail from Albrecht Durer's self-portrait

what really happened

historical background

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

Clothes, jewelry, houses

Fabrics

 Clothing in ancient Israel was usually

  • woolen fabric, either dyed or in its natural color, or

  • linen made from a plant called flax.

Wool was easier to work with, and it took dyes better. It was also waterproof to some extent, giving better protection against the weather. Linen was finer and more expensive.

Women were largely responsible for production of clothes. They

  • shared responsibility for tending the animals in the flock   

  • sorted and carded the wool after the goats and sheep had been shorn

  • spun the wool into lengths of yarn

  • collected plants and crushed stone for dyesFragment of a fringed linen garment  from Tel El Amarna, circa 1,350 BC

  • wove the fabric using portable looms

  • grew and harvested flax for linen. 

Their work was by no means finished. When the flax had been harvested they

  • dried the flax

  • carded and spun the flax into either fine or coarse linen strips (linen produced by the Egyptians could be woven finer than the fabric in a modern handkerchief).

  • prepared dyes of various colors: blue from wood, yellow from pomegranate, lilac from myrtle, etc. Even the poorest Jewish women used vegetable dyes to get a range of colors for the family’s woolen clothes. Flax did not take dye well.

 

 

The clothing of a Roman priestess of Isis

This statue of a 2nd century Roman priestess of Isis shows how a loose tunic and cloak were draped to be practical and attractive

Design of clothing


The Bible covers a time span of several thousand years, but the type of clothing worn by most Jewish people during that time did not change much. Jewish styles seem to have been influenced by both the simplicity of the Egyptians and the flamboyance of the Mesopotamians. Jewish clothing was fringed, but not like Mesopotamian clothing, which had fringes, overlapping fabric, frills, borders and colored braiding - less was not more in ancient Mesopotamia. 

A widow's clothing

'Widows were apparently set apart by wearing special clothing, such as in Gen- 38.14, where Tamar ". . . put off her widow's garments, put on a veil, wrapped herself up, and sat down at the entrance to Enaim . . ." in an effort to appear like a prostitute when she seduced her father-in-law Judah. Upon leavng Judah, she took off her veil and put on her widow's clothes once more (Gen. 38.19). 

These may be similar to garments worn by women who were in mourning for other reasons; 2 Sam. 21.10 records that Rizpah, Saul's concubine,  prepared sackcloth for herself to wear in mourning after her sons were handed over to the Gibeonites.Although we cannot guess the color of a widow's garments, it seems that they were made of rougher material than was typically used to make clothing.' 
Women's Lives in Biblical Times
, Jennie R. Ebeling, T & T Clark International, p.133

Items of clothing

Both women and men wore a loincloth, the equivalent of underpants. This was a long thin strip of cloth which was wound around the waist and then between the legs, with the end tucked in at the waist. Women probably wore some sort of binding around their breasts.
The main garment, worn by both women and men, was the halug, a tunic. This was made of two rectangular pieces of cloth joined in a long seam along the top of the arms, with a hole left for the head to go through. It also had a seam running down both sides, with holes left for the arms. 
 

Women had different clothes for working and festivals Clothes of the nobility, men's and women's

Women had different clothes for 
work days and festival days

Clothes of the nobility showed the influence of Egyptian, Greek or Roman fashions

 

The halug could be gathered up in a bunch at the shoulders, either with a clip or a tip-loop, or it could be tucked up at the waist if heavy work was being done. Halugs made of fine linen or wool could be draped to fall gracefully.
Young Middle Eastern woman The halug was worn with a belt, either leather or metal, the decoration depending on the wealth of the wearer.
A cloak could be worn over the halug. The edges and fringes of the cloak were often decorated.

 When women went into public places, they wrapped their long hair in a piece of cloth. This cloth held their hair in place and acted as a head covering in the hot climate. It could also be used as a face covering. Rebecca used it to hide her face when she first met Isaac (Genesis 24:65).
Total veiling, as worn by some Islamic women today, was not practiced. Sarah's beauty was obviously visible to those around her (Genesis 12). Rebecca was not veiled when she was drawing water from the spring (Genesis 24:16).

Head covering worn by women in public Ancient people loved to decorate themselves with  jewelry,  which, as today, was valued for its beauty and for the status it gave to its owner. Every woman had jewelry of some kind, which was part of her personal wealth. 

If it was part of her dowry, it would be worn conspicuously, especially on festival days when prospective suitors might be visiting the village.

 For more about clothing, try Bible archaeology: All about clothes

 

'An interesting ostracon (a piece of inscribed pottery) dating from the seventh century BC from the site of a fortress at Mesad Hashavyahu, near the coast of southern Israel, shows the value of clothing in ancient Israel. 
In this inscription, which was apparently dictated to a scribe, a field worker appeals to the governor of the fortress for the return of an item of clothing that he complains had been unjustly confiscated by a man named Hoshabyahu ben-Shobi. Although the item of clothing is not specified, it was probably a mantle or cloak given its apparent worth to the worker.'
Women's Lives in Biblical Times, Jennie R. Ebeling, T & T Clark International, p.93

 


For pictures of some fabulous ancient jewelry, go to Archaeology: Jewels

 

WOMEN IN THE BIBLE: GOLD NECKLACE

Golden rosettes from the 7th century BC

WOMEN IN THE BIBLE: NECKLACE

Necklace, 13th centuryBC

Golden rosettes, 7th centuryBC

Gold necklace 5th centuryBC

 

Jewelry is transportable wealth. It is also an in-your-face status symbol  letting everyone know just how rich you are. Women have used jewels for thousands of years. Even Cro-Magnons had necklaces and bracelets. For photographs of some of the fabulous jewelry worn by women in biblical times, see       Bible Archaeology:  Jewelry

 Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st century AD, Roman, Pompeii

Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st century AD, Roman, Pompeii.

 

 


 

Close-up of the eye of Nefertiti, showing heavy, perfectly applied make-upCosmetics were used by women at all levels of society. We know that women in ancient times manicured their nails, tweezed superfluous hair, and outlines their eyes in colors including black, green, aqua, terracotta and charcoal. Make-up, especially for the eyes, was popular.

Of course, there is no direct evidence that women in ancient Israel wore make-up, since there are no Israelite statues or images similar to the Egyptian ones shown here. But Israel was always influenced by its powerful neighbor to the south, and it is reasonable to suppose that this influence also affected Hebrew/Israelite women.

WOMEN IN THE BIBLE: WOODEN COMBS WOMEN IN THE BIBLE: HAIRPINS

1st century wooden combs found at the 
Qumran site in the Judean Desert

Women's hairpins of ivory and metal

 


Archaeological evidence

We have a good idea of clothing in New Testament times because of a discovery made in Israel in 1960. Bedouin tribesmen found many artifacts in a cave near En-gedi on the Dead Sea, which were dated to the Bar Kokhba War in 132CE. 

It appears that during the Bar Kokhba War a group of 17 people, including six children, were trapped in the cave. They starved to death there, rather than surrender to the Roman soldiers who were camped immediately above the entrance to their cave. 

A range of textiles was found with their skeletons. There were women’s cloaks, a child’s linen shirt, and skeins and balls of unspun purple wool. 

Laboratory analysis showed that three basic dyes had been used to obtain 34 different colors of thread (the three dyes were saffron yellow, indigo blue and alazarin red).

Hairstyle, jewellry and clothes of a wealthy 2nd century AD woman; Fayum coffin portrait Among the artifacts found in the cave were pieces of jewelry, a box for powder and a brass mirror in a wooden frame.

Activities

Dressed for the Occasion
Using the information in this section or from the webpage below, design an outfit you might have worn if you had lived in biblical times. You may use drawings or a written description to show the clothes you have chosen. Describe the cut, the fabric and the color of each item.

For more about clothing, try Bible archaeology: ancient clothing

 

 

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  HOUSES and TENTS

 There were two types of dwelling in ancient Israel:

  • tents used by nomadic and semi-nomadic groups, and

  • houses, either large or small, used by ordinary people.

    Women set up the tents each time the clan/tribe moved.  They selected a suitable site, then used wooden mallets and tent pegs to secure the unwieldy tents. When it was time to move on, they took down the tents, folded them and stowed to for the journey. This would seem heavy work to us, but the Hebrew women were sturdy and skilled, and they worked as a group. 
     Bible Tents and Houses

Nomadic tents

Tents were used by

  • nomadic people, who followed their flocks to pasture and water, and moved around according to the seasons

  • semi-nomadic people, based in a village but living part of the year in upper or lower pasture areas.

The tents used were larger than modern tents. They had two sections:

  • a front section, where the men of the family lived and visitors were entertained

  • a private section at the rear, for the women and their children.

WOMEN IN THE BIBLE: TENT HOUSINGThe tents were made from goats’ hair, woven in strips on large looms. Women wove the fabric for the tents, stitched them together, kept them in good repair, set them up when the camp was established, and folded and stowed them when it was time to move on. It would seem heavy work to us, but the Israelite women were strong and skilled, and they were used to working as a group.

 Houses

Houses gradually replaced tents when agriculture and villages replaced the nomadic way of life, but they both continued in use through biblical times. Stone for building was plentiful in most of Palestine, and was generally used at least in the foundations.

Reconstruction of an ancient village or town with streets and houses The basic floor plan used for houses was usually similar to the one used for the Roman insula: a central courtyard with a number of rooms opening off it. These rooms were small by our standards, with a minimum of windows. Lattice work and shutters were used to cover window openings (see the story of Sisera’s mother in Judges 5:28).

The size of the rooms was limited by the fact that rooms could only be as wide as the beams that supported the roof. Beams, usually wooden, reached from one wall to the other, and were covered with a mixture of woven branches and clay, which was smoothed with a stone roller.
The inner walls were finished with a smooth coat of clay or plaster, which could be decorated with frescoes, elaborate ones in the houses of the rich, simpler ones in peasant houses. Wide stone benches for sitting and sleeping, and shelves for storage were built into the structure itself.

Aerial view of a 1st century house complex

Artist's impression of a 1st century house

                                                                             

A wooden ladder or a set of stairs led to the roof, which was used as an outdoor room partly shaded by matting or a tent-like superstructure. Because the inside rooms tended to be small and dark, the courtyard and the roof were important parts of the house, and were used for tasks that needed a good light, for example spinning and weaving, and food preparation. The flat roof area might also be used for sleeping, working and drying food or textiles (see the story of Rahab the prostitute in Joshua 2:6). WOMEN IN THE BIBLE:Reproduction of a kitchen in Roman times

In the courtyard you might find

  • the mikveh, for both men and women

  • a cooking area with a fire, cooking utensils and possibly an oven

  • implements for grinding small amounts of grain

  • a covered area where people sat while they worked or talked

  • the family animals, possibly a donkey, goats or a cow

As you can imagine, this area was crowded with people, animals and activity at almost any time of the day. There is several reconstructions of this type of dwelling at Bible architecture: Houses.

By modern standards, the houses of ancient people were sparsely furnished, with only necessities such as a table, stools and lamps. People often sat on cushions or mats on the floor. Joseph, the husband of Mary of Nazareth, was probably a builder rather than a carpenter, since a small village wouldn't need much furniture.

Ancient kitchen interior with woman serving foodActivities

There’s No Place Like Home

Using your school, local library or the Internet, find out about the manufacture or construction of one of the dwellings described in this section.
Present your findings visually, using either a scale drawing or a model of the reconstructed dwelling.
Add an explanation of the methods used in the manufacture or construction of the dwelling you have chosen.

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Dozens of extra ideas at Activities for Bible Study Groups and Schools

 

Read about the fascinating women of the Bible

 

 

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Women of the Bible; Clothing and Houses in Biblical Times: Bible  Study Resource

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Copyright 2006 Elizabeth Fletcher