There is a distressing phenomenon in archaeology. It is best seen whenever the statue of a man is found in France. Immediately it is identified as Julius Caesar. The same can be said about the head of any young man found in Asia - it is always Alexander the Great. And the less said about archaeology in Israel the better.
For the past few days there has been a huge amount of trumpeting in the Scottish press about the discovery of the first tartan. "First tartan" on Roman statue, says the BBC. "First tartan" discovered on statue of Roman emperor, says the Herald and, pretty much reprinting the same press release (though without those pesky inverted commas), Earliest depiction of Scottish tartan discovered on Roman statue, in the Scotsman. This is how the Scotsman ledes the story:
A fragment of bronze that once formed part of a Roman statue is believed to be the earliest depiction of tartan, it emerged yesterday.
The bronze statue once stood on top of a giant triumphal arch in the ancient Moroccan city of Volubilis, in the southwest corner of the Roman Empire, 1,500 miles from Scotland.
It depicted the Emperor Caracalla - self-styled conqueror of the Caledonians - riding a six horse chariot.
The statue, erected 1,800 years ago, was destroyed centuries ago, and only a three-foot-longbronze fragment of the emperor’s cape remains in a museum in Rabat.
On the cape is a depiction of a Caledonian warrior wearing a pair of tartan trousers.
Unfortunately it is nonsense. The Volubilis statue shows patterned trousers, not tartan - a word that with its cultural and politial connotations is less than helpful. This is how Diodorus describes Celtic dress (5.30.1) - with the cloaks as patterened:
The clothing they wear is striking — shirts which have been dyed and embroidered in varied colours, and breeches, which they call in their tongue bracae; and they wear striped cloaks, fastened by a buckle on the shoulder, heavy for winter wear and light for summer, in which are set checks, close together and of varied hues.
Nor is this fashion unique to Scotland. Indeed there is evidence all over the Celtic world. Fabrics found from (obviously) much later Viking sites in Scandinavia do suggest patterned trousers. Much more realistically, as has been pointed out:
Unfortunately portrayal of a 'Celt', sometime means that every item of clothing is checked or striped in some way, often with the same pattern, and you turn yourself into something from the Clan McCar-Rug. While it's certainly possible, it is more likely that clothing was as often as not of a single colour or left in its natural shade.