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An answer on this site claims that the first flags were heraldic flags used in battles. But when was this, and for which nations?

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    The article makes it clear that heraldic devices were not used for nations, but for noblemen/warleaders. Are you asking what was the first national flag? – Mark C. Wallace Jan 22 '13 at 15:53
  • for group or community of people – md nth Jan 22 '13 at 16:03
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    IMO it is bad enough that we seem in many cases to rely on Wikipedia as a reliable historical source. But something voted 'best answer' on a Yahoo Q&A site? I think we need to do better.... – user2590 Aug 25 '13 at 3:53
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    @Vector I make a point to block Yahoo Q&A from Google results (with a firefox plugin), as the content is about as useful as a fat doctor giving diet advice and inane beyond belief... – LateralFractal Sep 23 '13 at 22:33
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    I disagree about the closure commentary, since it is not off-topic per any reasons I can see. It can be (should be) down-voted, perhaps, due to lack of research effort. – CGCampbell Aug 20 '15 at 21:26
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The Shahdad Standard is currently the oldest known flag in the world. The squared bronze flag from Shahdad, Iran dates back to about 2400 BC.

It bears many of the hallmarks of a modern flag:

  • A pole (around which the flag could turn)
  • An eagle with open wings mounted on the top of the pole
  • An emblem on the flag (depicting a rain goddess and an irrigation method practiced in Shahdad) to represent the group which bears the standard

Note:

The second source describes the emblem a little different:

two figures facing one another on a rich background of animals, plants, and goddesses

Source:

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    +1 - this is an excellent find IMO, and certainly debunks the notion that the idea originated in medieval times. But it is dated to the Iron age, so the biblical reference cited arguably predates it by several hundred years. BTW, the article you cited states only "is the most ancient flag which has ever been discovered in Iran.", not that it is the oldest known flag in the world. Still, we have no physical evidence for the biblical flags so your claim that it is the oldest known flag in the world - i.e. an actual artifact - might be correct. – user2590 Aug 27 '13 at 19:24
  • @Vector Possibly, I've found a couple of dubious sources saying the Shahdad flag is 5000 years old, but I haven't found anything reputable verifying that yet. It is certainly possible, since the flag is bronze and not iron, that it was made in the Bronze Age. And the city of Shahdad is 6000 years old. – called2voyage Aug 27 '13 at 19:28
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    @Vector: The other source in the answer claims 2400 BC, and the settlement in which it was found was abandoned by 2000 BC. This makes it at least a 1000 years earlier that the biblical reference. Even if we go with the other sources claim of "Iron Age" that could mean as far back at 1300 BC. – Lennart Regebro Aug 28 '13 at 9:14
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    Also "Shahdad enjoyed a very ancient civilization dates back to Iron Age and before." - I think the source is somewhat confused on what is going on. :-) It seems to be a translation of parts of an article in Arabic. – Lennart Regebro Aug 28 '13 at 9:20
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    @Vector I don't think Lennart or I are implying any debate or competition. We're merely making sure that matters are clear. – called2voyage Aug 28 '13 at 14:00
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Many early civilizations used vexilloids for the purposes of flags. A vexilloid is a stick, staff, or pole with an emblem, usually a 3D or 2D solid object on top, and sometimes a row of solid objects up and down the staff.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vexilloid1

The standards of the Roman army are famous vexilloids.

There are ancient Egyptian carvings and paintings of vexilloids thousands of years old.

Many vexilloids had cloth attached, such as ribbons and streamers, windsocks (as in dragon flags), or rectangular cloths hung from horizontal crossbars (Roman vexilla or Nazi standards).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Draco_(military_standard)2

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vexillum3

A flag is a piece of cloth, sometimes with a single color but usually having geometric or pictorial designs and patterns in different colors, usually but not always rectangular.

A rectangular flag is usually, but not always, longer in the fly (horizontal dimension) than in the hoist (vertical dimension).

Two of the most common ways to display flags are:

1) Using clips to attach to lanyards (cords or ropes) to run them up and down flagpoles.

2) Permanent attachment to spears, poles, or staffs. This type of flag can be considered a category of vexilloid, I guess.

According to Whitney Smith in Flags Through the Ages and Across the World (1975) cloth flags were invented in ancient Chine and gradually spread west through Eurasia and Africa, reaching Europe and the Mediterranean in the early middle ages.

But the Shadad Standard from Iran 4,000 to 5,000 years ago is an enigma. Since it has no surviving cloth parts it is clearly a vexilloid. But the squarish bronze plate is clearly in the position that a cloth flag on a spear would have.

So is the Shadad Standard a forerunner of flags, having a bronze plate where flags would have their cloth flags, or is it an imitation of cloth flags that already existed in Iran 4,000 to 5,000 years ago which have left no archaeological record?

  • +1 for summarizing the state of knowledge – called2voyage Feb 15 at 21:15
  • Since cloth doesn't age well, and flags are usually used until they are worn out, my suspicion is that flags are a lot older than we have record of. My guess is that the Shahdad Standard is a rare example of someone making a "flag" with a less perishable material than cloth, which is why it survived. – called2voyage Feb 15 at 21:19
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The Egyptian hieroglyph for "god" was a temple flag, so it seems flags were well-established around holy places probably by the dawn of the bronze age (~3000 BC). Earlier than that, I don't know.

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    This is an interesting insight, but it is not certain that the hieroglyph is supposed to represent a flag. It is also frequently interpreted as an axe--representative of an axe used for ceremonial purposes. (Reference) – called2voyage Sep 4 '15 at 14:05
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    @called2voyage I am interested in this line of inquiry, but this reference is from 1903 (its age is apparent when Budge refers to the Egyptians as "half-savage") and claims from around the same time seem derived from Budge's work. Do you have more recent sources for the axe connection? Recent literature seems to indicate the hieroglyph is a flag. – undine_centimeter May 16 '17 at 18:59
  • @undine_centimeter Unfortunately no, and I'm no longer convinced myself that it is the case. I'm not sure how old the nṯr glyph is, though. I'd be interested to know what its earliest attestation is. – called2voyage May 16 '17 at 19:07
  • Interesting insight! – Mozibur Ullah Dec 7 '17 at 17:30
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    I did some more digging: the original temple "flags" that the hieroglyph was based on were actually vexilloid poles with ribbons at the top. The imagery was on the pole, not the ribbon (which was a thin strip or strips), and thus these are not usually considered to be flags. – called2voyage Jan 9 '18 at 20:27
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I have a different answer for this and just sharing what I know about this, it also does not mean the flag was invented in India, but in India more than 5000 years ago, flags were used. Perhaps it could be the first flag.

In the epic Mahabharatha, for the Kurukshethra war between pandavas and kauravas, flags were used.

enter image description here

The Embelem on the flag of the arjuna chariot was Hanuman. The flag was called "Kapi Dhwaj". There is a specific description about this flag in Mahabharatha, since it has a certain importance.

Also prior to Mahabharata, in the Great Epic Ramayana, there is a reference to a flag ('Dhwaj' in Sanskrit) for both Lord Rama's Ayodhya Kingdom and Ravana's Lanka Kingdom.

If we come to Vedas, in the Atharva Veda it is mentioned that Indra had a Flag of his own called 'Indra Dhwaj'. There is no hard pictorial evidence for these references but the abundant use of the Sanskrit word 'Dhwaj' in almost all the scriptures is nothing but a flag which is attached to either the king's Chariot or at the entrance of his palace.

So this answer tries to put some historical input from ancient India to this question.

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    Your wikipedia source does not mention flags. Where are you getting this information? – called2voyage Aug 28 '13 at 12:38
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    According to Hindu calendar system the war might have happened before 5000 years.Also about wikipedia link, I just referred it to know about the war, and the main reason I put it because it have a picture of this chariot with this flag. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bhagvad_Gita.jpg Surely we can not have the real picture of the chariot, but in Mahabharatha it is actually describing in detail about this flag in the writings. So the actual reference is Mahabharatha itself. – AskingStory Aug 29 '13 at 5:07
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    Before Kuruksethra war also, there could have been flags used in India, but since this flag have certain importance, it is mentioned in the writings. – AskingStory Aug 29 '13 at 5:08
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    @MonsterTruck: Most of the dates for Vedas, Ramayana or Mahabharata were given by Westerners who have no knowledge about the Star positions mentioned in those manuscripts ! "Jyotisha" which is study of light or star confirms the star positions mentioned in those texts to exact dates. For more information you can Google and find out the dates of Vedas or other. – Pradeep Sep 23 '13 at 12:41
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    IMHO the meer fact that the Sanscrit had a word for "flag" to use in the Vedas implies that Indo-Europeans were using them in the 5th Century BCE (tradition aside, that's when we believe Ramayana was first penned). You can't really take it back any further than that though. 3000 BCE is before there was any written language anywhere (save Mesopotamia), so such an such assertion would have to be backed up by archeology. – T.E.D. Sep 23 '13 at 13:44

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