Textile Fragments Provide Details of Ancient Lives

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
August 23, 2004
Charred and brittle bits of fabric are providing new insights into the lives of prehistoric people, thanks to advances in chemical analysis of textiles.

In the past, scientists piecing together a picture of the lives of prehistoric peoples were confined to studying human and animal skeletal remains and the more durable objects found at archaeological sites—tools, weapons, and other artifacts made of stone, bone, shell, metals, and clay.

Organic materials such as cloth and wood rarely survived.

"Textiles are so fragile that they just don't occur very often in the archaeological record," said Joseph Lambert, a professor at Northwestern University in Illinois and author of Traces of the Past. "The way to get around this in the past has been to look at images [of textiles] impressed on more durable objects."

The earliest evidence of woven fabrics found thus far is seen in the carved representations of "modesty pieces" and headdresses on Venus figurines—statues of women with exaggerated breasts and buttocks—that date to about 20,000 B.C. Modest pieces are cloths made to cover body parts the wearer wishes to hide.

Actual twisted fibers dating to about 15,000 B.C. have been found in the caves of France.

Recent advances in chemical-analysis technologies and methods have expanded scientists' ability to study organic materials found at ancient sites. Using very small amounts of material, and less invasive techniques, textile experts are now able to make inferences that shed new light on the lives of prehistoric people.

"Textiles tell us about the knowledge prehistoric people had of the resources available to them in their environment," said Kathryn Jakes, a professor of textile and fiber sciences at Ohio State University. "It shows a remarkable amount of skill and technical know-how to go out and locate plants, figure out what time of year to collect them—and how to extract fiber from plant stems to create very fine yarns."

Lambert and Jakes were presenters at a symposium held Sunday, August 22, in Philadelphia at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Lambert received the Sidney M. Edelstein Award for Outstanding Achievement in the History of Chemistry at the symposium.

Mound Builders

One of Jakes's ongoing research projects has been the study of textiles of the Hopewell and Mississippian mound-building cultures that thrived in North America prior to European contact.

The Hopewell, a pre-agricultural society, was the dominant culture throughout midwestern and eastern North America from about A.D. 1 to 900. The Mississippian culture thrived from about A.D. 800 and included some of the groups observed by the European explorers in the early 1500s.

Both cultural affiliations were extensive, from present-day Wisconsin and Minnesota in the north to New York in the east and Florida in the south. Although distinctly different, both civilizations were known for the impressive earthen mounds they built, the artifacts that were buried within the mounds, and extensive trade networks.

"At many of these sites you find objects ranging from shark teeth and conchs from the Atlantic, copper from the Lake Superior region, and bear teeth from the Rockies," Jakes said. "These people had sophisticated technologies and complex cultural systems that we only know a little about."

One of the defining characteristics of the Hopewell civilization was its cremation of some of their dead. In addition to cremation basins, many charred objects, including fabric and copper, have been found. But when textiles were found, their importance was undervalued, Jakes said.

"There are a lot of charred fabrics stored in museums that don't look like much because they're black and brittle," she said. "But it's because they're charred [that] they don't degrade microbially. And because they're charred, it is likely that they were somehow connected to cremation ceremonies. That makes them significant on the cultural side."

Other textiles that have been preserved through centuries of burial were partially mineralized by their close association with copper artifacts. As copper minerals permeate the fibers, they become less susceptible to biodegradation. Today these materials are encrusted with green and blue copper-based minerals.

World in Color

With advances in technology, textile experts can see what kinds of fabric structure, yarns, and fibers were used. Certain patterns in charred materials also indicate the fabrics were dyed or painted in some way.

"The whole area of coloring fabrics is fascinating," Lambert said. "Throughout time, totally unrelated civilizations got bored with natural colors and started figuring out ways to create color. Adding color seems to be a kind of universal imperative of civilization. The New World was totally untouched by the influences of the Old World, yet you find them experimenting and using color."

Although the Hopewell people did not paint their pottery, evidence exists that they painted or dyed fabrics.

"It gives insight into what people's aesthetics were that they wanted red, yellow, and black colors," Jakes said. "It takes a complex combination of materials to make a color and make it stay. How did they know which materials to use to make a color and where to get them? "

There's good evidence that by the Mississippian period people used bedstraw, a kind of flowering herb, in combination with other additives, to create a red color.

"But nothing about bedstraw suggests it would create a color," Jakes said. "It doesn't look red. Instead it had to have been discovered in a prehistoric 'science experiment' that the roots of this plant will impart a red color. It gives you a lot of respect for what these people knew when you understand what they were able to do."

Prehistoric people left evidence of their lives that we can study," Jakes said. "It's like being able to touch the soul of the people making these things, to see into the minds of the artisan-scientists of the past."

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