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.

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