PHILADELPHIA – Fragments of ancient fabric – some dating back to the time the Coliseum was built in Rome – may give researchers better insight into the lives of Native Americans who lived in eastern North America some 800 to 2,000 years ago.
"Textiles give us information about the technological skills of the people who made them," said Kathryn Jakes, a professor of consumer sciences at Ohio State University. "We can learn about a population from what they wore just as we learn from the tools and other gear they used on a regular basis."
Jakes has spent years studying the textiles from the Hopewell and Mississippian cultures which flourished in North America. She uses a variety of chemical and physical analysis techniques to help uncover the composition and structure of these ancient textiles.
Understanding how these materials were altered and how they degraded over time may help textile researchers figure out a fabric's original chemical and physical composition, as well as how it was used and what it was used for.
"Textiles found at these sites give us some understanding about the status and wealth of the individuals buried there," she said. For example, remnants of a headdress found at an archaeological site in Etowah, Georgia, suggest that feathers adorning the headdress were dyed red.
"Red feathers indicate high individual status," Jakes said. "Red is also the color that signified war, as well as authority. Early travelers to this continent observed feather headdresses worn by the chiefs."
Jakes presented her findings on August 22 at the summer meeting of the American Chemical Society in Philadelphia.
Most of the ancient fabric samples she studies are small – buried textiles tend to decompose in the moist soil common to many eastern North American sites.
But some fragments do remain, particularly ones that were partially charred or those that were buried with copper fragments.
"Charred fabrics are often found at Hopewell sites," Jakes said. "Charring helps preserve textiles by making them less susceptible to microbial degradation. These charred fabrics were likely associated with the cremations that are well known in the Hopewell culture. Alternately, corroding copper fills in nearby fabrics, thereby preserving the shape of the fibers."
Closely analyzing the fibers and dyes used to make these textiles gives Jakes and her colleagues compelling insight into the technological understanding of these peoples.
"Simply knowing which plants to collect, when to collect them and how to process the fiber from plant stems requires a lot of knowledge," she said, adding that these Native Americans took plant materials from their environment – such as the common milkweed plant – to make cloth.
They also knew which plants yielded the best dyes. Early travelers to this continent report that the natives used plants such as bloodroot, sumac and bedstraw for red dyes; and black walnut, pecan, red cedar and white birch for black or brown dyes. Jakes has found multiple forms of evidence for bedstraw and sumac coloration in fabrics.
"These Native Americans were artisans and scientists who knew the best combination of materials to produce the desired colors and patterns for clothing," Jakes said. "They wanted to look a certain way for certain events, just as we do today."
For example, Jakes has studied pieces of complex lace-like textiles created from very fine yarns.
"Not only does it take skill to make fabric this fine and intricate, it was made with a special purpose in mind," she said. "We want to know what the artisan's intent was for creating certain fabrics.
"Knowing the chemical and physical composition of such pieces is significant because even small remnants give us fascinating clues," Jakes said. "In some of the materials we have studied, we can identify component fibers and determine the kinds of dye used. In some we can even discern how the fabrics were worn and we can propose what they were used for."
Jakes is currently collecting and growing plants she believes these prehistoric people may have used as dye sources and doing experiments to try to recreate the techniques they used in coloring their textiles.
By solving the puzzle of how, and perhaps why, these ancient fabrics were made, Jakes hopes to learn more about early North Americans.
"People represent themselves through textiles – clothing, for example, says something about someone's personality," she said. "It's like getting in touch with somebody else's soul."
Jakes' work is funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation's Archaeology Program.
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