A Most Indispensable Art: Native Fiber Industries from Eastern North America. James B. Peterson, ed. University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1996. xxii + 212 pp. 53 figures, 13 maps, 24 tables, contributors, index. Price $45.00 (cloth). ISBN 0-87049-915-7
Reviewed by Azriel Gorski, Laboratory for Fibers and Polymers, Israel National Police, Jerusalem 91906 Israel
The book is a monograph arising out of the perceived need by several of the contributors to correct a deficit of research and literature in the area. It is not a textbook. Nor does it address, in any depth, the methodologies for fiber identification. It is a source book of works dealing with fiber perishables in the archaeological record from eastern North America. As such it would be useful in courses concerned with the value, analysis and interpretation of fibers, fabric, basketry and their impressions. It would also be useful to researchers, archaeologists, anthropologists, ethnographers, conservators and others, and the material is presented so as to be understandable, useful and address their issues.
The chapters of the book are articles on independent topics, but they can be grouped into several broad areas of focus. One group presents chronological sequences of perishable fiber materials. Another group uses fiber perishables as a marker to define ethnic boundaries and migrations. There are also chapters that are not easily associated with either of the above two groups. The ungrouped chapters focus on things as diverse as the reconstruction of a culture from its perishable fiber artifacts and proper methods for the conservation of such artifacts. While the groups are discernible, they do not have strict boundaries, and each article stands as a complete work on its own.
Following is a list of the chapters and a brief summary of each:
Chapter 1. The Study of Native Fiber Industries from Eastern North America: Resume and Prospect. (Peterson) - This article is an introduction to the book and an overview of the area. It deals with the history of past research; methods and classification systems; the theory and anthropological significance of fiber industries; and the problems, directions and tasks that need to be addressed in the future. It notes that while fabric and cordage may be mundane things, which have not previously been studied in depth, they contain a wealth of information about the people and therefore the culture by whom and in which they were used and produced.
Chapter 2. The Origin of Fiber Perishables Production East of the Rockies (Anderson and Adovasio) - A broad and extensive chronological study of fiber perishables from the Paleoindian (?-8000 BC) through the late Archaic (4000 - 1000 BC). It contains a wealth of detailed information and data, which can be the basis of future studies.
Chapter 3. Fiber Industries from the Boucher Site: An Early Woodland Cemetery in Northwestern Vermont (Heckenberger, Peterson, King and Basa) - The authors describe fiber perishables recovered from graves from a fairly narrow time period (800-100 BC). The collection is relatively large, containing 155 specimens. The fiber specimens are described; and cultural, religious and medical interpretations are ascribed. Inter-site and intra-site comparisons are made. Preferential preservation is noted; most of the found fiber remains were associated with copper. Other areas of the same skeleton are devoid of fiber remains. The need to consider this preferential preservation when doing intra-site comparisons, especially to different and drier climatic condition sites, is discussed.
Chapter 4. Inferring Behavior and Function from an Etowah Fabric Incorporating Feathers (Sibley, Jakes and Larson - A fabric fragment found in a burial is described. High status is inferred to the buried individual in part due to this fiber fragment. The methodology of the fabric analysis is presented. The cognitive processes involved in fabrication are discussed. The intended use and labor invested in the item are also considered. The placement of the fragment relative to the body is also discussed. Based on the above, the authors make inferences about human behavior
Chapter 5. Cordage Twist and Ethnicity (Maslowski) - The author discusses cordage and spin twist as represented in imprints on pottery from a number of sites in different areas. He found these features to be stable within a site. He also found that these patterns were more culture specific than pottery in defining archaeological complexes and phases
Chapter 6. Fiber Industries from Northern New England: Ethnicity and Technological Traditions during the Woodland Period (Peterson) - This article deals mainly with impressions of fibrous materials on pottery. The need to do this is illustrated by the fact that only 10 of 558 specimens from a wide range of sites are actual fiber specimens. The chapters illustrations give the reader an appreciation and understanding of the actual specimens and terminology used. The potential for using fibrous material impressions on pottery to determine learning networks, cultural boundaries and migrations is discussed.
Chapter 7. Fiber Industries in the Upper Great Lakes: A Late Woodland Case Study from the Juntunen Site (Hamilton, Petersen and McPherron) - This article discusses the impressions of fibers on the upper one third of pottery from a site in the Great Lakes area in the period from 800 to 1400 AD. These markings were judged to be decorative and not to represent a functional use of cordage. The chapter is excellent in its definition of terms and in its description of the characteristics found. Its photographs were excellent and helpful. Inter-site and external correlations to the region are made and discussed. Conclusions made on ethnicity based on the fiber evidence are contrasted against such conclusions made on the basis of pottery. It was found that one supported the other. The comparisons were made based on coding the items, and the coding keys used are presented at the end of the chapter.
Chapter 8. A New Twist to an Old Tale: Analysis of Cordage Impressions on Late Woodland Ceramics from the Potomac River Valley (Johnson) - The author examines cordage/fiber markings left on pottery from a small geographical area. Specifically he looks at cordage spin and twist directions and correlates these to ethnicity. The patterns found are contrasted against previous hypothesis of ethnic intrusions or migrations into the area, and the findings discussed.
Chapter 9. Mississippian Textile Evidence on Fabric-Impressed Ceramics from Mound Bottom, Tennessee (Kuttruff and Kuttruff) - This article deals with fiber impressions on "salt pans" from a single site during the Mississippian period (900-1250 AD). Salt pans had a mundane use and were not expensive or ritualistic. Therefore, in looking at them we get a look at the "day to day" of the people of the period. The authors consider whether the markings are decorative or marks left by the process used to construct the pans
Chapter 10. The Role of Storage and Handling in the Preservation of Fibrous Materials in Museums and Other Repositories (Gardner) - This article could be described as a "do" or "how to" list for anyone dealing with ancient fibrous perishables. It is written in a common sense manner and uses commonly available materials. This chapter is written in simple terms, and is easily understood and followed by those without specific training in conservation. But, if its suggestions were followed, the amount of fiber perishables conserved in a usable fashion would jump exponentially. Those with a need for greater or more specific knowledge will find sources in the bibliography.
Chapter 11. Eastern North American Textiles: A Western Perspective (Fowler) - The author first summarizes the previous 10 chapters. She then provides and Appendix in which she summarizes like works and studies from Western North America. The reader, using the above two sections, may easily follow her comments and compare the work being done in these two geographical areas.
As a monograph the scope of this book is, by definition, narrow, but I would recommend it highly to fulfill two needs. The first is as a basic source book for courses dealing with the area. The second is as a basic reference to those who may come across ancient fiber perishables. The second group will find information on what can be and has been done with these materials, and recommendations as to how they should be handled and preserved.
I specifically saved comment on the bibliographies until now. I found the bibliographies, for the most part, to be extensive but dated. Most of the papers cited are 1990 or earlier. Having said that, I must point out that compilation of this volume was plagued with problems to include the untimely death of contributors and those who had promised contributions. I thank the contributors who persevered and add to it my special thanks to the editor for his perseverance and efforts.