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Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2001. 30:20926


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c 2001 by Annual Reviews. All rights reserved

ARCHAEOLOGICAL TEXTILES: A Review


of Current Research

Irene Good
Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138;
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e-mail: igood@fas.harvard.edu
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Key Words cloth, cordage, fiber analysis, perishables, pseudomorphs


Abstract Archaeological textile studies are now recognized as a robust source of
information for anthropological inquiry. Over the past two decades several important
developments have taken place, enabling a more integrated approach to their study than
in the past. Topics addressed range from the development of methods for analyzing
degraded fibers to the comparative study of specific histories of textile and clothing
traditions. Archaeological textile studies address relevant issues ranging from aesthet-
ics and style to gender; from technological development to production and exchange
economics. This chapter presents an overview of current research in the growing field
of archaeological textile studies.

INTRODUCTION
The craft of using fiber to produce goods, ranging from floor mats to bridal dowry,
addresses all three of the basic human needs: food, clothing, and shelter. Cordage,
basketry, and matting, as well as woven cloth, have long been such an integral
part of human adaptations that one can hardly pass through a day without using a
metaphor that is ultimately derived from the production of fiber-related goods. The
history of textile technology and its related crafts of spinning, plaiting, twining,
and basketry is long and wide. We now know from direct evidence that the fiber
arts were known in the Upper Palaeolithic on the Eurasian continent and came
with the earliest inhabitants of the New World.
The advent of producing spun thread from plant fibers is now recognized as a
technological revolution (Barber 1994; Adovasio 2001). Manipulating reeds, bark,
basts, and seed down into cords, braids, baskets, nets, mats, and cloth bolstered our
capacity to adapt exponentially. By fastening some of these manipulated elements
into passive threads onto a frame, the history of the loom began.
Direct evidence for looms is rare, but we find early depictions on ceramics in the
neolithic in Egypt, western Asia and in Europe (Broudy 1979). Looms diversified
in their evolution in different regions of the world as distinct weaving traditions de-
veloped. Simple looms are not limited to producing simple woven cloth, however,
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as particularly evidenced in the later prehistory of Peruvian textiles. Complexity


in weave, design, and manufacture are, in a very general sense, attributes of wealth
and prestige, as cloth is a very practical visual display of labor. Complexity in loom
technology only increased mechanization, expanding the possible dimensions and
qualities of cloth produced, but also reducing the relative effort to produce complex
weaves. Although archaeological traces of early fiber use and textile production are
sparse and tenuous, evidence for early technological developments in the textile
arts in both the Old and New Worlds has been growing steadily for well over two
centuries.
The study of ancient textiles goes at least as far back as the earliest antiquarians
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in Egypt. Bronze age cloth from the northern European bog-finds were among the
most comprehensive nineteenth-century recordings of antiquity. Rare and fasci-
nating to us, these tangible, delicate, intimate aspects of the archaeological record
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hold multiple layers of information about our past. The general recognition of
the importance of textiles as an aspect of the archaeological record has become
manifest, in large part because of the efforts of scholars such as James Adovasio,
Patricia Anawalt, Elizabeth Barber, Junius Bird, Irene Emory, and Veronika Gervers,
to name just a few. Over the past 20 years, the number and caliber of technical
studies has risen dramatically, thanks to a new generation of scholars and scientists
under their tutelage.
Perhaps more significant is a greater degree of integration of textile, basketry,
and other fiber artsrelated data into the main forum of current discussions in
archaeological theory, which is having direct impact on basic theoretical assump-
tions and paradigms. This chapter presents a broad overview of some of the current
trends in the study of archaeological textiles and related materials. Once treated
as little more than chance finds and curiosities, textiles, fibers, cordage, and other
perishables have now garnered notable attention in recent archaeological re-
search, not only because of improved techniques in their recovery and analysis,
but also because researchers are more aware of the value this kind of data holds in
the overall interpretation of archaeological finds.
Another important contribution to this trend has been the accumulation of
technical studies, which allows a coalescence of earlier archaeological textile
data, in both area studies as well as in diachronic studies, to the point where
synthesis is now possible. Research interests in fiber arts now range from clar-
ifying and synthesizing the history of technologies (Webster & Drooker 2000;
Barber 1999, 1991; Jrgensen 1999, 1992; Crowfoot et al 1992; Walton & Wild
1990) and ancient aesthetic traditions and their cross-cultural transfer (Rubinson
1990, Adovasio 2000, Anawalt 1992, 1998, Barber 1999), to palaeoeconomic
studies (Brumfiel & Earle 1987, Costin 1993, Jakes & Ericksen 1997), gender
studies (Brumfiel 1991; Costin 1995, 1996), and division of labor (Soffer et al
1998, 2000a,b), production (Sherratt 1981, Chapman 1983; Costin 1990, 1995,
1998; Brumfiel 1996; Kuttruff 1988), and fiber source procurement (Janaway &
Coningham 1995, McCorrison 1997). These vantage points have become vi-
able and informative lines of inquiry among art historians and archaeologists, as
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ARCHAEOLOGICAL TEXTILES 211

well as scholars of ancient history. Critical methodological issues such as de-


velopments in fiber identification and interpretation (Angel & Jakes 1990,
Jakes 2000, Chen & Jakes 2001, Jakes et al 1990, Srinivasan & Jakes 1997,
Good 1999, Janaway & Scott 1989, Boddington et al 1987), or the epistemo-
logical limitations of intrasite spatial distribution of small finds related to tex-
tile craft such as spindle whorls (Costin 1990), are also important and active
pursuits.
A comprehensive approach to the study of ancient textiles and fiber perishables
addresses physical construction (Fowler et al 2000, Deegan 1997, Adovasio &
Maslowski 1980, Frazier 1989), coloration (Jakes et al 1990, Sibley & Jakes 1994,
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Sibley et al 1992), and content (Korber-Grohne & Kustler 1985, Good & Kim
1994, Good 1995a, Wild 1984) in the context of the implements (if any) from
which they are derived (Alfaro 1990; Bird 1983; Good 1995b; H. Tu, unpublished
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observations). These in turn are viewed within their social and physical environ-
mental contexts (Sibley et al 1996; Song et al 1996; I.L. Good, unpublished data).
This integrated approach has become a highly productive avenue of discovery into
understanding some of the social processes that underlie the agency of production,
use, and exchange, in terms of the generation and regeneration of style, genre, and
aesthetic, as well as technique, process, and valuation. We now are able to examine
how these facets of human experience are interfaced with regionalization, cultural
demarcation, and the expression of social boundaries (Barber 1991; Bernick 1987;
Cassman 2000; Teague 2000; Good 1998, 1999). Observing these critical social
processes through the diachronic perspective offered by archaeology has allowed
us to obtain a more comprehensive and seasoned understanding of issues that are
highly relevant to social science.

THE NATURE OF THE DATA

What exactly is a textile? Most textile scientists would agree that it can be defined
as a web of interlaced threads produced on a loom. However, there are numerous
objects that do not fall easily into that precise a definition, and there are several
classes of fiber artifact that derive from related but separate technologies (for
current discussions of terminologies and definitions see Emery 1980, Fowler et al
2000, Adovasio et al 1999; see also Seiler-Baldinger 1994).
The main venues for organic preservation are extreme aridity, freezing, acidic
microenvironments (such as those near a metal object), or nitrogen-rich bogs in
which little or no oxidation can occur. Each set of conditions plays a role in the
nature of the preservation and concomitant conservation problems and courses of
action. The ideal soil pH depends on the type of fiber. Linen and other cellulosic
fibers preserve better in alkaline conditions, whereas animal protein fibers such as
wool preserve better in slightly acidic environments.
There are several ways in which cordage, netting, matting, basketry, felts, and
textiles or their traces can be recovered archaeologically. They can range from
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actual intact objects, to degraded fragments of former objects or their components


with intact fibers, to chemically degraded pseudomorphs, even mere traces in soil.
Textile and basketry information can also be derived from impressions in clay and
plaster, whether purposive or unintended, and from design and patterns found in
representational art and other media. Finally, there is an encyclopedic source of
textile information, from fiber procurement to regional specialized craft production
and exchange, within its own social context, which has been recovered from ancient
texts (e.g., Waetzoldt 1972, Kuhn 1982, Steinkeller 1995). Clearly, the resources
at our disposal are abundant.
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Intact Structures of Perishable Materials


Occasionally, complete articles of clothing are found in archaeological contexts
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(see for example, Crowfoot et al 1992, Vogelsang-Eastwood 1993, Broholm &


Hald 1940, Zhao & Yu 1998). Much more common in archaeological contexts
are fragmented textiles or other perishable objects that have nevertheless retained
their structure (see Figure 1). Intact textiles have been recovered and recorded
from excavations for well over a century. The famous Bronze Age burial mounds
and bog finds in Denmark, for example, turned the attention of antiquarians to-
ward textile finds and their importance. From the barrows of Borum Eshj, first

Figure 1 Scytho-Siberian animal style reindeer carefully executed in tapestry technique


woolen panel from late first millennium B.C.E., Sampula, Xinjiang.
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ARCHAEOLOGICAL TEXTILES 213

excavated in 1875, a very important corpus of textiles has been preserved. Al-
though many of the objects were compromised owing to the circumstances of their
discovery, the textile finds from this well-known site to this day remain part of a
large inventory of curated Bronze Age costume from northern Europe. The Tarim
Basin sites discovered during the early twentieth-century Sino-Swedish expedi-
tions of Bergman and Hedin (19271935) and the British and Indian government
expeditions led by Stein (19131916) and more recently by the Chinese (1976
1986) (Zhao & Yu 1998; Xia 1979; Wang 1986), as well as sites in the New
World yielding large amounts of perishable remains, particularly in the Ameri-
can Southwest (Adovasio 1972, 1980; Adovasio & Gunn 1986) and Peru (Bird &
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Hyslop 1985), have collectively produced a considerable corpus of intact textile


remains.
Exhaustive technical studies of textiles and clothing recovered from these
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excavations have begun to accumulate over the past several decades; some
are recent studies of earlier excavations, for example of the corpus of cloth from
the famous discovery of Tutankh-amuns tomb (Vogelsang-Eastwood 1993),
and from the expedition to Pachacamac in Peru (Van Stan 1967). Others have
been incorporated into final site reports, such as the several excavations in
western Asia that recovered significant amounts of perishable fiber artifacts to
warrant attention, such as those at Palmyra in Syria (Pfister & Bellinger 1945), at
Gordion in Turkey (Ellis 1981; see also Bellinger 1962), and at Nahal Hemar in
Israel (Schick 1988a,b). Textile specialists have written exhaustive documenta-
tion of the technical aspects of these finds, and later technical and textile histor-
ical syntheses have also been written (Andrews 1935; Sylwan 1937, 1941, 1949;
ONeale 1936; Simmons 1956; Hald 1980; Anawalt 2000). With each genera-
tion of interested specialists come new and more comprehensive techniques, so
that techniques and methodological approaches can now address multiple lev-
els of analysis (e.g., Ericksen et al 2000). With the advancement of analytical
technology has come a plethora of scientific studies applying these new tools to
the analysis of ancient perishable fiber artifacts (Jakes & Angel 1989; Jakes &
Howard 1986; Good & Kim 1994; Chen & Jakes 2001; Chen et al 1996a,b, 1998,
2000).

Degraded Fiber Artifacts with Intact Fibers


A perishable object can be mechanically or chemically degraded, or both. Some-
times textile traces are found in soil but are too disintegrated to rescue. In each of
these conditions, however, it is still possible to recover information about fibers
and even threads, if present (see Figure 2). Threads often retain their shape from
their former structure, under most conditions favorable to their preservation, mak-
ing it possible to at least partially reconstruct the object structure. For example,
construction along with fiber and spin information can often reliably relate par-
tial finds to a larger cultural context and can inform us about technique, skill,
craft specialization, choice, access to materials, and other basic factors that played
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Figure 2 Image of Linum fiber single cell ultimates from third millennium B.C.E., Shahr-i
Sokhta, Iran, using interference microscopy to highlight diagnostic dislocation scars.

a role in creating past social environments (see Deegan 1997; Johnson 1996;
Kuttruff 1988; Good 1995a, 1999; Rodman 1992; DeRoche 2001; Anawalt 1988,
1997; Cassman 2000).
A related situation to this is the occurrence of traces of thread or other binding
material in a composite find, such as a necklace of beads, where traces of thread are
still encased within the holes of some of the beads. The careful study of this type
of small find, along with the removal of matrix soil around the find during retrieval
in the field and withholding cleaning until examination, are each valuable tactics
to practice. Beads found from a childs grave in chalcolithic Nevasa in South Asia,
for example, retained intact thread fragments made of mixed fibers of silk and bast
(Gulati 1961). If this attribution and date are correct, the silk is one of the earliest
examples on record outside of China. This kind of find also occurred at Roman
Period Sardis in Turkey, where beads revealed traces of an exceptionally fine wool
thread (Greenwalt 1990). This fine wool is one of a rare number of early examples
of the development of fine wool fleece (Ryder 1969, 1983, 1987). These and other
small pieces of evidence have been gradually filling in the gaps of our knowledge
of fiber use in prehistory.
Thread and cordage can be studied for the direction and degree of spin, as
well as for fiber content. Much attention has recently been given to this very per-
functory utilitarian category, resulting in some surprisingly profound revelations
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ARCHAEOLOGICAL TEXTILES 215

concerning handedness, spinning technique, and the tenacity of taught methods


of spinning and plying (Minar 2000, Petersen 2000, Petersen & Adovasio 1999,
Sibley et al 1989). The consideration of this kind of work in reshaping current
perceptions of issues such as the division of labor and status differentiation in the
Upper Palaeolithic and PalaeoIndian periods, now that more evidence has come
to light (Adovasio 1998; Soffer et al 2000a,b). Even when extant fibers are lost, in
certain conditions, traces of fibers and fiber objects can be recognized, if care is
taken to look for them.

Pseudomorphs
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A pseudomorph is a physical trace remain of a former fiber, thread, or textile.


The term was first coined by Vollmer (1974). Much more common than tex-
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tile finds, these delicate traces are occasionally found on calcined ceramic ves-
sels, metal objects, and even on stone. Pseudomorphs, sensu stricto, contain not
intact fibers but only their chemical breakdown products. Pseudomorphs occur
primarily when textiles are in contact with metal objects. As the metal breaks
down, the concomitant metal salts create a specific type of microenvironment
that is ideal for the preservation of textiles. Pseudomorphs are highly useful
for study because they often leave negative hollows of the fibers in casings of
metal salts, much like a fossil cast, leaving behind the structure of the former
cloth and hints of the threads and fibers (see Chen et al 1998, Janaway & Scott
1989, Boddington et al 1987). It is quite common, however, for these pseu-
domorphs actually to have trace amounts of chemically intact fiber preserved
in the matrix. Biochemical study of preserved fibers in pseudomorphs has yet
to become routine, although this approach is feasible for identifying fiber con-
tent and can be much more informative than chemical testing (see Good 1995a,
1999).

Impressions
Another form of indirect textile trace formation is in the negative; textile and
reed matting impressions are commonly found in clay, mud, and plaster from ar-
chitectural features. Textile impressions are also found in ceramics; in fact there
are distinct pottery manufacturing traditions that require the use of cloth. The
traces of the cloth are baked right into the pot. Various ceramic traditions from
regions throughout the world use some kind of technique involving cord-marking
or textile-impressed paddling; and some of these traditions have been carefully
studied (Bird 1956, Hyland et al 2000, Shishlina et al 2000, Shishlina 1999, Hard-
ing et al 2000). Impressions have been recovered from Mesolithic and Upper
Paleolithic sites in eastern Europe and Russia (Adovasio 1998, 2000). Sometimes
microscopic amounts of actual fibers can be retained in the matrix containing the
impression (see Figure 3). This humble class of artifact is currently transforming
fundamental perceptions we have built about the past, particularly in our deep
prehistory (Adovasio 1999).
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Figure 3 An apparently unintentional textile and cord impression in a baked clay nodule
from late fourth millennium B.C.E., Anau, Turkmenistan.

Cloth and Clothing Design and Patterns Derived From


Representational and Abstracted Art
It is an almost universal maxim that social groups, and individual social stations
within groups, are marked via cloth, clothing, and modes of dress. The study of
ancient dress, therefore, is of particular interest to anthropologically trained archae-
ologists. There are also indirect ways of reconstructing ancient cloth and clothing
from less perishable archaeological remains. One aspect of this type of approach is
to study actual dress and ornamentation as derived from representational art, from
detailed statuary (see Figure 4) to small ceramic figurines. Particularly noteworthy
in this regard are the finely executed statuary from Early Dynastic Mesopotamia
made of basalt or diorite. The hard stone has preserved a great amount of detail
from some of the rather exacting executions of dress. Human dress and adorn-
ment derived from figurines and other forms of representational art have been
studied in many other instances (Tosi 1983; Kawami 1992, 1992; Koslin 1987,
2001), some on the level of a concerted effort to reconstruct costume (Anawalt
1988, 1992, 2000; Anawalt & Davis 2001; Gullberg & Astom 1970; Soffer et al
2000a,b).
A second approach is that of inferring textile and basketry designs from artwork.
Ceramic motifs in particular can help to ascertain the type of weave or possibly the
type of loom. An example of this type of study is an examination of the traditional
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ARCHAEOLOGICAL TEXTILES 217


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Figure 4 Extant paint showing detail of textile decoration on marble statue from fifth-
century B.C.E. Greece.

Turkoman carpet patterns derived from ceramics (Pinner 1982). A better-known


example of this is that of the wall frescoes of Catal Huyuk by Mellart (1975, 1962).
Barber has examined Bronze Age wall frescoes in the Mediterranean and deduced
much concerning weaving structures from patterned motifs (Barber 1991; see also
Sibley et al 1991).

Discussion of Current Issues in Archaeological Textile Studies


There have been two major difficulties challenging the archaeological study of
textiles. The first is a methodological one, and the second is interpretive. There are
several factors that make the analysis of archaeological textiles especially difficult.
One obvious factor is that of fiber degradation. There are myriad ways in which a
fiber can degrade, making it necessary to have a diverse range of analytical tests
available. Carbonization is one of the more common states in which archaeological
textile fibers are recovered. Researchers have worked on the specific problem of
carbonization with regard to perishable material remains in general (e.g., see Letts
et al 1994). The problem of identifying carbonized fibers and otherwise degraded
samples is what makes archaeological fiber analysis challenging, and caution must
always be exercised in making identifications.
Fiber identifications can be inaccurate or inadequate, either because of diffi-
culty distinguishing diagnostic features under poor conditions of preservation or
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because the information was not sought out. The vast majority of archaeological
fibers are badly degraded or carbonized by the time they reach the specialists
laboratory, and the limitations of conventional light microscopy can deter proper
identification. Without access to an array of analytical techniques such as scanning
electron microscopy, phase contrast and interference microscopy, and chemical
and biochemical methods, identifications are often lacking or even counterpro-
ductive. For example, the famous textiles from the Neolithic site Catal Huyuk
in southeastern Anatolia, dating to 6000 B.C.E., were originally thought to be
woolen (Helbaek 1963). Only later analysis by Ryder (1965), however, revealed
that they are of bast. The difficulty in their identification was because the fibers were
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opaqued by carbonization, which is problematic in conventional transmission light


microscopy.
Proteins, lipids, and even DNA from cortical cells can be detected and identified
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from animal fibers in degraded condition (e.g., see Sibley & Jakes 1984). These
types of analysis have begun to be carried out on archaeological fibers, in partic-
ular with wild and domesticated silks (Good & Kim 1994, 1995a). Biochemical
testing can be applied to other animal fibers from archaeological textiles as well
and has been done recently with success (Good 1999). Another biochemical test
is polymerase chain reaction, where fragments of ancient DNA extracted from
proteinaceous fibers are amplified. (For recent application of this type of test on
ancient DNA, see Francolatti 1998; see also Paabo et al 1989.) Each of these tests
should be used as a corroborative tool for identification and should not be relied
upon in isolation.
Perhaps the more consequential problem, however, is interpretive. Imprecise
or inconclusive identifications can be misinterpreted, and then the misinterpre-
tations become amplified into general archaeological literature. For example, a
textile discovered in 1932 in a Hallstatt grave was thought to be Chinese silk even
though the technical report clearly stated that the chemical tests were inconclusive
(Hundt 1971). The general literature discussing the finds assumes Chinese origin
to be a fact, and the interpretation of long-distance contacts revolves around this
single assumption (cf. Wells 1980, p. 84; Wild 1984; Barber 1991, pp. 3132).
In another example, linen was identified among the textile finds at Gordion in
Turkey and assumed imported, simply because virtually nothing was known at
that time about fiber procurement in Iron Age Anatolia (Young 1958, Bellinger
1962).
Ascertaining the fiber in a fiber-perishable artifact will necessarily have a great
bearing on the understanding of this critically important aspect of material culture
history. The information required to make this judgment is not always consulted
or is not always available. Even when the fiber identification is accurate, inter-
pretation of it can be faulty. By using a multiple range of tests for identifications,
along with a contextual and environmental approach to the interpretation of fiber
perishables, a more precise knowledge of textile and fiber-related materials within
a given area can be ascertained, thus allowing for more refined interpretation of
finds.
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CLOSING REMARKS

A concise yet truly comprehensive review of the current state of research in ar-
chaeological textiles, from the Upper Palaeolithic to historic periods, in the Old
and New Worlds, is a truly daunting task. This chapter is limited to the review
of some of the more salient aspects of recent trends, primarily from reports in
English, although much relevant literature exists in many other languages, partic-
ularly from journals published in Russian, Norwegian, Danish, Spanish, Japanese,
and Chinese.
Archaeological textiles and other perishable fiber artifacts are materials that
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are highly conducive to study from multiple approaches: from the perspective of a
qualitative aesthetic discipline, as well as from a quantitative, deductive materials
science investigation. The processes of their production have required complex,
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scheduled, highly labor-intensive human effort and have always been in constant
demand (therein perhaps is the true significance of their being perishables), and
perhaps even more than the processes of ceramic production, they tend to adhere
to multiple semiotic and stylistic norms over time and place. Whereas fiber objects
are a relatively small portion of the archaeological record, textiles have provided
us with a relatively large portion of the information we have gained about the past.
For this reason the study of archaeological textiles and other fiber products holds
a unique position in anthropology.
Although they will never be as commonly recovered from archaeological sites
as more durable materials, textiles and other ephemeral fiber objects and their
related materials have been studied intensely for well over a century. There is also
much in the way of related evidence at our disposal that does preserve well. Recent
efforts in art history, textile history, and archaeology, as well as in textile science
and chemistry, have helped to create momentum in bringing cohesion, meaning,
and accessibility to this once arcane subject.
These cumulative data we now have at our disposal are amply suited for a
new generation of comparative studies and syntheses for addressing some basic
anthropological questions. Fresh textile and fiber perishables data can now be
interpreted with the aid of a large interdisciplinary framework built from what
we know, rather than simply documented in site report appendices and forgotten,
as they often were just 20 years ago. This new trend will perhaps accelerate the
process of bringing the subject of ancient fiber use into view as a serious sub-
discipline of archaeology, routinely taught to students of archaeology, museum
studies, and textile science, rather than being left to a handful of overwhelmed
specialists.
It is important to continue with diligence the restudy and revision of weaker
aspects of earlier technical studies when possible, for accurate data sets are an im-
perative prerequisite to producing meaningful interpretations. We must also strive
for a balance between technical acumen and relevance, taking care to increase the
level of integration between inference and assumption, rather than to compromise
one over the other. We can now expect much more of these valuable perishable
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artifact data to come to the light of day, and we can also expect much more infor-
mation to be revealed.

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