PHD title: Searching for a needle in a haystack: an investigation into the use of plant fibre cordage, textiles and basketry in the Palaeolithic.
Supervisor: Penny Spikins
The aim of this AHRC funded research project is to explore the use of plant fibres for cordage, textiles and basketry in the Palaeolithic. This project will assess osseous artefacts (bone, ivory, and antler) for use wear traces and deliberately engraved motifs in relation to plant fibre use. It will also evaluate tool forms in relation to functions within weaving and basketry. Research will primarily utilise Palaeolithic museum collections in the Dordogne, France, and Cantabria, Spain, with pilot studies assessing UK museum collections.
Due to preservational factors Palaeolithic material culture is typified by durable materials such as stone and bone. Their abundance has understandably ensured that these materials have come to define the Palaeolithic, both in the public eye and academic research. However this approach fails to explore the true breadth of material culture as indicated by fragments and impressions of textiles, nets and cordage.
The notion of Palaeolithic textiles or clothing often brings to mind images of people clad in skins and furs. While it is logical that these materials would have been utilised in the Palaeolithic for properties such as durability and insulation, evidence suggests that they were not the sole source for textiles. The use of plant fibres for both textiles and basketry in the Palaeolithic has been highlighted by the work of Olga Soffer and James Adovasio. Their work has drawn attention to the use of plant fibres by drawing on evidence primarily from Eastern Europe and discussing the representation of worn textiles on the so called ‘Venus figurines’. Despite their invaluable body of work the use of plant fibres in the Palaeolithic remains an understudied field and the rich archaeological assemblages of France and Spain have received little attention from plant fibre research.
This project aims to provide a comprehensive review of available evidence for plant fibres, both direct (i.e. plant fibres themselves) and indirect (i.e. use wear evidence). It will discuss the possible use of plant fibres in technologies such as hunting, fishing, clothing, shelter and even seafaring. The review will take as global a view as possible and discuss evidence from the MSA and Middle Palaeolithic to the Upper Palaeolithic; it will attempt to assess any patterns or changes in the evidence over time and space. The broad nature of this review is due to the scarcity of direct finds and limited specific research into plant fibres.
While the review will provide a broad base for discussing the nature of plant fibre technology in the Palaeolithic world the primary research will provide case studies with a more focused temporal and geographical nature. Museum collections of osseous artefacts from the Dordogne, France and Cantabria, Spain will be analysed with regards to the following questions;
The collected data will be evaluated with reference to ethnographic and historic practices in the production of plant fibre cordage, textiles and basketry; geographic distribution of motifs and regional cultures in the Palaeolithic; and experimental archaeology.
For her Masters dissertation, based at the University of Exeter, Hannah wrote on; The significance of plant fibre as a resource in Mesolithic Europe: an exploratory investigation with special reference to the Tybrind Vig textile fragment. The report received a mark of 80% with special commendation from external examiners. This research examined a range of evidence for plant fibre artefacts from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic, including beads, art, and plant fibre remains. To assess the functionality of plant fibre textiles in the Mesolithic the submerged Ertebølle settlement site of Tybrind Vig was selected as a case study. Plant fibre textiles from this site were investigated using archaeological and environmental evidence, ethnographic analogy and experimental archaeology. The research included the processing of different bast fibres, and the construction of a looped string bag based on the textile remains found at Tybrind Vig.
Hannah continued the theme of this research collaborating with Peter Groom, now based at The University of Edinburgh, on a funded research project based at Lejre; Land of Legends, Denmark. The project assessed the differing properties of tree basts that would have been available to Mesolithic populations at Tybrind Vig; primarily lime, elm and willow.
Hannah has a long standing passion for investigating and communicating the past. After volunteering as a committee member for her local Young Archaeologists Club as a teenager her first big step into an archaeological career was to undertake a BA (Hons) in Archaeology at The University of Exeter. During her BA dissertation she continued to explore her interests by examining heritage management and presentation within Dartmoor National Park and the City of Exeter. Following her degree Hannah developed her skills in outreach and education by working as a Youth Worker, Teaching Assistant and Technician at Southbrook SEN School, and working for an outdoor education company.
Undertaking a Masters in Experimental Archaeology at The University of Exeter provided the opportunity to learn historic and prehistoric practical skills including flint knapping, blacksmithing, basketry, ceramics and hide working. It also provided the chance to become involved in overseas experimental research projects focussed on early prehistory.
Prior to commencing her PhD Hannah worked for 3 years as Experimental Archaeologist and Heritage Officer at West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village, Suffolk where she delivered education programs, developed interpretation, carried out practical maintenance and experiments in the Anglo-Saxon Village, and hosted university researchers and conferences. During her time in Suffolk she also briefly worked as a field archaeologist, co-ran the local YAC branch and volunteered at the National Trust site of Sutton Hoo, where she was involved in an experimental project to recreate the Sutton Hoo sceptre, primarily through the creation of a photographic record. The findings of this work were published in 2013.
Hannah has a wide range of interests including; art, craft, cooking, cycling, countryside management, photography, physics and textiles. Alongside her PhD she is a volunteer at The Quilt Museum and Gallery and with The Conservation Volunteers, both in York.