Remnants of the Past: High-Tech Analyses of Ancient Textiles Yield Clues to Cultures

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In a museum lab, Irene Good is studying pieces of silk from long-lost cloth found at archaeological sites in western Europe and central and south Asia. The material at hand--short lengths of threads that were spun from the cocoons of moths--is barely visible. Good immerses the threads in a solution to tease apart the strands of protein. Then, she uses several methods of biochemical analysis to examine the proteins' amino acids. What amino acids are present and their order vary for proteins from different species of moths and therefore give a clue to the place where the silk was made.

"What I love most is being able, not just to alter what's known, but to improve access to the past based on very tiny pieces of evidence," Good says.

"Until recently, it was assumed that all [ancient] silk was from China," says Good, a specialist in fiber analysis and ancient-textile production and trade at Harvard University's Peabody Museum. Scholars held that silk dating from 2400 to 700 B.C. was carried afar on trade routes from China.

But Good's work is now calling that assumption into question. Her findings indicate that the ancient silk came not from domesticated Chinese silkworms but from species of wild moths native to western Europe and Asia.

"Now, it looks like some of the early silk industry outside China was earlier than thought and more widespread," Good says.

Today, Good and other researchers are applying high-tech methods of chemical analysis to ancient textiles and fibers to glean unique clues about past civilizations. The results are shedding light on many aspects of daily life among early peoples, such as their technological skills and funeral customs.

Much of the insight is coming from minuscule samples of textiles, which archaeologists categorize as "fiber perishables." Until recently, these remains were usually overlooked because they were frayed, discolored, or too fragile to withstand the rigors of analysis.

"Because textiles are organic, they're subject to biological deterioration from air, water, minerals, insects, and fungi. All kinds of things attack organic material and use it as their dinner," says Joseph Lambert of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. He is a pioneer in the use of analytical-chemical techniques for the study of archaeological materials.

Most cloth and other fiber goods degrade over time and eventually disappear. In some cases, however, ancient textiles survived well because they'd spent centuries in arid, freezing, or low-oxygen environments, such as well-sealed tombs.

Scientific interest in ancient textiles and other fiber objects is burgeoning. "Today, we're finally combining archaeological background with training in [scientific] instrumentation to put it all together," says Lambert.

SCRAPS OF EVIDENCE Chemical analysis and powerful microscopy can reveal remarkable characteristics of textiles: what plants and animals the fibers came from, how the yarns were made, what weaving techniques were employed, and what dyes or pigments were used to color them.

Such information, combined with other evidence, enables researchers to infer the technological skills of early peoples and the cultural importance of their textiles, notes Kathryn Jakes of Ohio State University in Columbus. "People had a particular intent when they were producing these textiles," she notes.

Jakes, trained in polymer chemistry, has used advanced methods of chemical analysis in her 2 decades of research on textiles of early Native Americans in central and eastern North America.

These groups, known collectively as the Hopewell and Mississippi civilizations, inhabited the region extending from Florida to New York and westward to Wisconsin. They lasted from about 100 B.C. until encroachment by European explorers and settlers in the early 1500s. Individual groups had distinctive ways of life, but they shared many beliefs and practices, including elaborate cremation ceremonies in which textiles played an important role. …