More on the Spiro Lace

Lace textile – 34Lf40/1266 (written by Louisa Nash)

(Compact Plain Twining with bands of Bobbin Lace Openwork)

The Works Project Administration (WPA) uncovered this textile fragment in Craig Mound during their excavations at the Spiro Mounds Site. It was found on August 5, 1937. The excellent preservation conditions at Craig Mound have enabled archaeologists to study different styles and manufacturing techniques of textiles.

Spiro "lace" attached to yellowed matboard
Spiro “lace” attached to yellowed matboard

This lace textile fragment is 43 centimeters long and 16 centimeters in width. The two darker horizontal lines on the fabric are a textile type called compact plain twining, defined as “a fabric structure in which one set of active elements (yarns) spiral turn about each other, enclosing successive elements of the other passive set in each turn” (Kuttruff 1993:130).  The lines of compact plain twining run the length of the textile and measure about 4 millimeters in width (Brown 1996:624). The wider, horizontal bands that are about 5 centimeters in width and contain the circular holes are a type of textile called openwork that was produced by the techniques of braiding or plaiting and bobbin lace work. On the textile, the bands of compact plain twining bind together the bands of openwork. The use of bobbins in making this fabric allowed each fine, individual thread to be kept in order and moved by the weaver. The bobbin lace openwork is considered a decorative element (King and Gardner 1981) and is a very refined method of fabric manufacture (Brown 1996).  In the bands of openwork, there are two different styles of circles: one is just a circular hole and the other one is a circular hole with an ‘x’ or cross shape in the center. These circles are about 1 centimeter or less in diameter.

The lace textile is black and charred (Gardner 1980:72). It is now in a clear UF3 Plexiglas mount that protects it from ultraviolet light and handling while allowing it to remain visible. It remains glued to a now yellowed mat board that has not been removed because the fabric is too brittle to attempt to take away the glue and mat board from it (Gardner 1980). Since the textile is charred, it is impossible to determine its original color. Shades of red were most commonly found dyed on Spiro textiles, followed by black, brown, yellow, and gray (Brown 1996).

Textiles were used by people at Spiro in a variety of ways. Sacks and baskets acted as containers (Brown 1996:620). Blankets or capes were also found in Craig Mound, along with skirts, kilts, belts, and sashes, all of which were worn around the waists of both men and women. Headbands have also been found at Spiro; the remains of one were found still attached to a skull. However, items in the category of fine cloth, such as this lace textile are not associated with a particular garment type or function. Most of the fabrics found in Craig Mound were folded when they were deposited in the mound. Conservators, such as H. M. Trowbridge (1938), worked after excavation to unfold and preserve the fabrics.

Analysis of textiles found at Spiro reveals that the principal plant fibers used in textile manufacture were canebrake, paw paw, milkweed, and beargrass (Sibley and Jakes 1986). Milkweed was likely the plant chosen for making intricate fabrics like this lace textile. Milkweed fibers are not very coarse, and so they are better suited to forming fine threads and cords. Scholars have determined that people at Spiro would cover the surface of the plant fibers with animal furs or feathers to make their textiles feel softer (Sibley and Jakes 1986).

Textiles are symbolic because they communicate information such as identity and social standing visually (Kuttruff 1993:126). Since this lace textile is a fine cloth, it could have been associated with leaders or prominent members of the community at Spiro. Similar fabrics have been uncovered in burials at a Mississippian site in Etowah, Georgia, and the manufacture of this textile style at Spiro could indicate its broader cultural ties (Brown 1996).

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Oklahoma Top 10 Endangered Artifacts Competition

We are excited to announce that the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History is participating in the Oklahoma Cultural Heritage Trust’s Top 10 Most Endangered Artifacts competition.  We have nominated the Spiro “lace”, a rare textile fragment from the Spiro mound site in eastern Oklahoma dating to around A.D. 1400.  The goal of the competition is to bring attention to Oklahoma’s endangered cultural heritage present in museums, libraries, and archives across the state.

Spiro "lace" attached to yellowed matboard
Spiro “lace” attached to yellowed matboard

We need your help!  Please vote for us – and any other objects that interest you!  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/KJTCTT8

Fabric and textiles have been an important part of the human experience for millennia for making clothing, blankets, and ornamentation — and yet few archaeological samples exist because of their rapid deterioration.  The “Spiro lace”, a unique textile fragment from the Spiro mound site, represents an important pathway to learning about the native history of Oklahoma. This extremely delicate artifact is very important for its rarity and research potential.  From this small piece of fabric, we can learn about an ancient artistic and technological tradition of textile production that has been largely lost to history.

Close-up of Spiro "lace" from Craig Mound
Close-up of Spiro “lace” from Craig Mound

The textile fragment consists of alternating horizontal bands of compact plain twining and single element interlacing (Brown 1996).  The compact plain twining bands serve to bind together broader bands of openwork.  The two main openwork techniques are plain oblique interlacing (braiding or plaiting) and bobbin lace work.  The latter includes two elements, a circular hole and a cross in circle.  The fabric is blackened from oxidation or burning.

The specimen was conserved by Joan S. Gardner in 1979.  When she found it, the fragment was glued to a yellowed mat board.  She noted that the material was too brittle to remove the glue in which it had been saturated and created a Plexiglas mount with a central cut out.  The mounted portion of the specimen measures 43 by 16 cm.

Gardner hoped that the at some time in the future a way might be found to remove the specimen from the mat board without further damage.  Today, 34 years have passed.  Now is the time to re-assess the conservation needs of this exquisite artifact.

To learn more about the Oklahoma Cultural Heritage Trust, visit, http://www.culturalheritagetrust.org/node/1
Elsbeth Dowd and Lindsay Palaima at the OK State Capitol
Elsbeth Dowd and Lindsay Palaima at the OK State Capitol
Bibliography:
Brown, James A. 1996. The Spiro Ceremonial Center: The Archaeology of Arkansas Valley Caddoan Culture in Eastern Oklahoma. Vol. 2. Memoirs of the Museum of Anthropology No. 29. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Gardner, Joan S. 1980. The Conservation of Fragile Specimens from the Spiro Mound, Le Flore County, Oklahoma. Contributions from the Stovall Museum No. 5. University of Oklahoma, Norman.