Jenna Tedrick Kuttruff and Marie Scott Standifer
Because fiber products are extremely perishable, it is rare to find examples of prehistoric textiles (fabrics) and cordage (yarns or strings) in Louisiana or other states in the Southeast. Yet, during construction of Interstate 55 near Lake Maurepas in South Louisiana in the mid-1970s, fragments of cordage dating back 3,000 years were recovered from the soil thrown up on the banks of the bayou when a dragline cut through the Bayou Jasmine site.
These specimens represent an important cultural resource and a rare research opportunity for LSU scientists. Five private collections containing examples of cordage, fibers and plant parts have been studied, and some of these specimens are now in the collections of the Textile and Costume Museum and the Museum of Natural Science, both on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge (Figure 1).
Since the site had been occupied from about 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1400, it was important to get accurate dates for the cordage. The calibrated radiocarbon dates obtained were 1600-1292 B.C. for a cordage specimen and 1110-835 B.C. for a bundle of fibers. These dates place them in the Poverty Point cultural period in the pre-history of Louisiana and make them among the oldest dated organic textile remains in Louisiana and the Southeast.composed of whole and/or split fibers, and the number of strands varied from four to 10 (Figure 2). It appears from our analysis that a consistent, overall diameter of approximately 0.06 inches (a little less than the thickness of a nickel) was an important requirement for the end uses of the cordage. The starting end of a braid (Figure 3), along with knots (Figure 1) and splices, provide evidence of some of the techniques used in braid construction. The people who made this cordage were able to braid minute strands into a tight and strong end product.
A botanical analysis revealed that all of the cordage had been made from roots and that the anatomy of the roots matched that found in monocotyledonous plants (plants like corn or grass). The source plant is thought to have been a local grass or sedge, which previously had not been reported as a prehistoric fiber plant. Efforts are being made to identify this important fiber source.
The collections also revealed information about activity at the site and possible end uses of the cordage. Contained in the collections were all of the components needed for cordage production: source plant parts, individual fibers, loosely arranged fiber strands and braids. Such a grouping of artifacts indicates that cordage was produced on the site. In addition, the cordage was recovered along with other artifacts and animal remains related to fishing. Although such cordage can be used in a variety of ways, it is likely that one use for the prehistoric braided cordage from Bayou Jasmine was as a fishing line. Through these studies, knowledge of previously unknown 3,000-year-old prehistoric cordage production in Louisiana has been gained.
(This article appeared in the winter 2004 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)