Determining Traditional Skin Processing Technologies: The macroscopic and microscopic characteristics of experimental samples, prehistoric archaeological finds and ethnographic objects.
Emmerich Kamper, Theresa
Date: 9 June 2015
University of Exeter
PhD in Archaeology
The importance of skin processing technologies, in the history and dispersal of humankind around the planet cannot be overstated. This area of material culture is often underrepresented as a research topic, and has been hampered, in part, by the lack of a systematic analysis methodology targeted at specifically this material type. This ...
The importance of skin processing technologies, in the history and dispersal of humankind around the planet cannot be overstated. This area of material culture is often underrepresented as a research topic, and has been hampered, in part, by the lack of a systematic analysis methodology targeted at specifically this material type. This research aimed to develop a methodology for determining the tanning technologies in use during prehistory, from extant archaeologically recovered processed skin objects. The methodology is a product of macroscopic and microscopic observations of a large sample reference collection, used to produce a database of defining characteristics and tendencies for each of six tannage types. The sample collection is made up of twenty-two species identified as economically important from both Europe and North America. Six sample pieces of skin were taken from a single individual of each of the twenty-two species, and processed using six tanning technologies, the use of which covered a large geographic area and time frame. A second reference collection of clothing and utilitarian items, made from traditionally processed skins, was used to add a section of in-life use traces to the database of discriminating traits. The developed methodology was tested by examining archaeologically recovered and ethnographically collected skin objects, from museum collections across North America and Europe. Objects from many different preservation contexts, including wet, dry, and frozen sites were analysed to determine whether or not the discriminating traits survived interment. It was found that defining characteristics and tendencies do exist between the main tannage technologies, and can be recorded at multiple levels of observation. The analysis of skin objects in museum collections confirmed that at least some defining characteristics and tendencies survived in all preservation contexts. In addition, the preservation of in-life use traces proved to be diagnostic of not only tannage type, but small sections of chaîne opératoire and object biography as well. Overall, this research has demonstrated that archaeologically preserved objects made from processed skin can provide information about the tannage technologies in use prehistorically, as well as more detailed information such as manufacturing sequences and the conditions of use an object was subjected to. Thus, analysis of this nature can be used to access information on a more individual level than previously believed.
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