JAIC 1987, Volume 26, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 27 to 44)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1987, Volume 26, Number 1, Article 3 (pp. 27 to 44)


Martha Goodway

ABSTRACT—Brief case studies of the problems in identification of a wide variety of ethnographic and archaeological fibers are given. The strategy of identification varied with the purpose (choice of treatment, assessment of damage or identification of its cause, or authentication) but most of all with the condition of the fibers. Fibers from ethnographic or archaeological sources tend to be aged, and are sometimes fragmentary or decayed, fossilized or charred. With fibers in such condition, the simpler methods of preparation for microscopic observation were found more successful than the classical biological methods of soaking, clearing and staining.Not all fibers could be identified. Fur fibers from characteristic areas of the pelt were usually diagnostic as to species as well as to genus. Vegetable fibers were often not mophologically specific to species. Unless “guide elements” were present, or special limitations on species distribution were known, the identification of the genus of a vegetable fiber was often the best that could be done. Instructions for an optical test for flax, and a report form for the observation of fur and wool fibers, are included.The identification of fibers in archaeological and ethnographic objects in practice is a great deal more difficult than the texts on fiber identification lead one to believe. For example, the solubility tests which are a mainstay of synthetic fiber identification are of no use since archaeological and ethnographic fibers are natural ones. The various chloroiodine stains, Herzberg's and others which stain cellulose red, violet or blue and ligno-cellulose yellow, seldom act on old and dessicated fiber unless at nodes or points of fracture. These and many other methods recommended for use with textile fiber identification often give equivocal results when applied to archaeological or ethnographic material.Experience has shown that complicated and lengthy preparation procedures do not repay the time and effort they require and, more importantly, often fail altogether. Perhaps the single most useful generalization that can be made about archaeological and ethnographic fiber identification is that not all fibers can be identified on the basis of the information we now have. Nevertheless, a surprising number of these fibers can be identified, or at least classified, by microscopical observation and a few simple tests. The following examples may suggest useful approaches in dealing with material of this sort.

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Copyright 1987 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works