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Archaeo News 

11 February 2007
Forensic photography brings color back to ancient textiles

Archaeologists are now turning to forensic crime lab techniques to hunt for dyes, paint, and other decoration in prehistoric textiles. Although ancient fabrics can offer clues about prehistoric cultures, often their colors are faded, patterns dissolved, and fibers crumbling. Forensic photography can be used to analyze these artifacts more efficiently, according to new Ohio State University research.
     "Normally when you dig artifacts out of the ground, especially stone or ceramic ones, you wash them and they look sexy. But you canít do that with textiles," said Christel Baldia, Ohio State University doctoral graduate in textiles and clothing. Baldia conducted the study with Kathryn Jakes, professor of textile sciences in the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State, and published their findings in the April, 2007 issue of Journal of Archaeological Science.
     Putting forensic photography to the test, Baldia and Jakes examined textiles from burial mounds built by the Hopewell, a prehistoric Native American people that flourished about 1600 years ago. In their study, the two investigators focused on pieces of fabric recovered from Ohioís Seip burial mounds in southern Ohio. Experts believe some of the pieces belonged to a canopy of fabric that arched over the remains buried inside the mounds. "Textiles often come out looking like brown rags, yet Native American dress is described as colorful by early travelers or pioneers." Baldia said. "So we asked ourselves: 'What can we do to better examine ancient textiles for colors we no longer see?'"
     Forensic scientists use different light sources, such as ultraviolet and infrared, to visualize stains or fingerprints on clothing, but Jakes said no one has used those methods in looking at ancient textiles. Under non-visible light, many pigments and dyes absorb light energy but release it in different wavelengths, or colors, of light. This behavior can reveal faded or deteriorated artwork in textiles. To find fluorescent patterns in textiles, Baldia and Jakes simulated daylight, ultraviolet light, and infrared light, then photographed the artifacts with special film and light-filtering camera equipment. The photographs ultimately helped them see undetected patterns and markings in some of the artifacts they examined.
     "The materials we examined from Hopewell burial mounds show gradations of color under different light sources," Jakes said. "When artifacts have non-random changes in color like that, it indicates to us that there has to be dye or pigment. Thatís significant for ancient textiles because it reveals technologies prehistoric Native peoples were capable of." When archaeologists are curious about an ancient fabricís colors, they often sample the material at random and cause damage to it. Photographing artifacts with Baldia and Jakesí method before sampling, however, helps archaeologists build a focused game plan for sampling that minimizes harm to the material. The researchers hope their technique will become standard practice for analyzing textiles and even other organic artifacts, like wood or leather.

Sources: Ohio State University, NewsWise (8 February 2007)

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