Story by Kevin Clarkston
Ohio State University is looking to provide ethnobotanists, archeologists and analysts with a new way to identify fibers found in prehistoric artifacts. Through a grant from NCPTT, the university is creating a database containing digital images, explanatory text and terminology.

Jakes and postdoctoral assistant Laurie Crawford“A group of committed scholars including conservators, curators, textile scientists, and forensics experts met and talked about creating a digital database with a very broad scope,” Kathryn Jakes, OSU ColLABoration director, said. “The Fiber Reference Image Library (FRIL) database was conceived to encompass images of all types of fibers, including those that are degraded or treated in some way as well as contemporary comparative materials.”

The Comparative Fiber Plant Collection (CFPC) is one component of FRIL, which is an international project planned by textile and fiber conservators and scientists. The CFPC will serve as a prototype for the larger FRIL.

According to Jakes, the CFPC was created in the early 90’s with support from the National Science Foundation. The images of the collected and processed fibers were captured on photographic slides but these could not be shared readily with other researchers. The PTT Grant is enabling development of a digital image database that is being created as a component of the Fiber Reference Image Library that makes the characteristics of these fibers accessible to archaeologists and conservators who deal with Native American fibrous products.

CFPC contains over 700 plant fiber examples, 1,000 microscopic slides, and hundreds of photographic slides. Along with allowing users to identify fibers, the collection could also be used to determine the extent of fiber processing and degradation. Fibers are the building blocks of materials such as textiles, basketry, cordage and sandals.

Although they are not as frequently preserved as other archeological finds, fiber-perishable artifacts have the potential to greatly increase knowledge of prehistoric technologies. By studying fiber perishables, conservationists can understand the types of fiber used in making objects, how fibers were processed from raw materials, spun into yarns, combined to produce the object, and how they were colored and decorated. The time and cost of artifacts can also be predicted, revealing the level of difficulty in manufacturing within a social group. Understanding the objects’ stylistic features can also help conservationists determine demographic factors such as age, gender, ethnic identity and status.

Most importantly, a conservator is better able to determine whether a fiber-perishable object is preserved or altered, waterlogged, mineralized or charred, and use the appropriate preservation technique. The conservator can also better understand the chemical and physical characteristics of an artifact’s fiber components.

The CFPC makes this task easier by including over 1,000 permanently mounted microscope slides and hundreds of photographic images scanned into digital form. This feature places the database head and shoulders above previous ones, which primarily focused on commercial plant fibers and failed to consider prehistoric materials. There are also plans to further expand FRIL’s database to include fibers images that can identify historic textiles objects.

“We plan to submit a proposal for expansion of FRIL and its links to the Historic Costume & Textiles Collection site, a next step toward achievement of the larger goal of the original FRIL committee,” Jakes said. “Additional fiber images and links to other collections are envisioned and discussions for this global scope of contributors and links have begun.”

The project’s goal is to provide a database that will serve an international audience of preservationists. As images and data are added whether directly into FRIL or through links from FRIL to other collection sites, those who are concerned with long term preservation of fibrous materials can learn about the consequences of degradation and the avenues used by others preserve fibrous products. The database will grow to serve a global community.

National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
645 University Parkway
Natchitoches, LA 71457

Email: ncptt[at]
Phone: (318) 356-7444
Fax: (318) 356-9119