The Matting Needle

 

A needle of some sort is required for the construction of sewn cattail mats.  The tool used by Native Americans of eastern North America was commonly a long, curved, flat needle with an eye either near the center or the blunt end.  The other end was worked to a gradual point.  The needle I made can be seen in the picture to the right while one from the museum can be seen below it. 

The curve of the needle helps the sewing process because a worker would not have to lift the cattail leaves off of the ground as much to poke the needle through.  All of the matting needles I saw at the museum had a high polish on them.  

The needle itself does not take very long to make, at least to a stage when it can be used to sew.  My needle was made from a rib bone of a cow.  The ribs of bison and deer were used prehistorically, as cow bone was not available in North America before the arrival of Europeans.  Wood, such as pecan wood, and cane were also materials used to make needles.

 


(Milwaukee Public Museum)  

Making the Needle:   Since a cleaned one was available to me, I used a cow rib.  I was able to split the rib into its two flat sides using a rock surface and hammerstone.  Cracking may have been easier because I worked outside in freezing temperatures and the bone was brittle.  After splitting the rib into its halves, I continued to tap around the edges with my hammerstone, breaking small pieces of bone away until I had a rough outline of a needle.  I did that to both halves of the rib in case I would need two needles. 

I decided to drill the hole next since I would have hated to finish the tool completely and then break it during the final drilling.  Needles observed at the Milwaukee Public Museum had a variety of hole shapes: oval, circular, and square; indicating that there were several methods of making the hole.  Some were clearly drilled while others were simply gouged into the bone.  Making the hole was the one part of needle manufacture that I did in a “modern” way, using a quick power drill.  Needles made of wood can have the hole burned through them.  There is information out on the web about other drilling techniques if you want to avoid using any modern equipment.  Notches on the end of the needle would have also been able to hold cord, but most ethnographic accounts report needles with a hole. 

After the hole was drilled into my needle, I then began grinding down the sides of the needle.  I did this using sandstone chunks from the nearby bluffs.  After the sides were smoothed out, I ground down the blunt end and then sharpened the tip end.  My needle ending up being 21.5 cm along the curve and 1.5 cm wide along most of its length.  The thickness varied from end to tip, 3.5 mm to 1.5 mm.  Most of the matting needles seen at the museum were between 20 and 35 centimeters long.  If you would compare a matting needle from the Milwaukee Public Museum to my own needle, it would be obvious that the real museum specimen was finely formed and had much better workmanship.  But I must defend my own tool and say that it did the job just fine when put to the test.  

Now it's your turn!  You may need to ask around for the rib bone, but wood is always an alternative too.  Be careful if you use any power tools.  And instead of sandstone, you can always use sandpaper or a grinding tool.  When your needle is done, take good care of it - the needles are somewhat fragile.  When actually using my needle to sew, I did end up snapping off the tip a few times.  Luckily, I was able to grind down a new point in a relatively short amount of time.  If you take good care of your needle, it should last quite a long time.  Eventually you may start seeing a polish on it.  You may even want to decorate your needle, as some Native American women did.  Below is a photograph of a decorated Menominee matting needle.

 
(Milwaukee Public Museum)  

 

Why are Needles Important to the Archaeologist?

Mat fragments and other perishable materials have been found in certain places, such as dry caves, waterlogged sites, or frozen sites.  It is unlikely that we would find cattail mats in the Midwest unless they were found in a dry environment or were preserved because they were charred in a fire.  Instead, bone tools may be our only indicators of sewn cattail mats.  Matting needles have been found at a few archaeological sites in the Midwest.  However, to date, no recognizable bone matting needles have been found in the area of La Crosse despite many years and locations of archaeological research.  Part of my thesis project was attempting to explain why this may be.  I will not go into detail here, but a few of the conditions I researched were soil preservation, the availability of plants in the environment, how tool shape changes over time, and what types of structures the Native Americans were recorded as using when the Europeans first met them in the Midwest.

Based on my research, it was unlikely that at least the Oneota, prehistoric inhabitants of the La Crosse area, used sewn cattail mats to cover most of their structures.  That is the best conclusion I could arrive at based on what I saw in the archaeological and historical record.  It was amazing to me how many aspects of history and prehistory I would look into for my study of sewn cattail mats.  Simply studying the presence or absence of bone matting needles led to many other questions and scenarios to look at, all of which revealed interesting and useful information to me and fellow archaeologists.  Of course, all of my conclusions may be proven wrong when next year or the year after, a matting needle is found in La Crosse and a new theory has to be formed and tested.  That’s what archaeology and science is all about!

 

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