of My Study
By researching cattail mat construction, I have
learned an incredible amount of cultural and archaeological information.
Since one of the
materials needed to make sewn cattail mats was a bone needle, if we find
this in the archaeological record, we can assume many things about the
prehistoric people. For one thing, we can make reasonable
estimates as to how much work and time went into the making of sewn
Estimates: I kept track of how much time it took to
complete the various steps of mat construction. I was then able to
figure out my rates of work and calculate how long it would take to make
a full size mat, which I was unable to do myself.
My hypothetical mat was determined to be 3.5 by 1.5 meters (about
10 by 5 feet), a size that would likely be used to serve as a lower side to a
wigwam perhaps 10 feet long by 10 feet wide. Mats were made in a
variety of sizes, but most size ranges recorded had similar dimensions
to those that I used for my hypothetical mat.
It was found that
experienced woman would probably have been able to make a large mat in
one day, but that was if she had all of the materials available to her
and ready to go. Otherwise,
according to my results, the process would take a person roughly 7
eight-hour days of actual work for material collection, production, and
making the mat itself, plus several more days for drying
or soaking materials.
However, most ethnographic accounts of Native Americans made it
clear that mat making was done in pairs or groups. If mats would
have to be replaced every year, the activities involved would consume a
very large amount of womenís work over the course of several seasons.
But there are several indications that mats were reused.
Most accounts that actually refer to sewn cattail mats note their
handy attribute of being able to be rolled up and taken to the next
camp. One account refers to
them being stored in the rafters of the summer bark lodge. Obviously, people would not make the effort of doing this if
the mats could not be reused the next year.
Based on information I have seen, I am guessing
that mats, if properly stored and cared for, would last at least two to
three years. If that is an
accurate guess, women of a family would perhaps only have to replace 6
mats a year if an entire wigwam was covered with 12 to 14 mats, which is
how many some cultures may have used, but not all.
That would be 41 days of work for one person, which may be a high
figure, but with helping hands the task would have gone quickly,
efficiently, and perhaps even enjoyably.
Rolled Sewn Cattail Mat at the Milwaukee Public Museum
What Else We Can Learn
About People of the Past: Much more information,
besides time expenditures, concerning the prehistoric people who made
such artifacts can also be inferred when matting needles are
found. For one thing, the matting
needle itself may give information, such as what species it came
from, providing a small example of what animal resources they were
Archaeologists have always
been interested in the technology of humans; how objects are made, what
they are made from, how they were used, and how they have changed over
time. Cattail matting and
other plant materials rarely preserve in the archaeological
record. Woven matting, bags, baskets, fabric, netting, dishes, and
a multitude of perishable materials are often forgotten. It has
been said that 90% or more of the materials that people made rarely
survive in the archaeological record.
Any information we can get concerning that missing 90% should be
of great interest to archaeologists. Matting needles that do
manage to preserve in the archaeological record can give just such
Matting needles can also
give archaeologists a likely idea of the form
of structure that the Native Americans were living in.
Cattail mats were obviously being made and they were used most commonly on
domed wigwams. However,
mats were used on other structures and we can't just say that if we find
a matting needle the people must have built wigwams. Instead it is
best to look at the floor plans of buildings found at sites, along with
the matting needles, if they are present, to get the best idea of the
structures used. If only a matting needle
is found and there is no evidence of postmolds, or marks where wall
posts had been put in the ground, it would be best to state that it is
only known that cattail mats were used as structure coverings.
Finally, we know that the women of
cultures who left behind matting needles must have been expending considerable time and effort when
making sewn cattail mats. Because
they had to seasonally exploit specific plant resources in order to
collect the materials for mats, information such as when to harvest and
what plants were best must have been passed down as traditional
knowledge. Cattail mats
alone involve several steps in their production, steps which span the
entire year. The Native Americans
obviously had a complex technology that was passed down through the
years. Mats were constructed in the best way possible for
their use: linked flat panels to shed rain, a flared lower edge to better
fit the wigwam sides, free lower ends to stand the mat up easier, two
layers for channeling water and creating insulation, and lightweight
material that was perfect for a mobile society.