Textile Studies between knowledge and knowhow

A case study from archaeological textiles

By Flavia Carraro, Marie Curie Fellow, 2014-2016

The project consists in an ethnographic investigation among textile experts and explores the modern reconstruction of archaeological textiles and of ancient technological textile practices. It aims to highlight the concepts of “knowledge” and “knowhow” as specific as well as complementary knowing and knowledge production processes while describing and questioning the relationship between the disciplines and the heterogeneous methods that contribute to defining the scope and substance of Textile Studies in the hybrid field of archaeological textiles. In particular experimentation, experience and interpretation are into the focus of the anthropological analysis that is distributed on three main complementary axes: 1) the relationship between Past and Present; 2) the specific modes and regimes of knowledge implemented, the knowledge systems mobilized and the concrete or conceptual tools employed; 3) the textile technology.

Archaeological textiles have a special status among archaeological items because of the scarcity of the remains and of the condition, form and nature in which they occur. Therefore, their study lies on a variable scale and involves the use of such methods as experimental archaeology and ethnoarchaeology, analysis of fibres and dyes, analysis of archaeobotanical and archaeozoological remains, palaeoenvironmental and geochemical investigations, tool studies, visual grouping, linguistic-textual references and iconographic materials interpretation.
Actually, the “reconstruction process” - from historical interpretation, to experimental and experiential methods dealing with bio/physical or human/social or subjective data - can indicate a concrete, material fabrication (as in tools study or in experimental archaeology); an activity simulation (as in technical processes testing or in living crafts experience); a virtual activity organization (as in curatorial practices and exhibition design); the use of scientific devices (as in scientific experimentation on fibres, dyes and remains); interpretation and analysis (as in the case of linguistic, textual and visual sources); or a theoretical and speculative design (as in research models implementation).
Likewise it can take form in language and gestures, arising in both material and semiotic dimensions, employing both theoretical abstract knowledge and practice. The very participation of both natural sciences and humanities, experimental and experience (hands-on and/or subjective) methods, and the technical skilled practices of craftsmanship enable the establishment of a hybrid field of research: a complex network of knowledge and knowhow, theory and practice, thought and skills, discursive and non-discursive knowledge arises between past and present practices, between different academic and extra-academic habits, and between theoretical, experimental and practical regimes. It makes explicit the issues that are the focus of this research project and permits the questions that structure its progression to be formulated in a concrete and empirical way.

Academics, technicians and craftspeople, museum curators and conservators in research centres and museums, archaeological centres and parks, laboratories and workshops are the principal actors of the study by an investigation that encompass the actual communities of textile experts, their scholarly habitus and façons de faire, their concrete research activities, the methods involved and the resources mobilized, the knowing and thinking schemas implemented.
Taking an anthropological and an ethnographic approach, rooted in cultural technology, in the history and anthropology of knowledge and in ANT, the investigation moves symmetrically through a “double anthropology” along the two lines of diachrony and synchrony, depending on whether the focus is on archaeological textiles and ancient techniques (past and unobservable) or on the study of it (contemporary and observable) as it is actually realised in CTR’s research programs. It is the convergence and the multiple crossing points of these lines that configure the theoretical matrix of the research work and map the actual fieldworks of the inquiry. The empirical definition of their relationship that this ethnography intends to outline allows the particular regime of knowledge and knowhow to be described and analysed within the disciplines in which they are distributed.

What conditions are necessary and how do we “rebuild” the Past based on techniques and material remains? This fundamental archaeological and historical question unveils the relevance and the newness of this research project and the value of its empirical approach. For ethnologists and archaeologists, it raises important issues by investigating the very possibilities of and methods for studying material culture. For anthropologists of science and technology as well as textile researchers, it raises timely theoretical issues concerning the definitions of the field of knowledge and practices inasmuch as it challenges the meaning of “textile” in between product and technique as well as the meaning of “knowledge” in between object and subject of study. Finally it allows for an opening of the black box of Textile Studies, and moreover of the epistemological distinction between “knowledge” and “knowhow”.

The main fieldwork locations for the ethnographic inquiry are: The Danish National Research Foundation's Centre for Textile Research – CTR; The National Museum of Denmark; The Sagnlandet Lejre Historical and Archaeological Research and Communication Centre; The Danish Centre for Isotope Geology, Institute of Geography and Geology, University of Copenhagen; The Department of Plant Biology and Biotechnology/Section for Plant Biochemistry, University of Copenhagen.