Experiment, Wander and Wonder
A grey morning in autumnal Copenhagen… The sun hesitates to rise at all as I bike towards the windy shore of Copenhagen. Why not cozy-up in my warm office and write with a cup of coffee? As it happens, somewhere in an artist’s studio along Amager’s coast, is brewing something quite special. Something that, for someone like me, justifies braving all sorts of weather: an indigo vat. A carefully looked-after 100% natural indigo dye. The vat came to life three weeks ago under the care of the Japanese indigo dyers Buaisou., for the Nordic Indigo Masterclass organised at the Danish National Workshops for the Arts. After an intense week of dyeing and learning, the vat was moved to another location, “retiring” in Helle Vibeke Jensen‘s studio, where I am heading today. “Born” and “retired”? Every natural indigo vat is indeed very much alive: awaken by the careful selection and meeting of indigo leaves, ash and water, fed with bran, each vat has its own life cycles and life-span. I will be meeting this one for the third time, and finally dipping my first fibers, threads and textiles in its bluish-black bath. Japan… Scandinavian art workshops… a bit far from Sudanese archaeology you could say?! Yes, of course it is, but all of them are related by a tenuous thread, dyed blue in millennia-old techniques and magical-like indigo plants.
Experimental archaeology has been a pivotal point in the growth of material culture studies. Establishing strict protocols as well as tracked and reproducible experiments, the discipline brings invaluable insights about the manufacture of artifacts and about the people who created them. As modern industrialization annihilated home and small-scale textile production, much of the traditional resources and knowledge pertaining to textile making has been lost in the West and in many other countries worldwide. As a result, it is particularly difficult to reach the high standards of experimental archaeology in textile research. When done right however, it sheds light on hard-to-document stages of the chaine operatoire (1). To date, I have learnt about textile craft with textile experts, archaeologists, and craft people such as weavers familiar with the old tools and techniques, but I have not dabbled much in experimental archaeology. Lack of time, investment and financial resources, but also – I fear – too many obstacles and pending questions. How to procure the same raw material when we ignore where Meroitic cotton was domesticated and cultivated? How to find non-mercerized hand-spun local threads when the practice, as far as I know, has died out in Sudan itself? How to reconstruct weaving or dyeing activities when none of these installations has been recorded in situ on an archaeological site? Today, our knowledge of the textile chaine operatoire in ancient Sudan is still too incomplete to build a true protocol for experimental archaeology.
However, the careful observation and detailed study of more and more textiles is bringing answers and new hypotheses. The time will soon come when we can start testing them with experiments. Then will begin a fascinating search for experimented spinners, weavers, cotton growers and indigo harvesters, through archives and the Sudanese – Sahelian regions. Until then, I like to nourish my thoughts through an erratic journey of learning experiences and interesting meetings. Nothing rigorous nor well documented, complete disregard for geographic or historical coherence – in short – nothing scientific about it. Today’s incursion in indigo dyeing doesn’t officially take part in my archaeological research, which we like to define as an objective gathering and analyses of “scientific” data. But it does wonders for my creative thinking! And isn’t that what we are all about? Past and present, craft people, artists, and archaeologists: creators of colors, colorful textiles, and stories.
Acknowledgment: Many thanks to Kyoko Nishimoto for taking the time to explain to me the intricacies of indigo cultivation, harvest, and processing in Buaisou. ‘s farm in Tokushima (Japan). Inspiring mission and breathtaking blues. All my gratitude also goes to Helle Vibeke Jensen for opening her studio’s door to me and my colleagues Anne Drewsen and Ulrikka Mokdad, and directing our inexperienced splashing in the all-mighty indigo vat!
(1) See the protocols and different standards established by the Centre for Textile Research and weaver Ida Demant at Lejre Sagnland: E. Andersson Strand & M.-L. Nosch (eds.) 2015. Tools, Textiles and Contexts: Textile Production in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age. Ancient Textile Series 21. Oxbow books, Oxford. ; I. Demant 2009. ” Principles for reconstruction of costume and archaeological textiles”. In C. Alfaro, M. Tellenbach & R. Ferrero (eds.), Textiles y Museologia. Clothing and Identities, New perspectives on textiles in the Roman Empire (DressID), 143-153.