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Lesson 2.7

Subjects: science, social studies, mathematics, language arts, visual arts.
Skills: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation.
Strategies: reading, discussion, computation, scientific inquiry, brainstorming,experiment, invention, writing.
Duration: one to two 45-minute class periods.
Class Size: any; groups of 4 to 5.

Pottery fragment from eastern North Carolina, decorated with impressions of cordage, ca. 100 BC-AD 800.


In their study of experimental archaeology, students will make cordage and use an activity sheet to:


For the teacher, one spool of hemp rope about a half inch in diameter; common dogbane (Indian Hemp), milkweed, or thin surface roots of pine; mulberry or poplar bark. If you cannot obtain native plant fibers, purchased string like cotton, raffia, or woolen yarn can be used. Transparency of the "Experimental Archaeology" activity sheet. For each student, a copy of "The Tuscarora Tied Their World Together" essay. For each student or team, a copy of the "Experimental Archaeology" activity sheet.


Bast: fiber from the inner bark of trees.

Cordage: several strands of fiber twisted together; string or rope.

Experimental archaeology: a method of studying ancient artifacts that involves making and using replicas of those artifacts.

Fiber: a slender, threadlike strand.

Hemp: known as common dogbane, one of various plants that have a tough, strong fiber (called sisal) in the stem; the sisal is used to make rope.

Replication: the act or process of reproducing artifacts, structures, or use patterns.

Sinew: an animal tendon prepared for use as a cord or thread.

Technology: the technique or means for making or doing something, often associated with tool making.

Tuscarora: a North Carolina Indian tribe whose traditional territory extended from the western coastal plain to the eastern Piedmont. Their traditional language is Iroquoian. Most modern-day Tuscarora live in New York state. They migrated north after a war with European colonists and allied Indians in 1711-1713. They became the sixth member of the Iroquois Confederacy.


Archaeologists can neither ask ancient peoples how they made their tools nor observe how they manufactured and used artifacts. Thus, archaeologists must find other ways to learn about past technological systems. Experimental replication of artifacts, buildings, and wear patterns is one method. Experiments provide possible interpretations and a basis for further study, but they do not directly prove how artifacts were used or made.

Experimental archaeologists replicate artifacts using techniques that may have been used by past people. These studies help archaeologists understand better the processes that produced the artifacts and buildings found in archaeological sites. They are particularly useful when ancient people left no written records or oral traditions of how things were made.

Replication studies include the reproduction of stone tools, basketry, ceramics, and cordage. By making these artifacts using (hypothesized) past techniques, archaeologists can address questions about how people once lived. Examples include: How long would it take to make a projectile point? Are some raw materials better for stone tool manufacture than others? What kind of clay is the best for pottery vessels and where can it be found? How long would it take to make a small snare or fishing net?

Animal snare.
Experimental archaeologists also study how people used artifacts in the past. They do this by using them in ways that produce wear or damage patterns similar to those observed on artifacts. For example, archaeologists have used stone tools to butcher zoo elephants that have died in order to learn how Paleoindians may have butchered mammoths. They examine the wear patterns on stone tools as well as the cut marks on the bones of the butchered animal. The results of their studies are used to make inferences about how Paleoindians living 12,000 years ago may have performed similar tasks.

In this lesson students will become experimental archaeologists and make cordage from native plant fibers or craft items. Cordage artifacts are seldom found in North Carolina sites because the region's wet, humid climate and acidic soils cause them to decay. However, cordage was an important part of earlier tribes' technology, and indirect evidence exists for how people used it. For example, some decorated clay pottery by stamping the surface with a small wooden paddle wrapped all over with a tightly spun cord. Others decorated pots by placing finely woven knotted nets over them and striking them with a paddle. Stone net sinkers suggest people used large and small fishing nets. Archaeologists infer cordage also tied together the support beams of houses. It undoubtedly was woven into animal snares, some kinds of bags and baskets, sandals and countless other crafted items. The importance of cordage to daily life is implied in a North Carolina tribal name. Tuscarora means "hemp gatherer," and Indian hemp (common dogbane) produces tough fibers used for making rope.

Besides using Indian hemp, local Native Americans made cordage from a variety of other materials. The vegetable fibers they used included stinging nettle, cattail, and milkweed. The inner bark (bast) of mulberry, poplar, hickory, and red cedar trees was used, along with human hair, animal hair, and animal sinew. Also, the thin, flexible branches of willow trees, the surface roots of pines and vines like the trumpet vine were used to bind and tie things together. Even though these fibers were weaker or more brittle than spun cordage, they made a strong lashing when wrapped many times and then secured.

Archaeologists infer that finished cordage varied in size from 1 millimeter to several millimeters in diameter--that is, from fine twine to thick rope. The size and thickness may have been determined by the fibers selected and the intended purpose of the finished object. Experimental archaeologists produce cordage to learn how it was made, the characteristics of the finished pieces, and how much time was needed to make these important artifacts.

Setting the Stage

1. Distribute a piece of two-ply twine about 12 inches long to each student. Ask the students if they can determine how the twine was made.

2. The techniques that were used to make many ancient artifacts are not commonly used today. Thus, archaeologists are confronted with problems similar to what the students just experienced with the twine. To better understand how the artifacts were made and used, archaeologists must sometimes learn ancient manufacturing techniques. This often trial and error exercise is called experimental archaeology.

3. Share the Background information.


1. The students read, "The Tuscarora Tied Their World Together." Briefly discuss the importance of natural resources to the Tuscarora and their ancestors.

2. Demonstrate how to make cordage with the commercial hemp fibers (steps 4-8 below). Here are some additional tips on preparing the materials:

3. Divide the class into groups of 4 to 5 students. Give each student about 15 inches of fibers. Assist each group in how to make cordage, asking students who readily learn the procedure to help other students.

4. To make cordage, first rub the hemp or natural fibers between both palms to remove debris. Separate two long strands of several fibers each from the 15-inch rope or plant section, starting from one end.

5. Hold one end of Strand A and one end of Strand B together, side by side, in your left hand between your forefinger and thumb. (This instruction is for right-handed people; do the opposite if you are left handed.) Pick up Strand A between your right forefinger and thumb, and twirl the strand away from your body (clockwise). This is shown as Step 1 in the illustration below.

6. Take the twisted Strand A and bring it toward your body, over and then under Strand B, as shown in Step 2 of the illustration.

7. Hold strands A and B between your left forefinger and thumb about where you crossed A over B. Repeat the twirling and crossing sequence: pick up Strand B, twirl it away from your body, and cross it over and under Strand A.

8. Continue these steps. The twirling in one direction and crossing in another direction forms an interlocking pattern like that of machine-made rope. If the cordage looks all twisted in the same direction, then the locking twist is not taking place, and usually the strands are being twirled in the wrong direction. (The process of making cordage is difficult to describe, and it sounds more complicated than it really is. Try it; it's surprisingly easy.)

9. Distribute copies of the "Experimental Archaeology" activity sheet to each student or team. Project the "Experimental Archaeology" activity sheet. As a class, work through the first problem. Students complete the remaining problems working individually or in teams.


1. Based on their experience with making cordage and the information in the reading, have students share their impressions of what daily life for Indian people living in North Carolina before Europeans arrived might have been like. In what ways might it have been similar to their own daily lives? In what ways different?

2. Tell students that archaeologists have excavated a dry cave site in the Mountains and more than 60 pieces of cordage were found in it. The cordage artifacts were classified and described as follows (write the information on the board):

Category 1

Material type: hemp (or dogbane)

Average thickness: 3 millimeters in diameter

Average length: 105 centimeters

Number of pieces: 38

Category 2

Material type: poplar bark (or mulberry bark)

Average thickness: 6 millimeters

Average length: 32 centimeters

Number of pieces: 22

Use scientific inquiry to study these two types of cordage.


1. Evaluate students' efforts to make cordage.

2. Have students write a creative story or a report, make a chart, or construct a diorama about living on the western part of the Coastal Plain without modern technology. They need to include five things they would have to know how to do in order to live.

3. Evaluate the students' "Experimental Archaeology" activity sheets.


1. Discuss how technology changes culture. For example, how would the acquisition through trade of metal tools, such as hoes, pans, and scissors have changed Indian cultures.

2. Demonstrate or display cordage in an Archaeology or Culture Fair.

3. Invent a modern use for cordage made from native plant fibers.


Lesson 1.6: "Classification and Attributes."

Lesson 1.7: "Scientific Inquiry."


Boyce, Douglas W. 1978. "Iroquoian Tribes of the Virginia-North Carolina Coastal Plain." In Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 15, Northeast, edited by Bruce Trigger, pp. 282-289. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Edholm, Steven, and Tarmara Wilder. 1991. "Cordage." Bulletin of Primitive Technology 1(2), pp. 19-22.

Lawson, John. 1967 [orig. 1709]. A New Voyage to Carolina, edited by Hugh Talmage Lefler. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Phelps, David Sutton. 1983. "Archaeology of the North Carolina Coast and Coastal Plain: Problems and Hypotheses." In The Prehistory of North Carolina: An Archaeological Symposium, edited by Mark A. Mathis and Jeffrey J. Crow, pp. 1-51. Raleigh: North Carolina Division of Archives and History.

Smith, Shelley J., Jeanne M. Moe, Kelly A. Letts, and Danielle M. Paterson. 1993. Intrigue of the Past: A Teacher's Activity Guide for Fourth through Seventh Grades. Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Department of the Interior. [This lesson is adapted from "Experimental Archaeology: Making Cordage" on pp. 81-86, courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management.]

Ward, H. Trawick, and R. P. Stephen Davis, Jr. 1999. Time Before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. [The image in this lesson's main heading is taken from Figure 6.5.]

"Experimental Archaeology" Activity Sheet Answers:

1. To answer the question for 10 meters of cordage, follow this general procedure:

Follow the same procedure to compute the time for 100 meters of cordage, or simply multiply the first solution by ten (since 100 meters is ten times more rope than 10 meters). The answer is 66.67 hours, or 66 hours and 40 minutes.

2. Use the same general procedure as in question 1, substituting 7 minutes for 10 minutes in the ratio. Alternatively, one may simply multiply the answers to question 1 by 0.7, as 7 minutes is 70% of 10 minutes, and thus the total times for making 10 and 100 meters would be reduced by the same factor. The correct answer for 10 meters of cordage is 4.67 hours or 4 hours and 40 minutes. The correct answer for 100 meters of cordage is 46.67 hours or 46 hours and 40 minutes.

3. The question may be answered by the following procedure:

4. As in the first problem, one can proceed by converting length to centimeters then using ratios to obtain the answer:

5. First compute the area (A) of the net by multiplying the length by the width. (Length and width must be expressed in the same units in order for the calculation to be valid.) Then measure the approximate length of cordage in each square meter of net, and multiply that amount by net's area in square meters. This calculation yields the total length of cordage in the net. From this number one can calculate the total time required to make the cordage, as in problem 1. Assuming that there are 3 meters of cordage in each square meter of net, and that it takes 10 minutes to make 25 centimeters of cordage, the calculation would proceed as follows:

Alternatively, after computing the total length of cordage required in meters, one can set up a simple ratio using the answer to problem 1:

Note that this answer represents a minimum figure for the total time spent in manufacturing the net, as it reflects only the time spent in making cordage and not the time spent in knotting the finished cordage into a net.

Activity Sheets for Lesson 2.7

"Experimental Archaeology." For a PDF version of this sheet, click here.

"The Tuscarora Tied Their World Together." For a PDF version of this sheet, click here.

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