Friday, June 3, 2011

L is for Leather

L is for lithics, laurentian, Lenape, linguistics, and longhouse but this week it is for Leather.

The word leather conjures up many an image in most people’s minds. To a motorcyclist it could be a leather jacket and pants, a cowboy thinks leather saddle and chaps, a young woman might think of a designer leather purse. The leather objects most commonly possessed are the shoes or boots on our feet. Most of us give little thought to the process of obtaining these leather goods and are accustomed to a vast selection from which to choose. This was not always the case and the tools recovered in archaeological investigations aid archaeologists in understanding how prehistoric peoples processed animals for food and clothing. Ethno-archaeological studies as well as experimental archaeology have increased our understanding of the use of stone tools recovered during excavation. Additionally, specialized micro-wear analysis of edges on stone tools aids in our interpretation of these tools.

Hide processing tools recovered from Native American sites date to as early as the Paleo-Indian Period (11150 to 10000 years ago) and consist of several forms, including knives and scrapers. Some of these tools show evidence of hafting for use in a handle which provided leverage and allowed for easier handling.  In our culture women have traditionally assumed the role of clothing the family. In prehistory, women were likely responsible for cleaning and processing hides for footwear and clothing.

Image from The State Museum of Pennsylvania, Anthropology & Archaeology Gallery

Processing the hide was a multi step progression that required sharp tools to cut the hide away from the carcass and remove the fleshy material attached.  This allowed for the initial stretching of the hide and scraping. The subsequent stages of processing were labor intensive and involved stretching the hide, then scraping and pounding, soaking the hide in deer brain and washing and stretching again. 

 Scrapers from Shoop Site (36Da12)

The final step in the finishing process, smoking the hide, would toughen the soft leather and close the pores making it more durable.  

Smoking pits are identified archaeologically as small, slightly oval basins, marked by an upper layer of gray loamy soil were utilized in the final step. Beneath this gray layer, are multiple levels of charred and carbonized plant and vegetable remains. Historic accounts from the 17th and 18th century confirm the use of smoke for tanning of hides. 

   Recent excavations in Tioga County uncovered features identified as smoking pits.

Our earliest examples of processed leathers were excavated from the Sheep Rock Shelter site (36Hu1)in Huntingdon County. These fragments have been pierced with a sharp tool, likely a bone awl. Bone awls are sharp fragments of splintered bone which were utilized for piercing the hides for sewing into moccasins, pipe bags or garments.

Bone awls for punching thru hides

The edge of this leather fragment has been pierced to allow  a leather string to run thru it to form a bag.  Native peoples utilized leather pouches for multiple purposes including the transporting of food and water.  Leather strips recovered from Sheep Rock shelter support their use in creating these pouches.
Fragment of leather pouch with punched edge for tying with leather strips

Leather strips from Sheep Rock Shelter (36Hu1)


This beaded pipe bag
from the 20th century
 demonstrates this
 continuing tradition
 and  bears  a remarkable
 likeness to the
fragment below.


Scalloped leather fragment from Sheep Rock Shelter

These fragments from Sheep Rock are identified as moccasins. The construction of moccasins as described in The League of the Iroquois, is one piece of deer-skin. A seam is stitched at the heel and in the front, no seam in the bottom. Plain moccasins rise above the ankle and are fastened with deer strings, then cuffed over the top.

Hide fragments from Sheep Rock Shelter identified as Mocassin

This moccasin is constructed in the same manner as the undecorated moccasin, but the front of the moccasin is decorated with beads.  These moccasins were created as tourists trade items and are still popular today.

Leather and the tanning process continued to play an important role in the history of Pennsylvania. In 1870 there were 870 tanneries located in Pennsylvania. Tioga and Potter counties were part of an extensive region in northern and western Pennsylvania that by 1880 contained the world's largest concentration of leather tanning plants. This was attributed to their location close to the region's rich forest resources, since tanneries were normally dependent on ready supplies of bark, usually obtained from oak or hemlock trees. Because the stately hemlock produced inferior lumber, the wood was frequently left to rot after the tannin containing bark had been removed. These tanneries were primarily producing sole leather for shoes. The introduction of chemicals into the process meant the industry no longer needed an abundant supply of wood to complete the tanning process. Many of these factories closed but tanneries continued to employ several thousand workers into the 20th century.

Scene from inside early tannery From Pennsylvania and Its Manifold Activities, 1912

 While the tools utilized and processes have changed and evolved since our earliest inhabitants, we continue to desire leather for its quality and durability.  Demand for "vintage" leather is high, airfreshner for your car can be purchased to make it smell like new leather, and Forbes magazine reports that the market for luxury Givenchy handbags exceeded expected sales. While cotton may claim to be the "fabric of our lives", we trust leather to stand the test of time.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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