Friday, June 24, 2011

Prehistoric Netting

This week discussion of the letter N brought to mind nutting stones, needles, notched points and nets. It was quickly decided that nets and the important role they played in the daily lives of Native peoples would be an interesting topic for our followers.

carbonized netting

Preserved nets woven from plant fibers date to more than 20,000 years ago in the Old World and we assume they were brought to the New World when humans first arrived over 16,000 years ago. These probably had a variety of functions including carrying goods, hunting and fishing. Nets were reported in detail by early European explorers and a few examples exist in museum collections for the curious to view and appreciate. Prehistoric nets rarely survived the vestiges of time in Pennsylvania because our temperate climate is not conducive to their preservation. In most cases only secondary evidence remains for the prehistoric use of nets.

net sinkers

Notched net weights and net impressions on prehistoric pottery are two forms of artifacts that we can use to identify netting technology in a prehistoric context. Typically notched net weights were simple tools and of little consequence to the fisherman (or hunter) if lost in the water. They did not require much energy or skill to make and were easily replaced. Several caches of net weights have been discovered in Pennsylvania including a large cache of notched net weights discovered on a Susquehanna River island some years ago and reported in TWIPA on (see the earlier TWIPA blog we did on netsinkers for details).

net impressed pottery

One technique archaeologists employ in analyzing prehistoric pottery is to make a negative impression of the net-markings that are present on a pot’s exterior. Negative impressions of net on net-marked pottery provides a three dimensional image of the actual net’s composition. The surface of the pottery is carefully covered with latex rubber or some similar viscous casting material available at most craft outlets. The resulting cast, an exact copy of the net that the potter used in decorating the pot can then be measured, photographed and studied to obtain information on prehistoric netting technology (Hurley 1979).

latex cast of net impressed pottery

Prehistoric nets have been preserved in very dry settings such as in caves of the southwestern United States and when partially burned or charred. These examples demonstrate a surprising level of sophistication. There are two sites in Pennsylvania where nets and related remnants of the prehistoric perishable industry are reported in the archaeological record. The first and most famous site is the Sheep Rock Shelter (36HU1), a large cliff-like shelter located in central Pennsylvania. This site provided favorable conditions for the preservation of numerous perishable artifacts including Native made cordage and netting. Archaeology was conducted at this location prior to its inundation of waters for the Raystown Reservoir. Two specimens of preserved netting are reported, and in both cases the net’s cordage has a final Z-twist pattern with each net cell cross tied with square knots forming knot spacing approximately one inch apart (Willey 1974). There are no radiocarbon dates directly associated with these specimens.

netting on display in State Museum Archaeology Gallery

Another well preserved, though carbonized and very fragile, net fragment was excavated from the Late Prehistoric period McFate Site (36CW1) in northwestern Pennsylvania (Schoff n.d.). Unlike the net fragments from Sheep Rock Shelter, the McFate Site specimen is more complete and the knot spacing is slightly greater at one and one eighth inches with the net’s cordage twisted into a final S-twist foundation. Radiocarbon dates place the McFate Site’s Indian occupation around the mid-15th century.

Although very rare, perishable artifacts such as nets are tangible evidence of the sophistication of prehistoric societies not evident in the typical stone artifacts of the region.


Hurley, William M.

1979 Prehistoric Cordage: Identification of Impressions on Pottery. Aldine Manuals on Archaeology. Taraxacum. Washington.

Schoff, Harry L.

n.d. McFate Site: Report on Archaeological Excavations Conducted in Northwestern Pennsylvania by the Works progress Administration. Ms. #2 on file, Section of Archaeology, The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

Willey, Lorraine M.

1974 A Functional Analysis of Perishable Artifacts: During the Late Woodland Period in the Northeastern United States. M.A. Thesis, The Pennsylvania State University.

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


  1. Good post, thank you.

    I will add link on my blog.

  2. "Primitive" societies are rarely as primitive as we choose to believe.

  3. so true, there is nothing primitive and dumb about ancient people!

  4. I don't know if you read the comments, especially on a post that is five years old, but do you know where I can access Lorraine Willey's thesis?

    1974 A Functional Analysis of Perishable Artifacts: During the Late Woodland Period in the Northeastern United States.

    The subject of my undergraduate thesis is fishing technologies at a coastal Peruvian village. Fishing net fragments are the bulk of my material, but as they are rarely preserved I have little with which to compare methodologies.