Split-cane Technology from an Experimental Ethnoarchaeological Perspective

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology, Day 23

Megan King
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

In the Southeast, split-cane technology is believed to represent an ancient tradition spanning thousands of years, and it remains a respected and valued art form among Southeastern Indians. When cane is found in the archaeological record it can take the form of formal artifacts, the remnants of basketry or matting, pieces of carbonized torches, or as impressions in clay or prepared surfaces. When cane baskets or mats are studied, the focus tends to be on recording and documenting stylistic treatments and construction techniques, and while this is important few scholars have attempted to investigate the tools, techniques, and by-products associated with split-technology. In the absence of direct evidence, stone tools might be one of the only means to identify the manufacture and production of this ancient technology in the archaeological record. As part of my dissertation research I wanted to know if stone tools would be efficient in the processing of river cane and I also wanted to document any wear that the processing left behind. I began by conducting a few cane processing experiments on my own based on descriptions in Sarah Hill’s Weaving New Worlds: Southeastern Cherokee Women and their BasketryThe mechanics sounded simple enough and I was optimistic, excited, and completely unprepared.

Hill described cane preparation as being quite demanding and notes that it is one of the most challenging of all raw materials used by contemporary Cherokee weavers. This I can attest to is an understatement. Cane processing is difficult, it is arduous, and it is dangerous. In the process of splitting, peeling, and scraping cane culms I was cut, scratched, punctured, and even needed eight stitches. It became evident after only just a day of working with cane that my inexperience was not only causing me bodily harm, but more importantly it was hindering my experiments. It became clear that the most effective way to replicate realistic use contexts of river cane and stone tools was to incorporate an ethnoarchaeological perspective, wherein the individuals using the tools were performing tasks in which they were practiced and proficient. As a result, I contacted Roger and Shawna Morton Cain, expert basket makers from the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians (UKB) in Oklahoma. Each have been awarded the honor of National Treasure within the Cherokee Nation for their contributions towards the preservation and revival of Cherokee art forms. Their knowledge of river cane and skill level as weavers is unparalleled, and while neither had experience processing cane with stone tools, they were given the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the technology and practice prior to our experiments.


Sample of Flake Tools Preferred for Cane Processing Experiments.


Experimental Cane Processing Experiments Conducted with Expert Basket Weavers and Cherokee Nation Treasures Roger and Shawna Morton Cane.

Over the course of several days I worked closely with Roger and Shawna. We visited a local canebrake where Roger carefully selected 10 culms for processing. When selecting culms for a basket Roger and Shawna follow the cycles of moon and tend to prefer those that were at least 3 to 5 years. They only harvest what they need and make a concerted effort to converse and manage canebrakes. Roger has even worked to establish the Cherokee Nation River Cane Initiative, which has been actively identifying and mapping existing canebrakes on tribal land in northeastern Oklahoma. While working together were able to process over a dozen river cane splits, and Roger processed an additional 120 splits after I left. Of the more than forty flake tools available for use, the Cain’s preferred large cortical backed flakes that could be used interchangeably to split, peel, and scrape the fibrous culms. They proved unequivocally that simple flake tools were efficient implements for processing river cane, and they even remarked that some of the flake tools were more efficient than modern steel blades.

While they worked I paid close attention to the tools as they were maneuvered along the culms and even took notice of refuse that accumulated at their feet. When I returned home I examined the tools for microscopic usewear and was surprised in the variability of polish development and distribution on the tools. Cane polish develops slower than I had thought and there were observable differences in polish formation on artifacts used to split, peel, and scrape the culms. In general, the polish formed in small isolated patches and gradually developed into a bright, voluminous polish that looked more woody than plant.


River Cane Polish in Early Stages of Development on Experimental Flake Tools Used to Peel and Scrape Culms.


River Cane Polish in Late Stages of Development on Experimental Flake Tools Used to Peel and Scrape Culms

Differentiating between river cane polish and wood might be difficult archaeologically, however, the location of the polish and the macroscopic damage that resulted from use might help future archaeologists make such distinctions.

These experiments underscore the need for additional experimental work with indigenous plants in the Southeast. They also demonstrate how important it is to work with source communities and utilize the knowledge of craft specialists and artisans who continue to work with native plants and carry on traditions of their ancestors. I feel privileged to have been worked with Roger and Shawna, to have been welcomed into their community and their home, and to have had the opportunity to watch them work with a plant that they are so passionate about and have essentially built their life and livelihood around.