Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Nothing in the mud?!

How many knitted seaman’s frocks would YOU expect to find from the medieval period? We will not know that there were medieval ganseys unless we have a model that estimates how many, and where, we are likely to find ganseys. Then, we estimate the number of samples that are likely to be required to find that number of ganseys over the expected area, and based on the results of our sampling we accept or reject the hypothesis that there were knit fishermen's frocks in the medieval period.
To find such an artifact, 4 rather improbable things must occur:

1) The frock must be knitted. Knit fabric is 8 to 100 times more expensive than woven and is thus only selected where the properties of knit material are required or where it is being used as conspicuous consumption. J. M. Synge’s “The Aran Islands” make it clear that in 1900, “ganseys” were are rare on the Aran Islands as silk suits are in Wal-Mart. Woven cloth was cheaper, and that is what they used, layers and layers of woven wool. This worked for an impoverished subsistence farmer that had to sometimes row out to the steamer or to another island. On the other hand, note that the men that went off island and worked for wages as seamen, did have knit sweaters.

2) The knit frock had to be discarded. Seamen had one gansey and they wore it all the time.

How many sailor’s frocks would we expect to find in the wreck of the Mary Rose or the General Carlton? Every sailor was wearing his knit frock. If he had an extra, it would be lashed in his hammock to the deck railing. (And, the railings are one of the first parts of a wooden shipwreck to be lost.) If he survived, his frock went with him. If he drowned, his body cavity filled with decomposition gases, and floated away carrying the frock with it. If he died of trauma, then the nutrients in his body attracted scavengers (sharks and crabs) that would also damage the gansey. Thus, our hope of finding a gansey is to find the “slop chest” on board. Was the “slop chest” found? If not, the probability of finding a gansey at the wreck site is almost zero.

Moreover, if the wreck was salvaged at all, any seaman’s frocks would have been valuable and easy to carry away. The slop chest would have been a target for anybody that could get to the wreck.

What happened to “ganseys” on shore? In hand-spun days, last year’s gansey was un-raveled and the resulting yarn re-plied to make next year’s gansey. (Or, socks for the kids.) The sailor either wore this year’s gansey to his death and Davy Jones Locker, or it became last year’s gansey and was un-raveled and re-plied. Thus, in “hand-spun days”, I would not expect to find a fragment of a gansey. I would expect the first old ganseys to show up about the time mill-spun started to gain acceptance and knitters did not have a spinning wheel handy. In environmental science, this is what we call “fate and transport.”

In short, ganseys were not something left lying around.

3) The gansey had to survive after being discarded. Given the number of bugs, critters and molds that destroy wool, discarded ganseys would survive only if they were dropped into acid bogs or anaerobic muck. Certainly small items were trod into the mud of York, but an entire gansey is harder to lose. At some point, a rag picker sees it in the mud and picks it up.

4) Archeologists must sample the acid bogs or anaerobic muck until they find the gansey. Mostly, archeologists look at centers of population. However, if it was a center of population, then some contemporaneous rag picker would have recovered and recycled the yarn. Thus, to find old discarded ganseys, archeologists are going to have to sample bogs and muck from the period away from centers of populations. We have to find some sailor that wore a gansey, fell in a bog, and his body never floated to the surface. (Rare, because most bodies that were not staked to the bottom of the bog, do float to the surface. If he was alive, he would have recovered his gansey, and gone on his way.) The method of calculating the required number of samples to find such textile fragment(s) can be derived from Gilbert’s text on Statistical Methods for Environmental Pollution Monitoring or for a more general case, Cochran’s Sampling Techniques. We are going to need more archeologists.
I would like to point out how few artifacts of spinning wheels we have from some periods when we know that they did have spinning wheels. At first thought, there are not as many artifacts as one would expect for the amount of spinning that we know was done. However if we think about spinning wheels as tools of production rather than as sentimental items of decor, we understand that they are kept until they are worn out, then they are repaired and used some more. These days we discard obsolete technology. Prior to 1780, there was no such thing as an obsolete spinning wheel. There was only spinning wheels and firewood. Second thought, brings forth the realization that spinning wheel artifacts would be very rare indeed. This is consistent with what is found in the field.

As for searches for “gansey” in news papers: while “gansey” does occur in Howlett (1840) it did not make it into an OED cited source until 1851. Clearly, in 1840, it was a term of art in use by contract knitters and not in general use. I trusted OED, and looked to “frocks” for richer pickings.

Given the variations in population as famines and pestilence swept the medieval period and the way that cultural material is lost every time a structure is abandoned for even a short period, I would be very surprised if any sample of a pre-1700 sailor’s frock is ever found. (Richer families could protect their structures in downturns, but knit frocks were still work clothes that got recycled. There was also a class of knit goods that served as conspicuous consumption. Part of the conspicuous consumption was that the garments were always in good repair, and thus recycling was part of the conspicuous consumption. At the end of its life as a frock, the yarn became socks and hats. Again, such knit goods are likely to be as rare as Armani suits in a Salvation Army thrift store. That does not mean that they did not exist, it only means that you are not going to buy a good Armani suit for $5 in a Salvation Army Thrift Store.

I spent the weekend looking at homestead sites that had known dates of abandonment over the last hundred years. The people with me were astonished at how fast a farmstead could become an archeological site, and how fast materials and contents were lost. Some of those sites are being rebuilt today and an archeologist looking at the material in 200 years would think that there was essentially continuous habitation, as there has been some continuous, dateable, deposition on the sites. We need to remember that areas that we consider to be continuously inhabited were subject to plagues and famines that caused drops in local population and temporary abandonment of some buildings and structures with resulting loss of cultural material. These were frequently periods of salvaging. A single sock in the mud might be overlooked, but a gansey was trove of yarn that could be unraveled, and from which much could be made.

Looking for a gansey in the midens of Yorkshire is like looking for a Rolls Royce in the auto junk yards of America. It is not that Rolls Royce were never in wrecks in America, it is that there were relatively few of them, and they were so valuable they were taken out of the junk yards and reused. You can look, but I can tell you right now, that you will not find a Rolls Royce in an American junk yard.

In my model, it is unlikely that any reasonable number of samples is likely to reveal gansey artifacts. If we should suddenly find a bunch of 17th century ganseys, then my model is faulty. In short, old ganseys are rather like neutrons, in that they can only be detected indirectly. We have evidence that they exist today, but our evidence that they existed yesterday is indirect—unstable isotopes for the neutrons and square rigged ships for the ganseys. Never the less, we can be sure that both existed “yesterday”, even if we did not specifically see those particular neutrons and ganseys. Do I “believe in neutrons”? It is a model that explains the observations without exception. Do I “believe in ganseys”? It is a model that explains the observations without exception. Do I believe in Irish Fairies? No, there are simpler explanations.

Lord Kelvin got a lot of things correct, but he was way off in his estimate of the age of the sun. Ussher, Kepler, and Newton all placed the creation of the Earth around 4000 BCE. This forced the compression of the timelines affecting all branches of human development. Now, we know that Cornwall/Wales were trading tin to Carthage in 500 BC, and Carthage was also trading to Syria and India at the time. The timeline has expanded. The Han had treadle spindles for spinning cotton; and, the silk road was a fact when the Romans got to Britain. However, textile arts have been slow to decompress their timelines, and they still write of “inventing” treadle spindles 1500 years after the Han. Modern Knitters seem to cleave to an old model that says knitting is new, more on a basis of what we have not found, than of careful analysis.  We need to look beyond Wright, Rutt, and Tompson, just as Einstein  looked beyound Newton.

I look for skill sets that we have lost.  Some of those skill sets are like a gansey in the mud -- they have value.  The awe and greed on the faces of the people touching and feeling my products this weekend tell me that I am on the right track.