From the UA Arkansas Archeological Survey
While many are familiar with the intricate, complex rivercane basketry made by contemporary Indigenous peoples of the southeastern United States, few recognize the deep roots of this artistic tradition. Often associated with Chitimacha and Cherokee artists today, rivercane weaving was once a widespread, integral part of peoples’ lives.
Cane, or Arundinaria sp., is a North American member of the bamboo family. There are three species of cane; A. giganteae, A. tecta, and A. appalachiana. Because of its strength and flexibility, cane became a critical resource for Southeastern societies. Enormous stands of rivercane once sustained basic aspects of peoples’ lifeways, providing construction material for houses and material goods such as storage and carrying baskets, mats, arrow shafts, razors, blow guns, beads, rasps, hafts for tools, and much more.
In the Ozark Plateau, dry conditions in caves and rock shelters have preserved an extensive archeological record of cane used for material goods, including two basket fragments recovered from Cobb Cave in Newton County in the 1930s. These baskets are thought to be from the Mississippi period (ca. AD 1000–1500), based on the AD 1000–1200 dates for other basketry from Cobb Cave.
Most of the basket and mat fragments from the Ozark bluff shelters are plain. But some exhibit evidence of complex artistry in weaving going back hundreds and even thousands of years.
While it is likely that every member of a community would have had some basic fiber processing and fabric production skill, rivercane basket weaving in most Indigenous Southeastern societies today is strongly associated with women’s labor and artistry. Weavers, then and now, have to be able to calculate complex mathematical equations to create these “structural design” baskets—baskets made with designs woven into them rather than painted or sewn on later. Weavers must determine exactly how many cane peels they will need to create the right size and shape, how many peels to repeat a design across the surface of a basket seamlessly and without error. A weaver calls on years of experience and training, often learned within families and communities, reproducing long-held traditions in how each design motif should look and how to execute it, what shape and size specific basket types should be, and how rims should be finished. But at times, we also see weavers experimenting with designs and materials to create new and unique basket styles, designs, and weaving techniques.
The two basket fragments from Cobb Cave exemplify this complex artistry based in both ancient traditions and new innovations. These Mississippi period baskets are woven using two very common techniques seen in Ozark Plateau basketry since the Woodland period. The basic weave count for both baskets is an uneven weave; 4/1, or over/under four peels and over/under one peel. This weave count produces a “dot in field” effect seen in both baskets. Both baskets were also made utilizing another technique seen in earlier Woodland period basketry of the region: flipping one set of the cane peels. This technique uses the different surface texture of the interior and exterior of the cane to highlight the woven pattern.
There are also unique aspects to both baskets not seen in others from the Ozark Plateau. These indicate innovations within a tradition that was already over a thousand years old by the time these baskets were made. They also hint at some relationships between the makers of these baskets and communities outside of the Ozarks. First is the use of cane peels of different widths to make elongated designs. Another is the use of a twined finish below the rim. The basketry fragments from Cobb Cave are the only documented occurrence of this technique in Ozark bluff shelters, with only one other known example in Arkansas.
The last unique aspect highlighted here is the presence of a zoomorphic spider design. While not uncommon in Mississippian iconography on other objects like engraved shell or embossed copper plates, the Cobb Cave basket is the only known use of this motif in archeological rivercane basketry. With her dot-in-circle motif abdomen and eyes, the spider, whose eight legs arch gracefully across the surface of the basket, mimics other known depictions. From historic narratives we know the spider is frequently understood as a female entity, the weaver, and that in some traditions, she carries life-sustaining fire to humanity. The weaver of this basket had to know how to reproduce that motif in the mathematical formula imposed by the constraints of interlaced weaving. The weaver had to translate placement of arched legs, abdomen, and eyes into a discrete line-by-line production. Each pass of each peel followed a precise over and under count to elegantly reproduce the image of a powerful being on the surface of the basket.