Object Analysis: Gill Net and Floats

Material Culture: The LESLEY Documentation Project

This week, I was introduced to my very own objects to get to know, analyze, and research for Studies in American Material Culture. These items, a gill net and wooden floats, are in the collection of the Independence Seaport Museum. I was also offered a catfish net, but it seemed tangential to the other objects; perhaps I’ll take it up at a later point. My classmates were assigned a variety of other maritime-related items (fishingwear, a firearm, a knife, goose decoys, etc.) We will spend the semester learning more about these objects, as well as what their context can tell us about the LESLEY. Our research on these artifacts will make them more accessible to researchers at ISM and enrich our understanding of the methods of material culture study.

The first step in the process is to follow the methodology of Jules Prown, whose article “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method” established a guide for using artifacts as primary source evidence of human culture of the past. This method is intended to force close observation and minimize internal bias or assumptions.

The process of sketching, observing, and willing myself not to peek at the artifact’s documentation laying in an envelope just inches away was more challenging than my introduction to LESLEY had been. This time, I was preoccupied with documenting all of the details while cautiously trying to be aware of any assumptions I was making, and wondering where I might include them in the object analysis.

Self-conscious, the process reminded me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant: As the blind men attempt to describe this mysterious creature, they mistake its parts for its whole, describing it as a rope, a wall, a spear, and a fan. Despite Prown’s painstaking process, I was unsure how much bias would slip into my analysis. Given my limited time with these objects, I didn’t want to miss the proverbial elephant, so at first I waffled about where to start. I then began to take measurements and photos, and to touch and smell the objects.

The results of the first three steps of Prown’s analysis (description, deduction, and speculation) are as follows:

Description- What is the “internal evidence” (physical description) of this object?

1. Net: It is so large and unwieldy that a sense of its actual proportional size cannot be immediately obtained; the catalogue entry specifies it as 20′ 4″ tall by 168′ wide. Composed of one long rope of natural, apparently unbleached fiber, constructed with a "Z" twist (twisted rightward), to which a mass of smaller, similarly "Z" twisted cords are looped. The rope is frayed in some places and is not entirely smooth in others. The smaller cords are tied to each other (with an undetermined knot or "bend") to form a net with diamond-shaped mesh that appears to be fairly uniform in size. They measure about 4.25″ per side, with a hypotenuse of 5.75″ (if the sides were at geometric right angles, the hypotenuse would work out to around 6″). The net has been gathered and tied with archival linen tape to facilitate storage.

2. Floats: This artifact is a collection of 12 lightweight wooden planks, tapered at either end, stacked 6 x 2. They each measure 18.25″ long by 4.5″ tall by 1.6″ deep. At one end of each plank, at the point where the taper begins, a centered hole about 1″ in diameter was drilled. Strung through each of these is a "Z" twisted natural fiber cord that is tied with a knot and then tied to the cords from all the other floats. The wood is dark (though from age or treatment I cannot tell). All of the floats show evidence of friction at their edges, as the wood is lighter in color and rougher in texture at these points.

Deduction- What is this object’s purpose and/or relationship with its user?

1. Net: This artifact is heavy and cumbersome, but is portable. It is made of sturdy material and is largely intact, although the mesh looks to have been repaired in places. The variations in looping and knotting suggest that this item was not machine-made, or at least not wholly. It is dirty and dusty, smells musty, shows signs of friction and fraying and staining in spots, and has obviously been used a good deal, likely in the outdoors or at least outside of the (cleaner, inhabited parts of the) home. The mesh of the net, with a hypotenuse of 5.75″, is sizable and would only be useful for gathering relatively large things. A working person, or more likely a small group of working people, would have used this net in their labor. It is free of ornamentation or dye, and purely designed for function. Men or women may have constructed or used this net, but because it is so heavy, it would be difficult for some women or for smaller men to carry alone. The twisting of the cords and regularity of patterning reminds me of my own experiences working with plaiting and weaving as a child, and I can appreciate the craftsmanship.

2. Floats: It is possible that this lightweight wood is hollow, but it sounds solid and does not show evidence of cuts that would have been necessary to hollow it out. They are uniform in size, but the tapers at each end are not at precisely the same angle; so again, I believe they were not mass-produced. I might not have been able to deduce that they were used along with the net had the object not been labeled "net floats."


The irregularity of taper angle is clear when closely viewing the rightmost ends of the floats.

Speculation- What might this evidence tell me about the habits, values, or beliefs of the person who made and/or used this?

1. Net: It is much wider than it is tall and would not have been used for deep water fishing. It does not smell like salt, and though the scent may have faded over time, I think that it was used in freshwater or only slightly brackish water. The person or people who wove and used this net were practiced in net construction and commercial fishing methods. The person who constructed it may or may not have been the same person who used it, depending on the gender role distribution of its time and place; It is probable that a woman or women made the net, but men used it. The sturdy, non-ornamented, natural fiber material that is handwoven and repaired when necessary indicates that this object might be quite old (predating artificial fibers), made and used by people who maintained their belongings rather than replacing them (likely for financial reasons), and considered it a valued tool of the trade. These people lived near the water and fished with a smallish boat that could channel through shallow or medium-depth waters.

2. Floats: These were made with hand-powered tools and without very precise measurements by people who didn't work with wood particularly often, or weren't concerned with the quality of its construction. They were much more practiced with rope and displayed expert knotting techniques. The rope remains in better shape than the wood floats (though it is possible that it might have been replaced at some point). Again, they were not concerned with ornamenting this working tool.


Detail of the various hand knots used to bind the cord to the floats and itself.

In an attempt to keep my mind open about the objects’ possibilities, I’ve avoided looking at the contents of the folder with its donation records and catalog description- its biography, so to speak. My next task will be to design a research method for teasing out further cultural expressions embedded in my net and floats.