Haffenreffer Museum Research Associate Michèle Hayeur Smith awarded major, three-year National Science Foundation research grant to study women and women's work across the North Atlantic

March 15, 2014
Michèle Hayeur Smith

Michèle Hayeur Smith, a research associate at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University, has been awarded a three-year, $605,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation’s Arctic Social Sciences program to examine women’s roles in the production and trade of cloth across the North Atlantic from the Viking Age until the early 1800s. This is the largest federal research grant ever received by the Haffenreffer Museum and expands the museum’s role in cutting-edge investigations in the northern circumpolar zone, where it has undertaken pioneering research since joining Brown in 1955.

Dr. Hayeur Smith’s new project, Weaving Islands of Cloth, Textiles and Trade Across the North Atlantic from the Viking Age to the Early Modern Period expands upon a successful, 3-year (2010-2013) collections-based archaeological project also funded by NSF’s Arctic Social Sciences program. That project, Rags to Riches – An Archaeological Study of Textiles and Gender in Iceland AD 874 -1800 ($485,000), analyzed archaeological textile assemblages from 31 Icelandic sites spanning 1,000 years and generated new information on the roles of men and women in Icelandic society, the structure of Viking Age and medieval textile production, the role of Icelandic textiles and women in international trade and Iceland’s economy, creative approaches developed by Icelandic women as sustainable responses to climate change during the Little Ice Age, and changes through time in Icelandic dress. One of the key findings of Rags to Riches, according to Dr. Hayeur Smith is that in medieval Iceland textiles were currency and although “men wrote about how this currency was used, dictated how it was to be created and established the legal standards regulating it, it was women who made it. This research has shown through close examination of the archaeological record not only the key roles that women played in this northern society’s economy but also how intensively all households were engaged in production for international and internal trade.”

Weaving Islands of Cloth takes knowledge gained from Rags to Riches to the next logical level: a comparative, three-year examination of textiles as primary evidence for women’s labor and roles in the Norse colonies that expanded from Scandinavia across the North Atlantic in the 9th century AD and developed, over the following millennium, into the modern nations of Scotland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. Through collaborative research with senior scholars at research institutions in Denmark, Norway, the United Kingdom, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, and the United States, and with opportunities for student training, Weaving Islands of Cloth will integrate comparative analyses of existing collections with isotopic approaches to trace movements of cloth across this vast region. Through these, it will provide new insights into the ways these island nations developed, while exploring womens’ roles in creating the foundations of international trade, developing national identities through the transformation of cloth into clothing, and creating sustainable solutions to climate change that contributed to the survival of all but one of the Norse settlements through the Little Ice Age.

Dr. Hayeur Smith says that studying Icelandic textiles and textiles from the North Atlantic is not just about describing cloth or counting threads. Rather, she says, “these textiles encode important information about society, cultural interaction and adaptation. They are eloquent historical texts in their own right, providing new insights into cultural change, women’s creative and productive roles, climate change, and trade across a vast expanse of time and space.”

Dr. Hayeur Smith graduated from Glasgow University, Scotland with a PhD in Archaeology in 2003 and has been working as an archaeologist since. Her research interests are in material culture, dress, the body, and gender. Her doctoral research, conducted on jewelry, and dress from Viking Age Icelandic burials, looked at items of dress for clues about the projection of social and cultural identity. Her postdoctoral research addressed these same theoretical issues, but applied to Aboriginal populations along the Gulf of the St. Lawrence prior and after the contact period.