Beyond the Basket: Construction, Order and Understanding

Award Holder

Professor Sandy Heslop


Higher Education Institute

University of East Anglia


Basketry has been practised for millennia and is one of the oldest human technologies. Its immediate importance lies in the provision of mats, containers, traps and barriers, all of which have been central to culture, whether nomadic or sedentary and whether based on an economy of hunting and gathering or herding and cultivation. Beyond its practical uses, basketry has arguably been even more influential on our lives, since it relies on the relationship of number, pattern and structure. It thus provides a paradigm for disciplines such as mathematics and engineering and for the organisation of social and political life. The research explores the development of basketry in human culture over ten thousand years, and focuses on various parts of the world both in the past but particularly on the anthropological records relating to recent and current production in Amazonia, Central Africa and Papua New Guinea.

The aim is to identify both the mechanical traditions of making and the ways in which basketry is implicated in wider patterns of understanding: such things as order and metaphor. The main output of the research will be an exhibition and accompanying book. The exhibition will include ancient material recovered by excavation as well as more recent examples of basketry from around the world. It will also show the impact of woven forms on other media, such as pottery, painting, and stone sculpture and architecture.

The mode of display is crucial, as it will enable people to experience basketry directly. More than most materials, complex woven forms are difficult to understand in photographs or diagrams. Qualities such as their scale, texture and colour are critical to the ways we respond to them and how we understand their structure and tactile implications. Given the range of uses of basketry: mats for sitting on or providing partitions in houses, cradles for babies, traps for catching fish or game, hurdles for penning animals or for land reclamation, the associations of the technology are very varied. Some are aggressive, others protective, some help create social hierarchies others are recreational. This variety is best experienced at first hand.

A wide range of research methods will be employed: reviewing the existing literature, studying museum collections and their often unpublished documentation, new anthropological fieldwork including filming the making and use of basketry, documenting and analysing newly commissioned work, particularly woven installations, and involvement in practice-based workshops both professional and lay.

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