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  The Catalogue: 'Powhatan's Mantle'  
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About this Resource
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Length (max) 2.35 m; Width (max) 1.6 m
Four tanned hides of the white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus, also called Dama virginiana) are each cut straight on two adjacent sides and are sewn together with sinew thread to form a larger, almost rectangular flat piece of leather. Its border is not cut and preserves some of the holes made in stretching the hides preparatory to tanning them. For some reason, but perhaps because of the shape of the hides, the vertical seam does not extend the full length of the skin, but ends at some distance from both the bottom and, more noticeably, the top. The shell bead-work originally consisted of a central standing human figure flanked by two upright quadrupeds and surrounded by thirty-four discs. The design was made by spot-stitching shells of Marginella roscida with sinew thread having a slight S-twist. Click for larger version of this imageThe shells used for the animals and discs are ground at one side to form beads ready for appliqué; those used for the central figure are ground at both sides, reducing them to about half their original size. Some shells have been lost, especially on the lower part of the mantle: here two discs are completely missing and a third almost completely gone, while several more have lost about a third of their shells. This is probably largely the result of post-collection vandalism, resulting from the greater accessibility of the lower part when the piece was hung up on display. The human figure (of unspecified sex) is shown in the frontal outline with indications of ears, square shoulders, arms more or less parallel to the body and ending in five-digit hands; the feet are shown in outward profile with five toes each, the thumbs and big toes both being clearly differentiated from the rest. The two animals resemble one another in terms of their overall outline, but are clearly distinguished by their tails and paws. The left-hand animal has a long tail and round paws with five digits, while the tail of the right-hand animal is shorter, and the legs taper to a cloven hoof. The discs are made up of counter-clockwise outward spirals. While in some circles the spiral ends are easily discernable, in others a concentric line encloses the spiral.
'Powhatan's Mantle' is the only surviving example of five 'match-coats' and habits supposedly made by the Algonquian Indians of Virginia listed in the 1656 catalogue of the Tradescant collection. The colono-Indian word 'match-coat', which appears in other catalogue entries, was derived from a Virginian Algonquian word which John Smith spells 'matchcores' and glosses 'skins, or garments'. Although 'Powhatan's Mantle' is not referred to as a 'match-coat', one would assume that, if it really were a garment, it would also fall into that very broad category. On the other hand, there is good reason to question the use of this shell-decorated skin as a garment, as well as its attribution to the wardrobe of the native ruler over much of tidewater Virginia at the time of the first English settlement in this area. Even if 'Powhatan's Mantle' was shaped like a garment, it need not necessarily have been worn as one; but in fact its vertically orientated design precludes consideration as such. A feature which may have misled past observers into thinking of it as a garment is the incomplete seam between the upper left and right hides, which superficially resembles a V-neck. To wear a skin this way would, however, be unique in native North America.
Museum Id. No:
1656 p. 47: Pohatan, King of Virginia's habit all embroidered with shells, or Roanoke
1685 B no. 205: Basilica Pohatan Regis virginiani vestis, duabus cervorum cutibus consuta, et nummis indicis vulgo Coris dictis splendide exornata