A Special Invitation to the Ashmolean Museum
The occasion was the impending reinstallation of the Ashmolean’s founding collection, assembled by the John Tradescants (father and son) and exhibited when the Ashmolean (which is recognized as the first modern museum) opened in 1683. The so-called Powhatan Mantle is one of the earliest known works of art from North America.
Tradescant the Younger traveled to Virginia in 1637 on a botanical expedition to the Jamestown colony. It is most likely on that trip that he acquired this piece, which was listed in his 1656 catalogue as “Pohatan, King of Virginia’s habit all embroidered with shells, or Roanoke.” Though no longer thought to be a cloak, it is made of four deer hides and features a stunning shell decoration of a human figure flanked by a white-tailed deer and a feline (maybe a mountain lion), as well as 34 circles that have been interpreted as possibly the villages of the Powhatan Chiefdom. Powhatan is the name the English used to refer to paramount Chief Wahunsunacock, who was also the father of Matoaka (aka Pocahontas).
The research project was initiated by the Ashomolean’s Department of Conservation as it prepared the Mantle for the new gallery. Conservators generated high-resolution scans and infra-red photography that magnified every detail of the front and back. Adriana was one of three material culture scholars invited to examine the piece close-up, to discuss future research directions (such as scientific testing to source the shells), and to establish collaborative approaches with the Powhatan descendant communities that are still living in their ancestral territories in Virginia, especially the Pamunkey and Mattaponi nations.