Published January 10, 2020
When Erika Ruhl came to UB as an anthropology graduate student, her adviser asked her what she wanted to study.
“I’m interested in fabrics,” Ruhl remembers telling him. “And clothing.”
Ruhl has had a passion for weaving cloth together since she started knitting at age 5. She says she was a “terror” in her mother’s fabric scraps basket; her most memorable birthday gift was a basic sewing kit, thread and a piece of velvet she could cut up.
“I’ve been sewing for a long time,” says Ruhl, who plans to defend her dissertation wearing clothes she has made. “I am fascinated by the choices that are made along the way. With textile work, there is often more than one way to complete a given task. Some of these ways work better, or worse.”
So when her adviser gave her the email addresses of universities with scholars who study textiles, she followed through, eventually hearing back from a professor at the University of Oulu in Finland who studies children’s burial clothing from pre-modern Finnish churches.
Research often happens when “the stars line up,” Ruhl says. So when the Finnish professor asked her back after her initial month-long visit in August 2014, she eagerly returned, eventually securing a Fulbright Scholarship with a unique and intriguing research topic: “A Single Mitten: Children’s Identity and Agency in pre-Modern Finnish Burial Textiles.”
Ruhl is now 30, close to the end of a dissertation process that synthesizes that ardor for fabrics with her academic field of archaeology. Returning to Finland several times, most recently with her August 2018 to June 2019 Fulbright award, Ruhl studied the funeral textiles of children buried under the floors of several Finnish churches, and has recently shifted her work to how these materials were made.
“One of the things that is interesting is we are seeing two different kinds of clothing,” says Ruhl. “We are seeing items that were likely used in life, and we’re seeing items that were hastily assembled for burial. The thing I found fascinating is there is actually Finnish lore that states that to bury someone, they must be warm or they will come back to haunt you.”
Ruhl has answered the perfunctory questions about her research at social gatherings, and she understands the raised eyebrows. But studying textile material in that pre-modern era — from the 1500s to the start of the Industrial Revolution — means having to find artifacts to study. And the bodies under the Finnish churches, which have been naturally preserved due to the country’s very cold winters, present a rich inventory.
“The blunt answer is, that’s where the collection is,” Ruhl says.
Ruhl says she was lucky to find “an amazing team of people to collaborate with” in Finland. Her appreciation of Sanna Lipkin — the University of Oulu archaeology professor who originally invited her to return to Finland and who has been her mentor — runs deep.
Ruhl is among those select students who inspire poetry and penetrating deduction from their academic mentors. Ezra Zubrow, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Anthropology, is Ruhl’s dissertation adviser who found the Oulu connection. He calls her one of the “best graduate students” he has ever worked with “at Stanford, Toronto, Cambridge or here.”
“Over the generations, the great majority of our ancestors have lived, loved, died and are totally forgotten,” Zubrow wrote when asked about Ruhl’s research. “They may have just as well never lived.
“One of the best joys of being an archaeologist is bringing these forgotten people back to our present consciousness. If this is true for adults, it is even more true of children. They are the forgotten ‘waifs’ of prehistory — never playing, never singing, never arguing and never telling their parents that the older generation is wrong.
“Erika’s work brings them back, whether they are toddlers or teenagers,” he wrote. “It is so important, for it speaks to whether childhood and parental love are universal or culturally and temporally specific.”
Ruhl has studied the clothing of children buried in four Finnish churches. She has worked the most with the collection excavated at the Hailuoto Church by University of Oulu archaeologists in the 1980s.
“The thing is, some of the materials used especially for these remade clothing are not warm,” she says. “We have a pair of socks at the church in Haukipudas made from hastily stitched material. It wouldn’t have been comfortable. It wouldn’t have been warm.
“So there is a choice being made to make some items, versus some items that would have been used in life.”
Ruhl says she has not been under the church floors herself. Because of the risk of disturbing the remains, access to the burial sites is limited and regulated. Instead, she has studied records, photographs and surveys from those who have been under the floors and seen the bodies, which have undergone a natural mummification process due to the very cold winters.
More recently, Ruhl expanded her research to include clothing of Finnish adults of the same period, hoping to find a broader sample.
These examples of burial clothing offer “a window into the lifecycle of archaeological textiles,” she says. “The textiles interred with these children show how society viewed, conceptualized, valued and mourned their smallest members during a period which had an exceptionally high rate of child mortality due to poor hygiene and nutrition.
“Burials and burial clothing across ages are a representation,” she says, “of not only the individual, but of the wider community and their views of that individual as well.”
Ruhl has used her research to complement her original passion. The Finnish national costume that she sewed for herself uses similar sewing methods employed in the more well-crafted burial clothes.
“Part of what I love about my work — and about textiles in general — is how close it gets you to the individual,” she says. “Someone’s hands placed those stitches, someone was angry at that seam that just didn’t turn out right, and someone had some choice words to say when they managed to stab their thumb — again — with that stupid sewing needle.
“There’s something very personal about clothes, even today. We see it in how we dress and the message we present to the world.”