An Introduction to Experimental Archaeology

An Introduction to Experimental Archaeology

On those occasions when I get to interact with other representatives of the human race, people tend to ask me about what I happen to be doing with my life. My usual reply is that I study experimental archaeology. This is commonly followed by a question along the lines of ‘That sounds cool, but… What does an experimental archaeologist actually do?’

Since this topic does seem to raise some interest both of the public, as well as of some archaeologists who might have missed on this most fascinating discipline, I have this time decided to answer the question publicly.

Experimental Archaeology – Its Philosophy and Short History

Archaeology, at its most basic, is the study of mankind’s past activities based on the material remains of past generations, which are recovered during archaeological excavations usually in the forms of ruins, graves and garbage. It aims to create a hypothetical image of how people used to live.

Experimental archaeology tries to practically test these hypotheses, by reproducing and using artefacts in a manner which simulates what might have happened in the past. By doing this it gives meaning to the artefacts seen in museum displays (and sometimes shows just how wrong or impractical certain theoretic assumptions can be).

In other words: An experimental archaeologist is the one who believes that an idea might look good on paper, but is worthless if you don’t put it into practice.

Irish Roundhouse
Warning! Experimental Archaeology in Progress. This early medieval roundhouse is both a laboratory and an experiment in itself. (Photo: UCD School of Archaeology)

The Early Years

The most basic notion of of experimental archaeology, namely the reconstruction and testing of artefacts, is actually older than modern archaeology. It began with the antiquarians – the ancestors of archaeologists – who already made at attempts at reproducing the Celtic bronze horn (carnyx) in the late 18th century. There was also a considerable amount of flint-knapping going on in the 19th century due to the ethnographers recording the practices of indigenous people (mostly Native Americans who still knew how to make flint arrowheads), antiquarians performing experiments, as well as craftsmen producing replicas and forgeries for the booming Victorian market in antiques and ancient relics.

Flint Jack
Flint Jack, a famous 19th century producer of counterfeit antiquities.

The latter group can be illustrated with the story of the entrepreneurial Victorian scoundrel Edward Simpson, commonly known at the time as ‘Flint Jack’. Born in 1815, he started his career in the antiquities trade as a fossil-hunter after working in the service of the geologist and historian Dr. George Young. By the 1840’s he realized that richer pickings could be had by producing fake artefacts. He became proficient at making flint tools and soon found himself a suitable customer base of private collectors and even museums.

This was the golden age of the big national and regional museums which were voraciously expanding their collections, often buying forgeries in the process. Flint Jack’s works ended up in the collections of the British Museum, Yorkhsire Museum and the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland.

He was exposed on several occasions and had to resort to thievery when his customers abandoned him, which led to him being arrested on several occasions.A report on one of his trials, published in the Whitby Gazette on the 19th of March 1867, summarizes his achievements in the following manner:

“Flint Jack” – A notorious Yorkshireman – one of the greatest impostors of our times – was last week sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for felony at Bedford. The prisoner gave the name of Edward Jackson, but his real name is Edward Simpson, of Sleights, Whitby, although he is equally well known as John Wilson, of Burlington, and Jerry Taylor, of Billery-dale, Yorkshire Moors. Probably no man is wider known than Simpson is under his aliases in various districts – viz. “Old Antiquarian”, “Fossil Willy”, “Bones”, “Shirtless”,”Cockney Bill”, and “Flint Jack”, the latter name universally.

Under one or other of these designations Edward Simpson is known throughout England, Scotland and Ireland – in fact, wherever geologists or archaeologists resided, or wherever a museum was established, there did Flint Jack assuredly pass off his forged fossils and antiquities.

As much trouble as Flint Jack and similar artistes inflicted upon Victorian museums and gullible collectors, their techniques did enable the early researchers to gain a better understanding of stone tools. For example, after being exposed, Flint Jack ended up publicly demonstrating his techniques to crowd of geologists in London.

The 20th Century & Scientific Archaeology

After the early 20th century, experimental archaeology laid mostly dormant for almost half a century. In the events leading up to and after the two world wars, archaeology was preoccupied with other issues (mostly relating to race and ethnicity). But, lo and behold, things changed in the 1960’s and 70s, when the ‘New’ or ‘Processual’ archaeology was brought into the world kicking and screaming.

Processual archaeology strived to redefine archaeology as a science, which can unlock the secrets of past societies by studying them as systems which are shaped by their natural and technological environments. It stressed hypothesis testing, the formation of generalising models, and the use of quantifiable data and scientific methods. The economies of prehistoric societies were a common theme.

It is in such circumstances that the empirical testing hypotheses in the form a discipline soon to be named ‘experimental archaeology’ was developed.

This experimental archaeology was defined as a way of examining archaeological thoughts about human behaviour in the past which deals almost exclusively with elements of subsistence & technology. Its basic approach was described as the setting and answering of questions which challenge current theories to extent the present state of knowledge.

In practice this resulted in two connected types of experiments best betrayed by the question they ask:

  1. How was an artefact or structure produced? Here an effort is made to make a replica based on what we presume is the method used in the past. In other words, we are testing a hypothesis about the technology used.

  2. What was the artefact’s or structure’s function? A replica made according to the methods established by the previous type of experiment is used in the way we presume it was used to test hypotheses about its performance.

As an example we can imagine an experiment concerning a polished stone axe…

Polished Stone Axe
One Axe, Many Questions. (Photo: Didier Descouens)

We make the axe by grinding an appropriate type of rock on another stone and then mounting it and a wooden haft. This already opens questions about how much work is involved in producing such an axe? What shape would the haft be? How is the axe head fixed into the haft? Should it be hafted as an axe or an adze?

Having answered some of these questions and produced a replica, we can start wondering about performance. We can, for example use the axe to work some wood. What kind of marks does it leave on the wood? Are the cut marks different from those produced by a bronze axe? This might be of interest in we study the earliest bronze axe when both stone and bronze tools might be used and we find a wooden artefact with tool marks. We can also take another course. Was the axe used for cutting wood only? Was it maybe a digging tool? How about crushing bones to extract the marrow?

These are few of the questions which were addressed so far and would be hard, if not impossible, to answer without experiments.

Experimental Archaeology
The book that defined a discipline.

John Coles set out ‘8 rules of the game’ in his Archaeology by Experiment (1973), which he then restated in the classic work Experimental Archaeology (1979). These ‘rules’ provided a guideline for most experimental projects performed in the last 4 decades, therefore I shall reproduce them in summary. Should you like to read them in full, I urge you to procure a copy of Experimental Archaeology, which has been reprinted in 2010.

  1. The materials employed in the experiment should be those considered to be originally available to the society under examination.
  2. The methods used in the work should be appropriate to the society and should not exceed its presumed competence.
  3. Modern techniques and analytical studies should be performed alongside the experiment to help in recording and understanding of the processes.
  4. The scale of work must be assessed and fairly stated.
  5. Repetition of the experiment is important in order to avoid a freak result.
  6. The experiment should be performed with a desired result, but there should also be an element of uncertain success present and improvisation should be embraced.
  7. Experimental results must not be taken as proof of ancient structural or technological detail. There are many ways to skin a cat and knowing that something could have been performed in a certain manner does NOT equal being certain that it was in fact done so.
  8. The finished experiment should be the target of review and assessment to verify its reliability. Questions about the materials and methods used should be asked again. Coles named this the ‘honesty test’.

Some of the more famous experiments from this era revolved around the construction of prehistoric houses, such as Reynold’s project Butster Ancient Farm in the UK, where an Iron-Age farmstead was set up as a laboratory to test hypotheses about building methods, field cultivation, animal rearing, grain storage, etc.

At the Lejre Historical-Archaeological Experimental Center in Denmark, they even went as far as intentionally setting fire to a reconstructed Iron Age long-house and recording the process of its destruction and, finally, excavating the ruin in order to understand how the archaeological record is created.

Experimental Archaeology Today – Craft & Experience

A common trait of experimental archaeology performed in the 2nd half of 20th century was the desire to design ‘inanimate experiments’ which tried to remove the human factor from experiment design. This was in line with the idea of archaeology as a quantifiable ‘serious science’ where the person performing experiment is expected to merely record the result in a most objective manner.

Luckily, by the turn of the millennium, Post-Processualist critique of the dry scientific approach to studying past human behaviour has finally reached the realms of experimental archaeology.

A realisation dawned upon the discipline that those who performed ancient crafts were neither emotionless scientists nor productive automatons. Their actions were influenced by experience and did not necessarily take what we might consider the most rational course.

On the one hand, this means that the research options have widened since questions related to how people experience things and acquire new skills have become accepted fields of research. This means that experiential archaeology, such as teaching and performing ancient crafts, has become more than just a way of promoting archaeology. It can also be approached with the inquisitive mind of a researcher, provided that we veer on the side of caution and keep in mind that we are dealing with the experiences of modern people. Most often the main realization will be that most people today must be a lot softer, clumsier and less skilled than their ancient ancestors.

Most importantly, an effort is being to put craft knowledge and skill back into the study of ancient technology. Experimental approaches to craft production have long enough been plagued by the exclusion of the craftsman as a skilled human agent at the heart of craft in the name of ‘scientific objectivity’. This led to archaeologists often struggling to deal with the material in the absence of people and then wilfully removing people from experimental contexts so that they can better focus on the material. Skill and the craftsman’s perception of the craft in the absence of scientific technological knowledge, or modern measuring devices, is now one of the research questions.

Bloomery Iron Smelt
A bloomery furnace in operation. The reduction of iron ore into metallic iron can be explained in the form of a series of chemical formulas and monitored using a series of thermal probes. But this knowledge and equipment was not available to the ancients. In practice, those who run the smelt have to make judgements based on signs such as the radiant colours of the fire and their experience. (Photo: Arheofakt)

And to sum it up…

Modern experimental archaeology is the testing of archaeological hypotheses based on the excavated record by reproducing and using archaeological finds; be they artefacts, buildings or debris.

Its main aim should be to further our knowledge of the past. Failing that, it is not experimental archaeology.

The discipline is also ripe to break free of the shackles of inanimate experiments researching dehumanized models of subsistence and technology. There is serious doubt whether our modern scientific mindset is always appropriate for researching the past. We may now enrich our scientific data with information provided by the senses, since these were available to ancient man as well. But we should approach this critically and cautiously so that we can evade the fallacy of merely recording a modern man’s perception of the past.

Most importantly, experimental archaeology can be a very satisfying pursuit. In one one of the following posts I will go into the details of how an experiment may look in practice.

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