Experimental Archaeology

Experimental archaeology puts archaeological source material, like ancient structures or artifacts, to real world tests. It should not be confused with primitive technology which is not concerned with any archaeological or historical evidence. Living history and historical reenactment, which are generally undertaken as a hobby, are the lay person’s version of this academic discipline. 

One of the main forms of experimental archaeology is the creation of copies of historical structures using only historically accurate technologies. This is sometimes known as reconstruction archaeology or reconstructional archaeology; however, reconstruction implies an exact replica of the past, when it is in fact just a construction of one person’s idea of the past; the more archaeologically correct term is a ‘working construction of the past.’

In recent years, experimental archaeology has been featured in several television productions, such as BBC’s ‘Building the Impossible’ and the PBS’s ‘Secrets of Lost Empires.’ Most notable were the attempts to create several of Leonardo da Vinci’s designs from his sketchbooks, such as the 16th century tank.

A good example of experimental archaeology  is Butser Ancient Farm in the English county of Hampshire which is a working replica of an Iron Age farmstead where long-term experiments in prehistoric agriculture, animal husbandry and manufacturing are held to test ideas posited by archaeologists. In Denmark, the Lejre Experimental Centre carries out even more ambitious work on such diverse topics as artificial Bronze Age and Iron Age burials, prehistoric science and stone tool manufacture in the absence of flint. Other examples include: ‘The Kon-Tiki’ (1947), a balsa raft built by Thor Heyerdahl and sailed from Peru to Polynesia to demonstrate the possibility of cultural exchange between South America and the Polynesian islands.

There have also been attempts to transport large stones like those used in Stonehenge over short distances using only technology that would have been available at the time. The original stones were probably moved from Pembrokeshire in Wales to the site on Salisbury Plain in Southern England. Additionally, since the 1970s the re-construction of timber framed buildings has informed understanding of early Anglo Saxon buildings at West Stow, Suffolk, England.

Other types of experimental archaeology may involve burying modern replica artifacts and biofacts (e.g. seeds) for varying lengths of time to analyze the post-depositional effects on them. Other archaeologists have built modern earthworks and measured the effects of silting in the ditches and weathering and subsidence on the banks to understand better how ancient monuments would have looked. The work of flintknappers is also a kind of experimental archaeology as much has been learnt about the many different types of flint tools through the hands-on approach of actually making them. Experimental archaeologists have equipped modern professional butchers, archers and lumberjacks with replica flint tools to judge how effective they would have been for certain tasks.

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