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Experimental tree felling with reconstructed adzes of the Linear Pottery culture for the analysis of stress marks on the adze blades and ghost lines on the tree stump and the timber in comparison with marks on archaeological finds
Creating a wall of mud in the Viking style.
Experimental archaeology (also called experiment archaeology) is a field of study which attempts to generate and test archaeological hypotheses, usually by replicating or approximating the feasibility of ancient cultures performing various tasks or feats. It employs a number of methods, techniques, analyses, and approaches, based upon archaeological source material such as ancient structures or artifacts.
It is distinct from uses of primitive technology without any concern for archaeological or historical study. Living history and historical reenactment, which are generally undertaken as hobbies, are non-archaeological counterparts 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 his 15th century armed fighting vehicle.
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 to the site on Salisbury Plain.
Since the 1970s the re-construction of timber framed buildings has informed understanding of early Anglo Saxon buildings at West Stow, Suffolk, England. This extensive program of research through experiment and experience continues today.
The World Atlatl Association, an organization devoted to the use and research of atlatls, helped lobby for the legalization of atlatls as a means of deer hunting in Missouri.
Marcus Junkelmann constructed Roman devices and gear for various museums. He also tested and analyzed them in various reenactments, among them a group of legionaries in full authentic gear crossing the Alps from Verona to Augsburg.
Ma'agen Michael II, a replica of a 2,400-year-old merchantman; built by Haifa University and the Israel Antiquities Authority
Reconstruction of Galileo's Experiment: the inclined plane.
Reconstruction of Lomonosov's discovery of Venus's atmosphere.
Janet Stephens utilizing her own skill as a hairdresser to reconstruct Roman-era hairstyles, rebutting previously held theories about single-prong pins being used to hold them in place.
Ben Marwick trampled experimentally-produced flaked stone artefacts into sediments excavated from Malakunanja II to show that it was unlikely that they had moved extensively through the deposit during the Pleistocene.
Killian Driscoll undertook a series of experiments to examine the prehistoric use of vein quartz. This involved experimental knapping to understand the fracture mechanics of the material; the experimental burning of quartz; and an experiment designed to investigate the ease of identification of stone tools made from quartz; this series was added to by an experiment that examined the effects of trampling on quartz tools compared to flint.
At University College Dublin, Ireland, the Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture (founded 2012) is one of the only university campus facilities of this type for experimental archaeological research and teaching in the world. Their work has involved Mesolithic, early medieval and Viking Age houses, pottery, stone, flint, chert, and quartz technologies; bronze, iron and glass-working; and food production.
Sutton Hoo Ships Company based in Woodbridge Suffolk UK is a 4-year project to build a full size reconstruction of the Sutton Hoo burial ship excavated by Basil Brown at Sutton Hoo in 1939. The reconstruction process is attempting to discover and use traditional boat building skills and methods that might have been used by the Anglo Saxon shipbuuilders of the time. The project is being undertaken with the support and cooperation of the University of Southampton et al. You can view the progress on the SHSC website at saxonship.org as well as following the progress on facebook and instagram.
Experimental medieval forge
Other types of experimental archaeology may involve burying modern replica artifacts and ecofacts for varying lengths of time to analyse 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. One example is Overton Down in England.
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. Use wear traces on the modern flint tools are compared to similar traces on archaeological artifacts, making probability hypotheses on the possible kind of use feasible. Hand axes have been shown to be particularly effective at cutting animal meat from the bone and jointing it.
Another field of experimental archaeology is illustrated by the studies of the stone flaking abilities of non-human primates. It has been demonstrated that bonobos are able to produce modified cores and flaked stones which are morphologically similar to early lithic industries in East Africa.
In popular culture
The subject has proven popular enough to spawn several re-creation-type television shows:
Discovery Channel's The Colony seasons 1 and 2 showed aspects of experimental archaeology
Discovery Channel's MythBusters often conduct experimental archaeology to test the capability of mythical ancient weapons, including Archimedes' death ray and the tree cannon, as well as testing the capabilities of known weapons including the hwacha, wood vs. stone arrowheads, and the effects of cannonballs and splintering.
YouTube celebrity Ryan Gill recreates and tests ancient weapons and tools including sinew string bows, stone drills, atlatls, stone points, and flintlock muskets. Using the stone tools he's made, he hunts and butchers the animals, afterwards sending the stone points to Texas A&M University's Center for Study of the First Americans for microwear analysis. Animals he's hunted with primitive weapons include feral hog, bison, barracuda, whitetail deer, elk, feral sheep, wild turkey, and alligator.
UK based experimental archaeologist Dr James Dilley of AncientCraft and the University of Southampton researches the production of tools and artefacts from the Palaeolithic to late Bronze Age. As well as demonstrating his findings frequently on TV programs, his work is on display in the British Museum and Stonehenge. His recent work is exploring hunting strategies of Upper Palaeolithic people in Europe and Bronze Age copper-alloy mould use.
^Experimental archaeology is "Within the context of a controllable imitative experiment to replicate past phenomena in order to generate and test hypotheses to provide or enhance analogies for archaeological interpretation" (Mathieu, 12)
^Koukarine, Alexandre; Nesterenko, Igor; Petrunin, Yuri; Shiltsev, Vladimir (1 November 2013). "Experimental Reconstruction of Lomonosov's Discovery of Venus's Atmosphere with Antique Refractors During the 2012 Transit of Venus". Solar System Research. 47 (6): 487-490. arXiv:1208.5286. Bibcode:2013SoSyR..47..487K. doi:10.1134/S0038094613060038.
^Schick, Kathy; Toth, Nicholas; Garufi, Gary; Savage-Rumbaugh, E. Sue; Rumbaugh, Duane; Seveik, Rose (1999). "Continuing Insestigations into the Stone Tool-making and Tool-using Capabilities of a Bonobo (Pan panisus)". Journal of Archaeological Science. 26 (7): 821-832. doi:10.1006/jasc.1998.0350.