Archaeologists design experiments to re-create or reproduce ancient artifacts, technologies, and behaviors to help interpret ancient material culture and events. The experiments reconstruct the human and natural causes of the manipulation, damage, wear, breakage, deposition, and disintegration of artifacts prior to, during, and subsequent to their deposition. Researchers ask questions about the relationship between the person and the product; how manufacture influences the appearance of artifacts; and the sources of diversity and variation in the artifacts.

Experimental archaeology began in Europe in the eighteenth century when bronze horns were found in Scandinavian and British peat bags. A certain Dr. Robert Ball from Dublin died as a result of blowing an Irish horn too hard. In recent decades there has been a resurgence in such studies with an emphasis on the rigorous control of well-documented, recorded, and repeatable experiments. Experimental settings vary, depending on the questions under investigation. For example, pottery firing techniques can be studied by using a gas kiln in a laboratory or by firing wood in a pit dug in the ground. The purpose of each test would be to create and control the causes of firing time and temperatures. What would be learned would be the effect of each variable on the finished product.

Archaeologists begin by explicitly stating an experiment's theoretical basis, its variables, selected materials, and methods; finally, they state its results. Controlled experiments involve the use of pertinent materials, ideally those that would have been available to a society in antiquity, such as local clays or stones. Experiments should include as many variables as possible. To learn the impact of dung added to clay as a tempering material ideally means varying the clays, the size of the dung fragments, the proportions of clay to dung, and the firing temperatures. As the clay is worked its pliability, workability, elasticity, and the ease with which pots can be made from it are assessed. The effects are observed, recorded, and interpreted as inferences for archaeology.

Experimental archaeology involves the reproduction of human behaviors associated with the use of artifacts: butchering studies reveal the physical appearance and deposition of bones after the flesh has been removed with a stone implement. Observing the collapse of walls leads to the ability to identify the archaeological remains of such an event and so to understand the difference between a deposit that is the direct result of the collapse and one that is evidence of scavenging, reuse, or other disturbances.

In addition to studies replicating or imitating ancient artifacts and behaviors, experimental archaeology includes testing the usefulness of methodological assumptions. For example, one can test the validity of population estimates based on animal bone counts by studying what happens to bones when animals are killed. Retrieval techniques can be assessed to learn if plant remains collected by dry sieving provide valid samples of ancient flora and/or diet. Finally, some consider ethnoarchaeology to be a type of experimental archaeology.

[See also Ethnoarchaeology.]

Bibliography

  • Coles, John M. Experimental Archaeology. London, 1979. Overview of the topics and results.
  • Ingersoll, Daniel, John E. Yellen, and Wm. Macdonald. Experimental Archaeology. New York, 1977. Individual experiments concerning ancient technologies; quantitative methods; and site formation.
  • London, Gloria Anne. “Dung-Tempered Clay.” Journal of Field Archaeology 8 (1981): 189–195. A series of experiments adding dung to clay.

Gloria Anne London