Hide scraping using palaeolithic stone tools. Courtesy of dr.Winton, University of Oxford.

Experimental Archaeology

Experimental archaeology is often one of the most popular and exciting aspects of archaeological research: re-enacting the construction techniques of Stonehenge or the Pyramids, re-fighting the Battle of Hastings, or crossing an ocean in a primitive boat can all be described as experimental archaeology. The difference between colourful re-enactment and true archaeological research lies in the archaeological authenticity and objectivity of the way in which these reconstructions are planned, carried out and tested.

We can add a huge amount to what we know about the past by reconstructing events, objects and structures in the present. Theories of past agricultural, manufacturing or construction techniques can be tested by using the same materials and skills which we think were used in the distant past. Experimental archaeology involves testing a theory about the past, and is where these reconstructions are carefully designed to be as close as possible to original techniques and processes, and the results published for wider attention.

High-profile reconstructions based on world-famous sites may be the widest-known types of experimental archaeology - because they are usually conducted in front of TV cameras. Their academic value varies but can, of course, be very high if close attention is paid to archaeological evidence. Most experimental archaeological research, however, happens over a longer timescale and is part of the everyday working life of research archaeologists.

Almost any aspect of archaeological evidence can be reconstructed. Stone or wooden buildings, earthworks, kilns or mills can be rebuilt; metal or stone tools or pottery can be made using the same materials and processes as the archaeological originals; plants, crops and animals can be conserved, bred and reared to resemble as closely as possible their Prehistoric, Roman or Medieval predecessors. These reconstructions can be used to test the archaeologists' view of how people lived in the past. For example, techniques of ancient agriculture have been reconstructed over many years at Butser Ancient Farm (Hampshire) and many painstaking observations made; and past industrial processes have been reconstructed and tested at Ironbridge (Shropshire) and Killhope (Durham). Many former interpretations, which resulted from original evidence alone, have been shown by experimental archaeology to be wrong.

Experimental archaeology can help us to understand not just how things worked in the past, but how they have changed and decayed. This makes it easier to interpret the archaeology we find today. There have been many experiments to see how organic material, such as animal remains, decays in the ground. Scavenging animals, earthworm activity and farming practices move material around in ways that can be observed and measured. In 1960 an experimental earthwork was created at Overton Down near Avebury (Wiltshire); its gradual decay has been closely observed since - tests and excavations have shown that it decayed quickly over a number of years but then stabilised, suggesting that many prehistoric earthworks may have reached something not unlike their present state quite soon after they were abandoned.

  • P.J. Reynolds, Iron Age Farm: The Butser Experiment, British Museum, London, 1979.
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