Experimental archaeology is one of the very practical methods of archaeological interpretation. It is a living analytical process used to re-create aspects in part or in whole, of ancient societies in order to test hypotheses or proposed interpretations and assumptions about that society.
Experimental archaeology attempts to observe a modern manufactured replica of an ancient site and/or objects based on the discoveries of items from the archaeological record, in a controlled environment where archaeologists can test and re-test their theories about the lost society.
Just a Good Guess Equals Hypothesis
Very often there are only a few artefacts discovered at an archaeological site. There may also be remnants of buildings and other structures but as a whole collection the absence of a full complement of items limits understanding of the site and therefore the archaeologist is required to ‘guess’ the missing pieces.
By ‘missing pieces’ we mean, for example, that at Stonehenge megaliths have been moved from their source and placed in an upright position. There has been no mechanical type tools ever discovered that would clearly indicate how the stones were transported or how they were fixed in upright positions. Without the hard archaeological evidence archaeologists can only guess at how it was done. In scientific circles such a guess is called an hypothesis.
Validity Testing of Ideas
Archaeologists attempt to recreate the exact ancient conditions using only the same known materials available to the ancient culture. This method of experimental archaeology uses a variety of techniques, methods, and approaches to test the theories but all methods have the one goal: to advance an idea and to test its validity.
Experimental archaeology has two distinct variants. The first is called historical re-enactment and it is an artificial re-creation of a past culture (or part of it) and the testing of all of the many theories about building construction, transport systems, weapons, metals, ceramics, use of fire and so on.
The second variant is known as living history, and it requires archaeologists, usually coupled with anthropologists, to find a similar modern group of people living in and under the same types of conditions of the ancient target group, and to live with, or at the very least, to observe and study that group in order to determine the hows, whats and whys that are unstated in the archaeological record.
Historical re-enactment is the most common form of experimental archaeology and by far the most profitable for researchers as tests can be repeated and small adjustments made in a suitably controlled manner to yield scientifically valid results.
For this reason historical re-enactment has branched forth to include many enactment themes. Reconstruction archaeology is one area that has benefited from experimental archaeology. Here, the archaeologist creates copies of historical buildings, tools, or other objects, using only historically accurate materials and technologies.
Many fine replicas of artefacts are made and displayed in museums throughout the world. However, most of these are manufactured using modern machines and are often not even made of the original raw materials. The specialist in reconstruction archaeology will deliberately be limited to the use of only known raw materials and only processes and technologies known to have existed at the target time in history.
Through these limitations archaeologists are able to test their own theories about how tools were made, how buildings were constructed, how strong a tool is, and consequently answer the many unknown questions relating to these items.
Reconstructed Working Farm
There is a fully functioning replica of an historic Iron Age farm in the English county of Hampshire. Although the recreated farm would make a unique tourist attraction the product of the historical re-enactment is archaeological data and not simply to display a realistic replica of an old farmstead. The working farm hosts many long-term experiments and tests ideas about agriculture and animal domestication.
In an offshoot of reconstruction archaeology there are some experts who specialise in constructing ancient buildings using only the exact tools, methods, and materials that their former builder used in ancient time. These are historically accurate reproductions in every way and are particularly expensive and time consuming to do.
Experimental archaeology is a systematic and controlled method of interpretation of artefacts discovered in the archaeological record. By testing the validity of archaeological assumptions, archaeologists are expanding the database of empirical knowledge about ancient humanity.