An Oxford Historian
Experimental Archaeology and Ethnoarchaeology: An Introduction
Updated: Apr 26, 2021
A brief introduction to Experimental Archaeology - what it includes, how it's theoretically useful, and its major drawbacks. #ComissionsEarned (This post includes Amazon Affiliate links) - As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases
Every historian of the early medieval period should have at least a basic grasp of archaeology. One area of archaeology less frequently understood, however, is Experimental Archaeology. Seen by some as a bit of fun, Experimental Archaeology is actually a crucial aspect of developing and testing archaeological hypotheses.
Broadly speaking, Experimental Archaeology marks an attempt to explore the archaeological record by reconstructing parts of it in the modern world. What does this tell us? Are we wrong about the things we theorised on paper when we drag them into the real world?
The prime example from the early medieval context is West Stow. For the international viewers, West Stow is an early/mid Anglo-Saxon settlement in modern Suffolk, reconstructed for the public. This includes a number of wooden halls and grubenhauser (sunken feature buildings), representing an early Anglo-Saxon settlement. For those interested, their website has lots of information and pictures (https://www.weststow.org/).
West Stow Reconstruction Village (https://www.weststow.org/Anglo-Saxon-Village/)
All very pretty, but what are the practical applications and uses of Experimental Archaeology?
Experimental Archaeology is a great chance to get the public engaged with history and archaeology by presenting a practical activity. West Stow lets you wander around and experience a landscape as the Anglo-Saxons would have seen it.
Another great example is the Sutton Hoo Ship's Company (https://saxonship.org/). Reconstructing the burial ship famously excavated in Suffolk, the project is as much a community engagement process as anything else, encouraging locals to volunteer and engage with their past.
As public outreach, in escaping the boring tomes of history that put many people off at school, Experimental Archaeology is therefore extremely useful.
Processual Archaeology and Middle Range Theories
A less obvious but crucial aspect of Experimental Archaeology is its role in testing hypotheses.
Crucial here is Processual Archaeology and the constructing Middle Range Theories. Processual Archaeology represents a theoretical school prevalent in the 1960s and 70s, most famously championed by Binford. It aimed to explore the social systems of past societies through archaeological evidence, and redefine archaeology firmly as a science. As such, hypotheses were to be proposed, and concretely tested.
Particularly relevant for us here, Processual Archaeology attempted to bridge the gap between modern excavated artefacts and past (invisible systems) by using what are called Middle Range Theories. These were largely generalising laws that explained how human activity manifested itself in physical material outcomes. If we hypothesize that a certain activity produces a certain material outcome and we can find concrete evidence that this is the case, we have (perhaps) 'proved' this is the system behind the archaeology.
Traditionally, Middle Range Theories were drawn from ethnographic evidence. Binford's work, as an ethnoarchaeologists, has been extremely important here. To test hypotheses about the archaeological record, Binford looked at the waste production and craft practices of modern societies to see how their activities created a physical set of remains. If butchery consistently produced a certain footprint, could we find that footprint in pre-historic remains, and deduce the practice of butchery? In the example below, if we were to excavate a distribution of animal skeletons as below, Binford would suggest we could deduce just such a practice, using the ethnological evidence as Middle Range 'proof'.
Binford's model of butchering waste (Trigger 2014, 406)
Another good example is the Tucson Garbage Project. Through rooting through a load of rubbish, the researchers began to explore how systems of consumption and disposal impact the physical material record. The written up findings are published in a book, and well worth the read, available on Amazon here: https://amzn.to/3egOHBf
This ethnographic approach brings with it problems. For one, it assumes that all humans act in a similar way, irrespective of location and time. This 'universalism' is a central argument of the study of people in all forms - are there certain things that make us 'people', that we do irrespective of time or place? It also has a questionable moral stance in an archaeological perspective - implying that modern cultures share a developmental stage with a Western past introduces ideas that they are demonstrably 'behind' us.
Experimental archaeology provides a better way of testing hypotheses about the archaeological record by creating the tests ourselves. To provide just one example on theme, let us return to West Stow. The construction of the halls themselves naturally facilitated questions of practicality - left largely with only post-holes in the ground, how could the above-ground timbers have fit together? What might the profile of a hall look like? Limited by the practicalities of physical materials, hypotheses are tested.
However, the most interesting role of Experimental Archaeology at West Stow emerges, accidentally, with fire. The frequency of replacement on Anglo-Saxon halls, at West Stow and elsewhere, implies a short life-cycle for these buildings, possible as a deliberate closing ceremony. When one of the reconstructed houses accidentally burnt down, archaeologists used the results to examine how certain processes of destruction practically manifest themselves in the archaeological record. The original article can be found, for free, here: http://eaareports.org.uk/publication/report146/
The destruction of a SFB by fire at West Stow (Tipper 2012, p.8)
Interested in getting to grips with more archaeological theory? While I'll be posting more here over the future, I heartily recommend Harris and Cipolla's 'Archaeological Theory in the New Millenium' as an artful yet readable entry point - available on Amazon here (https://amzn.to/3boZ1Wb)
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Bibliography of references works
Tipper, J. (2012) Experimental Archaeology and Fire: The Investigation of a Burnt Reconstruction at West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village. Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service.
Trigger, B. R. (1968) Major Concepts of Archaeology in Historical Perspective. Man 3.4: 527-41.