Learning by Replication

I study the technology of prehistory.  Because of this, I believe strongly in the benefits of experiential archaeology.  It gives perspective on a very deep level.  We can walk in the shoes of our ancestors, so to speak.  I say experiential here not experimental and I’m glad to hear this word coming into the dialog of other primitive technology people.  While not trying to dwell on the words themselves, it is an important distinction.  Experimental generally implies the ability to replicate an actual experiment (i.e., testing a hypothesis to see what you find).

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Experimental pottery; gathering materials, construction, paint, and firing.  Click the image to see more about this project.

True experiments are things like:

  • Can a tree be cut down using an exact replica of a prehistoric axe?
  • Is it possible to move a ten ton stone over long distances using only the technology and manpower available in the Neolithic? 
  • Can fire be made by rubbing sticks together? 
  • Will a Medieval arrow penetrate 14 gauge armor plate?

You certainly gain the experience through these experiments but you are also testing something specific with something like a yes or no answer.  Experimental archaeology can create some popular misconceptions as well.  Just because something could be done, doesn’t mean that prehistoric people must have done it that way.

Replicated woven sandals from the Southern High Plains and the greater Southwest.  Produced from narrow-leaf yucca.
Replicated woven sandals as found on the Southern High Plains and throughout the greater Southwest. Produced from narrow-leaf yucca (by Stacey Bennett).

Experiential archaeology integrates this and everything else learned along the way.  E.g., How comfortable are these shoes, is there more or less back pain using a tump line on a pack, what kind of wear can be expected on arrow fletchings over time?  This allows us to ask even more questions and have a fuller knowledge of ancient peoples.

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Testing silk lashed goose feather fletching. Clicking the image links to bamboo arrow making.

I really enjoy the various directions replication takes the maker.  Learning the finer points of cutting and scraping with stone flakes or abraders, working with antler and wood, creating glues and mastics, and developing an appropriate paint or sealer as on the spear thrower below.

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Upper Paleolithic-style spear thrower.  Image links to the “how to” for making this thrower.

Whatever you do and whenever you learn, it’s all good.

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