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.

Simple but Ingenious

Tying your own shoes –

Before looking at the ethnographic literature I experimented with tying up some simple sandals with mixed success.  It turns out that it’s not as simple as one might think.  Now I’m a connoisseur and am always making mental notes when I see old depictions, or in the old world, images on statues.  For simple, soft lace sandals, the Tarahuamara style works perfectly.  A single lace does everything you need.

DSC_0139 (1)DSC_0138Learning from the past may save us from losing our future.

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.

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.

Ghillie Making at Winter Count 2014

One of the many things taught at Winter Count this year was shoe making in the form of carbatina or ghillies.  These are relatively simple shoes notable for their one piece construction and generally involve very little sewing.  I am interested in how things are learned and for me, the process is more important than any other aspect.  Hopefully, students take away some knowledge that they can apply beyond the class setting and in an afternoon can learn something that they can use for life.

ghillieHistorical examples vary widely but tend to have a lot of similarity in the complex toe-cap.  Shoes are a difficult piece of clothing and protection because the fit is critical and even minor problems with the shoe will impact the feet in a negative way.

Marx-Etzel2The toe cap is formed by strips of leather overlapping which gives flexibility and room for expansion.  The simplest forms are one piece but better versions are found with insoles and outer soles to extend the life and create a sturdier shoe.

DSCN4029 DSCN4030 DSCN4031 DSCN4033 DSCN4034These were all made from premium oak tanned leather (ca. 8 oz. or 3.2 mm) which proves to be tough to cut but provides a long lasting shoe.  It was a great set of students in the classes and I think we ended up with 17 pair of shoes in the end.

An earlier post describing my journey into Ghillies can be found HERE.

Sandals of the New Kingdom, Egypt

Some shoe solutions from the Bronze Age, North Africa.SandalMaker

Sandal maker – New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty from Thebes ca. 1504–1425 B.C.  Like a Diderot illustration this gives a good look at the workshop of an artisan with the essentials of his trade.  There’s the stool, which is useful in leatherwork as it gives a good lap to work on.  A beam, probably implying that the leather is made on-site.  A couple of awls in handles are shown and what is probably a curved awl, made from antelope horn, useful when weaving leather (my speculation based on huaracheros and other traditional weaving tools).  The sole of the sandal looks to be leather and is being punched with the awl.  Other sandals are made from fiber, probably by a different artisan specialist, while burial sandals were likely a specialty industry and are often made from wood or precious metals.

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Papyrus fiber sandals.  Second Intermediate Period–Early New Kingdom, 17th-18th Dynasty, Thebes ca. 1580–1479 B.C. These are constructed using a coil basketry technique which involves wrapping a soft fiber around a thicker, linear element while “sewing” into the adjacent coil.

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Papyrus fiber sandals.  Second Intermediate Period–Early New Kingdom, 17th-18th Dynasty, Thebes ca. 1580–1479 B.C.

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Red ochre stained calfskin leather sandals.  New Kingdom 18th Dynasty during the joint reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III ca. 1473–1458 B.C.  These are interesting as they are tooled to look like woven sandals.  The leather might be harder-wearing but the woven style may have denoted more wealth (i.e., flimsy shoes equates to more wealth or less need to labor).  A very simple design used for thousands of years and well-illustrated in the sandal maker panel above.  This is a good survival sandal that could be made quickly in the field from many materials today.

two pair

SandalsAu2

Finally, a couple pair of golden burial sandals (women’s) from Thebes, New Kingdom 18th Dynasty during the reign of Thutmose III ca. 1479–1425 B.C.  Note the embossing to imitate stitching.  A simple design that could be made up in a very short time.

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All of the above images are from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and clicking any of the photos will take you to the appropriate page for the artifact.  I chose these sandals as I believe the best survival solutions are tried and true and generally exhibited in the archaeological record if the material survives.  Make yourself a pair of shoes.  With a little practice, basic footwear can be made that is serviceable and fit for public wear.  Our ancestors did this for thousands of years, we can too.

Everything you build, every entertainment you make, every meal you procure yourself frees you from the market economy and liberates you a little more from the consumer system.

Huaracheria Aquino in Yalalag, Oaxaca (reblogged)

This is a great series of photos of a surviving craft still producing their own leather. This maintains an economy (for them) that could have very little cash outflow, replacing the cost of raw materials with labor. I hope these industries survive.

A great photo of a huarachero from the series.

Huarache Blog

Nestled into the Sierra Norte mountains of Oaxaca is the small town of Yalalag.

Yalalag is very precious town, not only for it’s strong Pre-Hispanic traditions, but also because like only a handful of other small towns in Mexico, most of the Yalalag population is still dedicated to the traditional craft of Huarache making.

Huaracheria Aquino is the largest ‘Taller’ workshop in Yalalag and they are well known for their high quality Zapotec Huaraches.

What also sets this family run business apart from most other Huarache makers in Mexico is that their crafting process begins at their in-house tannery, where they vegetable tan all their leathers to their precise specifications.

Huaracheria Aquino is famous for their traditional women’s Zapotec Yalalag sandals (the only existing traditional women’s leather sandal/huarache style in Mexico).

Photo of young Zapotec Woman in Mitla, by Guy Stresser-Péan, 1957

Their ‘Tejido’ Huarache also stands out for the…

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Huarache Blog

If you are interested in Huaraches, this blog is the end-all of huarache information.

Huarache Blog

Señor Alfaro is 70 years old and the last Huarachero in Sayula, Jalisco. Although his woven Huaraches have won him awards in regional craft competitions, today like may Huaracheros his business has become very difficult. Although Señor Alfaro has done very well to stay in a trade where many have quit, he melancholically tells me that Huarache making is a craft headed for extinction and that he has advised all his family not to get into it.

Sadly most towns in Mexico have at most one Huarachero left, whereas 30 years ago each town used to have many. Señor Alfaro told me that at one time 90% of Sayula locals wore Huaraches and 10% wore shoes, today that ratio is inverted and only 10% wear Huaraches.

But besides the reduced consumer base, there are 2 major difficulties facing skilled Huaracheros today, the rising costs of vegetable tanned leather and rubber tyres, and that…

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