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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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.

Yucca Fiber Skirt

A great yucca fiber project. Check this out and more good stuff on UncommonCate.

UncommonCate

Yucca fiber processing is an ancient art. I first became interested in yucca fiber in my time at The Clovis Site (an important archaeological site on the high plains of New Mexico). People have used yucca for ages past in every form. From raw leaves, to finely spun yucca yarn, the leaves have been used in every form. The book Treading in the Past: Sandals of the Anasazi showcases many excellent examples of yucca fiber in all forms as used in sandals. Yucca is also used for cordage, bags, nets, and really anything fiber related.

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I start by chopping down a yucca plant. I happen to have access to narrow leaf yucca. All I use is an ax. The difficulty with yucca is the pointed tips, so I begin by gathering the leaves up, holding them up with one hand, leaving the base of the plant exposed. With the other…

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Yucca Fiber Skirt

Summer before last, the girl decided to branch out from just turning our yuccas into cordage.  After being inspired to make natural clothes by constructing a cattail hat, she decided to make a yucca skirt roughly modeled on the elderberry skirt example in Paul Campbell’s  book Survival Skills of Native California.

The completed skirt.  The buckskin shirt isn’t usually tucked in but is here show the top of the skirt.

In the past we have cleaned the fibers both by retting and by cooking.  The cooking is far faster so she spent a couple days stewing and cleaning the leaves for the project.  The resulting skirt was from a single large narrow-leaf yucca.  To make it fuller, it would take about twice this much fiber.  This is an excellent project that I think would translate well into other materials and could result in a cape, blanket, or even shelter.

To top it off, here are a pair of yucca fiber sandals to complete the outfit.

These aren’t the fanciest pair but were quick and easy.  One pair can take almost as much fiber as a skirt.  Next time, I’ll try to document the process in a “how to” format.

Yucca Sandals

Some new yucca fiber sandals.  One narrow leaf yucca, after processing, will easily yield one large pair of sandals and straps.  Ethnographically and archaeologically, we know this type was worn in northern Mexico, the American southwest, and California.  After wearing these and the plaited style, I think the loose fiber provides more padding for rough terrain and better protection against most thorns.

I still prefer my bison rawhide sandals for running and walking.  They provide more protection against sharp rocks and thorns.  However, the yucca are extremely quiet, especially on hard ground, and much easier to procure than bison.

This is a link to other shoes and sandals I have experimented with.  I will get more up in time.