Experimental archaeology is a form of a primary source. It is undervalued in some areas of research, particularly in Living History and Re-enactment organizations. And yet, experimental archaeology is a fundamental part of research, especially historical research. One of the core principles of science, is that the chemical and physical processes that shape today’s world are the same as those of the past.
With experimental archaeology, you could apply this by examining the dyeing of fabrics in 10th century Japan, to dyeing of them today using the same processes and ingredients. The experiment of creating a dye made from period ingredients and with period tools, then creates a product that is as near to the originals of the 10th century as possible in the modern day. This is achievable because the chemistry of the dyes has not altered in 1000 years.
Experimental Archaeology is the study of an item or culture through attempts to test archaeological hypotheses.
With experimental archaeology, archaeologists meticulously examine the material artifacts. When available they also examine refuse from the construction of these artifacts. Through experimentation with materials and tools available to people of the culture, they can try to recreate those artifacts. This experimentation allows them to understand the processes by which historical artifacts were made. It also helps experimental archaeologists create extremely close reproductions to the original artifacts.
My first real exposure to this concept was in a physical anthropology class on hominid evolution. There, I read about how archaeologists found stone tools and fragments chipped off in making those tools. By trial and error they managed to figure out how the various types of stone tools were created. This gave valuable insight into how early humans constructed their tools. It also provided a glimpse into the physical and mental capabilities, including the capacity for abstract thought.
Experimental archaeology is an extremely painstaking and detailed process.
For example, in my particular sub-field of Japanese Braids, we have many sources that tell us the braids existed. However, we actually know very little about how the braids were made. This is because we cannot go back in time and watch people make the braids. There is no written record of the braiding process. It was a closely guarded guild secret, in ancient and medieval Japan. The wooden braiding stands, if they were used at all, were also not well preserved in the archaeological record.
The word 台, pronounced dai, means stand. A wide variety of stands are used to make Japanese braids, making it even more challenging to reconstruct historical braids. Therefore, people have experimented with various ways to reproduce known period braid patterns on the various braiding stands available. The most common Japanese stands for today including the marudai and takadai.
Experimental archaeologist carefully examine the details in the braids, particularly in the twist of the threads, and compare those against known extant examples to try to understand how they were made. The surviving braids are mere fragments instead of completed pieces. This makes it even more challenging to reverse engineer, requiring much trial and error.
What do these experiments achieve?
These experiments do not confirm that a braid was made in a certain way on a given stand. They can, however, eliminate ways in which the braids were not made. Through that elimination, we can have a good idea of how braids were made. In the practice of experimental archaeology, we then glean important insights into period braiding practices.
In the practice of experimental archaeology, we glean important insights into period braiding practices.
What Galen and I have learned in both our research and in our own experiments, is that through the process of conducting Experimental Archaeology, you are afforded a unique glimpse into a past world. Your journey with the experiments can help expand our knowledge. You can shine a light on a culture, and the lifestyle of that place and time in ways un-imagined prior to the advent of Experimental Archaeology.
Experiment! Ask questions, and understand that the people who made things in our past, were not nearly as different from ourselves as we might think.
RoseAnna & Galen
The Researcher’s Gateway