For some people, studying the past isn't enough. They recreate millennia-old tools, boats, and even towns to better understand how ancient peoples lived. They are called experimental archaeologists, and these are ten of their greatest triumphs.
Experimental archaeology has been practiced for several decades, although it has only been accepted as a serious subfield of archaeology relatively recently. That's partially because it attracts a lot of amateur enthusiasts who are eager to contribute, even if the scientific applicability of their work is often debatable. In a sense, experimental archaeology is an attempt to reverse engineer the past, not so much to deduce exactly how things worked but to better understand how ancient peoples interacted with their environments and technologies. What follows is a video gallery of a number of different archaeological experiments both professional and amateur in nature that run the gamut of what the field can do.
The Kon-Tiki Expedition
Although most works of experimental archaeology have focused on Northern Europe, what really put the field on the map was the 1947 voyage of Kon-Tiki from Peru to Tahiti. Led by Norwegian explorer and amateur anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, the voyage was meant to prove indigenous groups from South America could have settled the Pacific long before the European age of exploration. His five-man crew used descriptions from Spanish conquistadors to build what they saw as an authentic South American sailing vessel, which they then successfully navigated over 3,000 miles into the Pacific. The 1951 documentary of their exploits, also called Kon-Tiki, won an Academy Award and is up above.
Butser Ancient Farm
It can be tricky separating which "working villages" are just historical reenactments (not that there's anything wrong with that) and which are actually ongoing archaeological projects. Butser Ancient Farm, located in Hampshire, England, is one of the clearest examples of the latter. The farm is meant to recreate a British Iron Age farming community as it existed prior to Roman conquest and cultural assimilation, in particular the period between 400 BCE and 400 CE. The farm is open to the public, but its primary purpose remains as a testing ground for various archaeological theories about agriculture, ancient technology, and animal breeding. In an interview from the 1970s, founder and professional archaeologist Peter J. Reynolds lays out what Butser Ancient Farm is all about. It can be found here.
The Voyages of Hokulea
Maybe the most successful experimental voyage ever undertaken was the 1976 sailing of the reconstructed Polynesian canoe Hokulea from Hawaii to Tahiti. Organized by University of Hawaii anthropologist Ben Finney, Hokulea was primarily crewed by Native Hawaiians and sailed under the command of Micronesian navigator Mau Paialug, one of the few Pacific Islanders still knowledgeable in ancient navigational techniques. The voyage was undertaken in part to refute the then popular notion that ancient Polynesians lacked the maritime prowess necessary to intentionally colonize the Pacific, and so such settlements were really just the result of uncontrolled "drifting" from one island to another. Hokulea not only restored the navigational abilities of ancient sailors in Pacific archaeology, it also became a key part of the Polynesian cultural revival that continues today. In a 2007 interview, navigator and researcher Nainoa Thompson discusses the ongoing significance of Hokulea.
Building Stonehenge In The Backyard
Amateur experimenters might not be archaeologists, but generally they bring some sort of expertise to their projects. Take retired construction worker Wally Wallington of Flint, Michigan, who has come up with ways to easily move objects around that weigh well over a ton. Although his experiments are just limited to moving heavy stones around his backyard, he argues that these demonstrations offer the best clues yet to understanding how ancient Britons dragged stones from their sources several miles away to build Stonehenge.
Prehistoric Iron Smelting
Experimental archaeology isn't just about recreating ancient buildings and boats; it can also more generally deal with rediscovering the mechanics of ancient technology. The video up top is part of a series on "Practical Archaeology", which claims that particular adjective but it focuses on revealing and teaching ancient arts and practices to modern communities. An argument that proponents of experimental archaeology have made throughout its history is that it allows archaeologists and amateurs alike to engage with the past from the perspective of those who lived it instead of those studying it centuries or even millennia later.
Located in Lincoln, England, Saxonhouse combines a lot of aspects of other projects we've already considered. Like Butser Ancient Farm, it's an effort to recreate a settlement from a period before the advent of widespread written history, in this case 500-1000 CE. It's very much conceived as a community project that has relied on expert craftsmen to realize, but has also drawn on the input of professional archaeologists. In this interview, co-builders Steve and Judith Jones explain that, as much as they worked from academic theories, they allowed the practicalities of the project to guide how the building took shape. For instance, they more focused on using ancient tools to build a house strong enough to survive all year than one that looked exactly like archaeological conceptions, arguing this would reveal just as much about ancient building processes.
Building A Ballista
The popular media has also gotten in on the fun of experimental archaeology, although one has to keep in mind these are more works of entertainment than of strict science. The 2007 BBC series Building the Impossible teamed up a professor of engineering and a materials scientist to recreate an ancient Roman ballista, a feat that had not been accomplished in some two thousand years. In approaching the project from such an explicit engineering perspective, the series offers an opportunity to reconstruct what ancient Roman builders were thinking as they perfected this weapon of war. Indeed, the professor notes at the outset of the program that the project basically requires them to work through two centuries worth of Roman engineers' trial and error in two months. The first part of the documentary is up top; click through on the video for the rest.
Nova Tackles The Chinese Bridge
Although experimental archaeology does remain, for various reasons, a mostly European endeavor (and a largely British and Scandinavian one at that), it is hardly the exclusive domain of the West. For instance, this episode of the Nova series Secrets of Lost Empires follows a Chinese professor as he attempts to rebuild an arch bridge using only methods and technologies available only to his ancient counterparts.
The Iceman's Fire Kit
Make no mistake - this guy puts the "enthusiast" in amateur enthusiast. But if you can get past the awesomely ridiculous opening (not to mention the pants), you'll find a guy who knows his stuff. He discusses Otzi the Iceman, the 5000-year-old mummy discovered in the early nineties in the Alps between Italy and Switzerland. He then discusses the pouch that he carried around with him and the tools that he used to make fire in the frozen mountains, which then leads into a practical demonstration. What's great about this video is it really shows how experimental archaeology is a way for any person to not just take part in science, but to actually be genuinely knowledgeable and have the chance to make meaningful contributions to the field. And hey, if that person wants to dub in some crazily melodramatic music over his attempts to light a fire using ancient methods...well, who are we to stop him?
Open Air Museums
Archaeology isn't just about studying the past; it's also about displaying it. That's the central thesis of this video by the Italian museum Museo Civico Archeologico Etnologico. They argue that keeping the past in display cases robs people of the ability to truly interact with the past, to actually understand what living hundreds or thousands of years ago was like. As the video explains, archaeological inquiry is the central focus of these "open air museums", which house the past in settings meant to evoke and depict ancient communities. But the focus is also on incorporating the public into the past, making them experimenters alongside their professional archaeologist peers. Above all, the video sums up the central tenet of experimental archaeology in its discussion of ancient tools and other artifacts: "It is not enough to know what they look like. It is vital to know how they made and used."