Experimental Archaeology

Experimental Archaeology

Experimental archaeology employs a number of different methods, techniques, analyses, and approaches in order to generate and test hypotheses, based upon archaeological source material, like ancient structures or artifacts. It should not be confused with primitive technology which is not concerned with any archaeological or historical evidence. Living history and historical reenactment, which are generally undertaken as a hobby, are the layman's version of this academic discipline.

One of the main forms of experimental archaeology is the creation of copies of historical structures using only historically accurate technologies. This is sometimes known as reconstruction archaeology; however, reconstruction implies an exact replica of the past, when it is in fact just a construction of one person's idea of the past; the more archaeologically correct term is a working construction of the past. In recent years, experimental archaeology has been featured in several television productions, such as BBC's "Building the Impossible" and the Discovery Channel's Secrets of Lost Empires. Most notable were the attempts to create several of Leonardo da Vinci's designs from his sketchbooks, such as the 16th century tank.


A good example is Butser Ancient Farm in the English county of Hampshire which is a working replica of an Iron Age farmstead where long-term experiments in prehistoric agriculture, animal husbandry and manufacturing are held to test ideas posited by archaeologists. In Denmark, the Lejre Experimental Centre carries out even more ambitious work on such diverse topics as artificial Bronze Age and Iron Age burials, prehistoric science and stone tool manufacture in the absence of flint.

Other examples include:

  • The Kon-Tiki, a balsa raft built by Thor Heyerdahl and sailed from Peru to Polynesia to demonstrate the possibility of cultural exchange between South America and the Polynesian islands.
  • Attempts to transport large stones like those used in Stonehenge over short distances using only technology that would have been available at the time. The original stones were probably moved from Pembrokeshire to the site on Salisbury Plain.
  • Since the 1970s the re-construction of timber framed buildings has informed understanding of early Anglo Saxon buildings at West Stow, Suffolk, England. This extensive program of research through experiment and experience continues today.
  • The reconstruction of part of Hadrian's Wall at Vindolanda, carried out in limited time by local volunteers.
  • Greek triremes have been reconstructed by skilled sailors from plans and archaeological remains and have been successfully tried out at sea.
  • Attempts to manufacture steel that matches all the characteristics of Damascus steel, whose original manufacturing techniques have been lost for centuries, including Computational Fluid Dynamics reconstructions by the University of Exeter of the Sri Lanka furnaces at Samanalawewa. These are thought to be the most likely sources for Damascus steel.
  • Experiments in Ancient Roman Coin Minting.
  • Experiments using reproduction bâtons de commandement as spear throwers.
  • Guédelon Castle a medieval construction project located in Treigny, France.
  • Ozark Medieval Fortress, a sister project to Guedelon
  • The Pamunkey Project - Dr. Errett Callahan led a series of extended Late Woodland living experiences in Tidewater Virginia.
  • Marcus Junkelmann, who constructed Roman devices and gear for various museums. He also tested and analyzed them in various reenactments among them a group of legionaries crossing the Alps in full authentic gear (from Augsburg to Verona).


Other types of experimental archaeology may involve burying modern replica artifacts and ecofacts for varying lengths of time to analyse the post-depositional effects on them. Other archaeologists have built modern earthworks and measured the effects of silting in the ditches and weathering and subsidence on the banks to understand better how ancient monuments would have looked. The work of flintknappers is also a kind of experimental archaeology as much has been learnt about the many different types of flint tools through the hands-on approach of actually making them. Experimental archaeologists have equipped modern professional butchers, archers and lumberjacks with replica flint tools to judge how effective they would have been for certain tasks. Use wear traces on the modern flint tools are compared to similar traces on archaeological artifacts, making probability hypotheses on the possible kind of use feasible. Hand axes have been shown to be particularly effective at cutting animal meat from the bone and jointing it.

Popular culture

The subject has proven popular enough to spawn several re-creation-type television shows:

  • The 1978 BBC TV series Living in the Past re-created life in an Iron Age village with 15 volunteers over a period of 13 months.
  • Discovery Channel's I, Caveman and I, Caveman : The Great Hunt
  • Discovery Channel's The Colony seasons 1 and 2 showed aspects of experimental archaeology
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