2009 Experimental Archaeology Conference (EAC4)

Date: November 14 & 15, 2009

Venue: Organised by the University of Aberdeen (UK)

Content: 9 papers

See: Conference review (PDF) by Jodi Reeves Flores



Does familiarity breed contempt?  Exploring the relationships between skilled practitioners and thoughtful scholars
Roger CP Doonan, University of Sheffield (UK)

Does familiarity breed contempt? Exploring the relationships between skilled practitioners and thoughtful scholars
The discipline of Archaeology has undergone several cycles of systematic revision since it was admitted to academia in the 19th century. The latest cycle of revision which began in the early eighties has been characterised by a cynicism towards objective enquiry, and preponderance with the situated position of the archaeologist, specifically how their own understanding of the world bears on the interpretations they offer of others. It is then surprising that despite virtually all aspects of archaeology having been opened to such ‘postprocessual’ critique, that experimental archaeology seems to have been overlooked. It is possible that Experimental archaeology, as advocated by John Coles and David Clarke, was simply thought of as being so empirical that a critique was not needed as its faults were all too clear.
Experimental archaeology is no doubt weaker for not having received such scrutiny and as such it is often thought to lack any coherent theoretical framework beyond that of simplistic empirical enquiry. However, some recent studies, i.e. Mathieu 2002, have extended what is considered to be experimental archaeology by defining typologies of practice which include phenomenological studies, a significant beast in the post-processual stable. In doing so such schemes have for the first time turned the focus of experimental archaeology away from the artefact, monument or soil deposit and on to the human practitioner. Such focus has exciting implications for proponents of experimental archaeology yet how such experiences are to be included in archaeological dialogue presents an, as yet, unresolved challenge.
Echoing John Coles’ appeal for appropriate competency and skill (Coles 1973:15) in experimental campaigns some more subjectively minded ‘experimenters’ have recognised the importance of skilled practice and have chosen to forge relationships with competent craftworkers. Such relationships may initially seem a sensible means by which to address the role of the practitioner in experimental contexts yet this paper seeks to explore to what extent such relationships can be considered unproblematic. Based on a series of experiences with established craftworkers this paper explores the issues which arise when thoughtful academics team up with skilled practitioners.
It is argued that the decision to work with skilled practitioners can, in some instances, be the result of academics conceiving skill as a static quality possessed by individuals whilst having a restricted understanding of technical choice. Further it is suggested that rather than producing deep insights, such relations can serve to reinforce the dichotomy between the cerebral theories of academics and the practical experiences of craftworkers. It is argued that rather than being an impediment to experimental practice the unskilled clumsy fumbling of an otherwise thoughtful scholar can reveal as much if not more than a skilled practitioner.


Experiential activities and scientific experiments making grooved ware in Orkney
Stephen Harrison (UK)

The Orkney Grooved Ware Experiment began in 2007 as an active and informal collaboration between archaeologists and potters. Since then, with expanding interest, the project has broadened and membership is now multi-disciplinary in character, involving artists, archaeologists, ceramicists, geographers, material scientists, photographers and writers on an ad hoc basis, conducting a range of artistic, archaeological and other experiments, as well as holding public demonstrations and exhibitions. Also, from the start, local community involvement has been an important aspect of the work.
From an archaeological perspective, the project, through experiential activities and scientific experiments, aims to come to some potential understanding of the processes involved in the manufacture and firing of prehistoric ceramics and their use during the third and early second millennia BC within a specifically Orcadian context. This broad aim subsumes a number of key objectives: to examine the relationship between pots, people and taskscapes; to replicate a range of Neolithic ceramic styles experimentally; to explore the techniques needed for the manufacture of these types of pottery; to come to some assessment of the working properties of locally-derived raw materials; to come to some assessment of the effects of adding inclusions to the raw materials used; to undertake a range of scientific firing experiments; to experiment with the use of vessels; to assess weathering on vessels and sherds placed in a range of contrasting environmental settings; and to create a body of experience that will be of use in the interpretation of Neolithic pottery from the regional archaeological record. 
This presentation offers a review of the work to date.


"I'm still learning"*:  apprenticeship, archaeology, and the making of glass bottles
Frances Liardet, Cardiff University (UK)

These days many archaeological artefact reconstructions are carried out by craftworkers and academic researchers in collaboration, deploying and developing authentic materials and tools over a relatively long time period. One of the reasons why this approach is gaining popularity is that it not only enriches our understanding of ancient lifeways but is also capable of making scientific contributions. This paper focuses on one such collaboration – my apprenticeship in the making of glass vessels originally manufactured in the Eastern Mediterranean around 500 BCE. These vessels were formed not by the (Roman) technique of blowing but by forming molten glass around a clay core. I will discuss my path to a level of consistency through a social process of teaching and learning; the relationship between gestures, tools and materials which constitutes skill; and the productive tension between this ethnographic study of craft practice and the archaeological research which I and my teacher – who was, as he put it, ‘still learning’, were undertaking.

* Aún aprendo, or ‘I’m still learning’: Goya’s title to a drawing of himself in extreme old age.


Breaking the Sense Barrier - New directions for complexity, transformation & reconstructive practice in Experimental Neolithic Archaeoacoustics
Claire Marshall, University of Manchester (UK)

Few areas of research have been more central to what previously has been considered as parting of the ways of new and post processual archaeologies. Many of the presuppositions regarding ways in which the ‘experiment’ is undertaken in modern research agendas have impeded strongly on the adoption of fresh approaches to our data. The situation is changing not least of all through the increasing attention that is being given to the relevance for new directions of research on the Neolithic of insights drawn from the work of anthropologists and archaeologists (for instance Thomas eds. 2000) into the novel and unpredictable ways in which experience is constructed at the contingent level. As Koerner (2008, 2009) has suggested, the ethical implications for Latours quote for the common world as ‘not something we can come to recognise’ (Latour 1993) have far reaching implications for the ways in which experimental archaeology can be conducted. We are bound by notions of the experiment proving a predetermined hypothesis (Binford 1968), rather than opening up exciting new ways in which we can view both our past archaeology and our present reliance on the deterministic nature of hypothesis testing.
My purpose in this discussion is to problematize some of the theoretical arguments relating to predetermination and provide an optimistic alternative for the inclusion of creative contingency in the ways experimental archaeology is conducted. My case studies will look at current research into material and organic remains at Neolithic contexts in Britain and my own ongoing research into the contingent and unpredictable ways in which material creativity is manifested in sound/acoustic and sensory archaeology at sites of a contemporary nature.


Challenging Pots:  Experiments considering the taphonomy of British Neolithic ceramics and the application of residue analysis
Dana Millson, University of Durham (UK)

Throughout the world, the term ‘Neolithic’ is used to describe a lifestyle of settled farming and animal husbandry, the first use of pottery, monumental architecture, and polished stone tools. The Neolithic was not the same everywhere; however, of the changes typical of this new way of life, the adoption of pottery is most intriguing since its presence is undeniable – people either chose pots or they didn’t. In Europe, pottery developed in the Near East and spread westwards to Britain and Ireland; however, it also appears independently in the Americas, Asia, and Africa as other Neolithic characteristics emerge. Clearly, pottery is fundamental to understanding what we call ‘the Neolithic’ because it is a global phenomenon.
However, the invention of ceramics remains puzzling because, even with a sedentary lifestyle, pottery is not necessary – resources can be collected, stored, and cooked using leather bags, baskets, or even roasting them on a fire, whilst ceramics break more easily and take more resources and time to produce. Moreover, there are examples of huntergatherers who used pots, like the Ertebolle culture of Scandinavia, but did not accept the other aspects of the ‘Neolithic’ lifestyle. For decades, archaeologists have struggled with this and pottery has subsequently become highly typologised and is still very poorly understood. We seem to be nowhere nearer to understanding “why pots?”
This presentation is the completed project first proposed as an interim report at TAG08. Over the course of the last year, I have endeavoured to better understand the role of pottery in the British Neolithic using reconstruction, replication and residue analysis in preparation of a study of the Late Neolithic pottery found in the Borders Region for my PhD thesis. Based on information from archaeological remains and details from anthropological literature, seventy replica pots were hand-built using local clay from the Anglo-Scottish Border and fired using the traditional open-firing method. These were subsequently used for cooking or storage and experiments with sealing were done to evaluate their performance and taphonomy under such conditions. Residue analysis was used to evaluate how different practices might show up archaeologically and to test the application on replica ‘prehistoric’ sherds with known past contents.
The result of this work is a step towards understanding why ancient people chose pots. Since the beginnings of archaeology there have been many conclusions made about the manufacture and uses of prehistoric ceramics, many based on their similarity to those from other parts of the world or from later periods. However, going through the actual process of clay procurement, pot-building, firing, sealing, use, and deposition has allowed for a greater insight into the practicalities of this craft in everyday life, and the experiments themselves have enabled specific questions to be answered. This presentation therefore demonstrates how experimentation is useful to challenge interpretations and reveal new information about the past.


Case Studies in Reconstructing 19th Century Science & Technology
Klaus Staubermann, National Museums Scotland (UK)

Historic reconstructions have become a decisive tool in many areas of science and technology studies over the past few decades. In my talk I will present some highly significant scientific apparatus designed during the 19th century. I will show how, by rebuilding these artefacts and practising with them, significant historical insights can be gained. My work demonstrates how historic experimenters interacted with new designs and how different practitioners using new types of instruments and machinery could reach scientific agreement. I will present the reconstruction projects as well as explore how doing them has provided me with a new or deeper understanding of the skills, practices and tacit knowledge involved in the making of 19th century science and technology. I will analyse competing traditions in the manufacture and use of historic artefacts and reflect on the changing social roles of inventors and practitioners.


Experimental Archaeology After Simplicity - Implications for Reflexivity of Insights that a 'Common World' is Not 'Given'
Stephanie Koerner, University of Manchester (UK)

“A common world is not something we can come to recognize, as though it had always been here … A common world, if there is going to be one, is something we have to build, tooth and nail together” (Latour 2004: 455).
Until quite recently, few researchers are likely to have been receptive to the suggestion that experimental archaeology could help illustrate the relevance of the above noted idea for ‘going beyond’ such dichotomies as those of nature-culture, science-values, moderns - pre-moderns, reason versus tradition, and, especially, the “global and universal versus the local and illusory” (Rorty 1979; Ingold 1993, 2000; Descola and Pálssen 1996). For several centuries, the most influentially opposed conceptions of human agency, history and ‘the experiment’ have hinged upon shared presuppositions about:
(a) The primary task of science being that of reducing plurality of context dependent experiences and phenomena to universalisable (context independent) principles,
(b) Simplicity and the ‘common world’,
(c) Supposed obstacles to knowledge of immutables posed by technological constraints, social interests and cultural traditions.
Today the situation is undergoing remarkable change. I will illustrate developments facilitating experimental archaeologies that depart from such insights as that:
(a) There are no such things as context independent problems,
(b) Complexity and emergent novelty are normal conditions, and crucial for the world’s intelligibility,
(c) Dualist caricatures of science–values, nature-culture, reality-history, and so on, prioritise least tractable problems, and impede appreciating the importance for sustaining diversity of human life ways of plurality of the past and future aspirations.


The Loch Tay Logboat Project
David Strachan, Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust (UK)

The presentation reports an education/research project to make a logboat in the style of the Late Bronze Age, using tools and techniques known around 3,000 years ago.
Carried out in partnership with the Scottish Crannog Centre, the project was inspired by the discovery of two logboats, one from Loch Tay dating to about 1500 BC, and a second, from the Tay Estuary and dating to around 1000 BC, which was the subject of a major project by Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust involving excavation, recovery, conservation and forthcoming display.
The project was directed by ancient woodworking specialist Damian Goodburn, and involved archaeology students and a volunteer workforce over a three-week period. While the major concession to authenticity, the use of a Douglas fir rather than oak, was recognised, the project did attempt to compare the performance of replica bronze and modern hand-tools, including axes, adzes, chisels and gouges. The resulting 8.5m long boat included many of the features and fittings of the Carpow original, including a fitted transom caulked with moss, and a pair of footrests, which were then tested in trails on the Loch.
The presentation will seek to shed light on questions such as “when is a project educational rather than experimental” and “when is a tree, not a tree…”


The Construction, Stability and Destruction of Dry Stone Built Structures
John Barber, Graeme Cavers, Dimitris Theodossopoulos and Paul Humphries (UK)

Experimental work on Neolithic and Iron Age dry stone built structures has been undertaken at Spittal in Caithness and in the Architecture Department of Edinburgh University. We have built models of the chambers of Neolithic chambered cairns, at various scales to full scale, and of Iron Age brochs at scales up to ½-scale. Our aim has been to try to improve our current, primitive, numerical modelling for the conditions under which such structures are stable so that we can understand more fully, the nature of the remains we encounter in the field and the paths by which they have come to their current conditions. This has implications for our interpretations of how the monuments were built and used and for the practical conservation of the surviving remains. Our experimental work has extended to the processes of deposit formation, alteration and destruction in such structures.