Questions Buried Beneath the Surface: A Testing of Thought at the 2015 Experimental Archaeology Conference

Samantha Hartford – Department of Archaeology

‘Muddy boots, friendly discussion, fire, and tea’ could easily have been the tagline of the ninth annual Experimental Archaeology Conference (EAC). Held between the 16th and 18th of January 2015 in Dublin, the conference boasted eight varied sessions and plenty of posters and demonstrators, not to mention attendees from over twenty countries. The host, University College Dublin’s Department of Archaeology, proved unfailingly welcoming and the entirety of the three days passed smoothly; in fact the general atmosphere at the closing address on Saturday before the field trip on Sunday was convivial and even regretful that the conference was over so soon. However, that is not to say that there was not a definite undercurrent of tension in many of the papers presented. It is that tension which this review sets out to explore and, in suggesting a new approach to the place of science within archaeology, hopes to go some way toward settling.

Experimental archaeology is the branch of archaeology in which ancient and historic processes or products are recreated to the best of our ability. As such, many experimental archaeologists have one specialty which they feel most attached to – after all, many crafts can require a lifetime of learning to fully understand. This can, and has, created many subcultures within an already narrow field: for example, groups of those who recreate Bronze Age houses, or focus on experiments with early metallurgy, or rebuild and sail seafaring vessels based on wrecks and written accounts. Given the variety of the subject and the variety in those attracted to study it, it is no wonder that there should be some underlying theoretical issues within experimental archaeology.

In the range of presentation options at the conference (paper, poster, table, hands-on demonstration) the many subtopics in experimental archaeology were well-covered under broadly-themed sessions such as ‘Daily Life, Practice, and Food Technologies’ or ‘Forged in the Fire’. Though only one of the sessions at the EAC was meant to address methods and approaches within the field, there was one issue which surfaced in nearly all the sessions: the distinction between experimental archaeology and experiential archaeology. While not officially recognised by the conference hosts as a topic of debate, the relation between these two branches – and especially their worth relative to one another – came up more often than not in individual presentations. It lurked behind each discussion, yet none of the presenters directly called out this rivalry. Nonetheless I believe it is worthy of examination in its appearance at the conference and in archaeology as a whole.

A relatively new concept, experiential archaeology is a term used loosely to describe reconstructions that focus less on rigorous authenticity and more on the experience of reconstructing. Commonly it comes up in conjunction with open-air museums to describe events like wheel-turned pottery demonstrations or spear-throwing lessons. As several of the talks mentioned, such events prove enticing to visitors, yet it is the very presence of visitors which makes carrying out experiments with scientific precision impossible (this issue was particularly evident in R. Fitch’s paper, ‘Half Baked: can the experimental process help us towards a reconstruction of medieval bread?’). Even if the demonstration is not meant to be hands-on, carrying it out in front of a live audience introduces many issues – just think, for example, of the health and safety concerns of pouring molten metal while smelting – and space or budget issues can mean that corners must be cut.

Despite this, experiential archaeology still has its supporters; in fact, the keynote address of the conference pointed out that for non-professionals – students or the public at large – going through the steps of an ancient creative process, such as making clothing from hide, can teach lessons about long-term thinking, creativity, and self-reliance even without every variable controlled and accounted for (W. Schindler, ‘Soul Authorship: experimental archaeology, and the value of authentic learning processes in Higher Education pedagogy’). In addition to challenging and teaching participants, experiential archaeology projects often are fun for the public, which in turn warms their opinions towards archaeology and local heritage. Yet this step back from minute details has some worried, as shown in one later talk which perhaps most directly addressed this split in experimental archaeology (if in a purely personal manner). In it, the presenter expressed disillusionment with the experiential method, wondering what exactly we as archaeologists and museum officials are teaching the public if not specific skills and facts from the past (R. Chowaniec and A. Bursche, ‘An archaeological experiment – a method of museum education or a joke with science?’).

This is where we turn from experiential archaeology to experimental archaeology, which was plentifully represented at the EAC in talks full of scientific considerations and appropriate data, ranging from drilling through antler to charting dart flight to observing the effects of a funeral pyre on certain artefacts. These talks also, much more than their experiential counterparts, engendered questions: clarifications, challenges, or suggestions on practical points. Those who were experts of their sub-fields clearly felt at home discussing the finer points of experimental design and their conversations were a large part of what made the conference feel successful despite the underlying tension.

There is no denying, however, that discussions of strictly experimental archaeology can quickly become esoteric. Certainly this trend is not uncommon at specialised conferences and is not in itself bad; but it is also not conducive to unity in an increasingly subdivided field or to public engagement. Though the experiential archaeology presentations felt more approachable and more memorable, the name of the field alone – experimental archaeology – is enough to reveal which of these two rival concepts has traditionally been the favoured one. Indeed, even some papers given at the conference which contained aspects of what might be called experiential archaeology shied from using the term (e.g. T Sorensen, ‘From data sets to public presentation: communicating experimental archaeology at the Viking Ship Museum’). Perhaps this preference is because, at first glance, experimental archaeology seems to clearly answer a question which has been plaguing archaeology now for decades if not centuries.

This question is a fundamental one and, I suspect, one wrapped up in a fair amount of pride for most of the presenters at the EAC and quite likely most archaeologists the world over. Since the 1960s, with the advent of ‘New’ or ‘Processual’ archaeology, a fierce theoretical debate has centred on the issue of exactly how scientific the discipline should – or should not – be.[1] Generally speaking, archaeology has been considered a closer relative of anthropology or history than of hard science. This seems to have created a sort of inferiority complex in some archaeologists, who carry out extensive tests and measurement while looking down on, or distancing themselves from, experiential archaeology.[2] Though experimentation undoubtedly has value, experience in archaeology is constantly measured by the values or constraints of its scientific counterpart — and often against this standard it fails, as could be seen in the disillusioned talk mentioned above.

Perhaps the true issue which lay untouched at the EAC, and in the field as a whole, is what exactly we believe science to be in the first place. Is science an elite name we give to a limited group of disciplines which seek the truth — or is it a set of steps and guidelines available to aid the search for truth, no matter what the subject? For my part, given everything I saw during the conference and everything my experience has led me to consider, I would suggest that science is not a higher form which experimental archaeology should aspire to be. Science instead is a tool which archaeology should use.

When the contrast between experimental and experiential archaeology is viewed in this context — a context not of labels, but of tools and conscious goals — the need for rivalry is distinctly less potent. For in reality, both trends have their use: experimental archaeology produces useful tests and data which inform our understanding of the past, while experiential archaeology provides engaging and thought-provoking ways to explore our connection with the past. With the deeper issue of proving ourselves proper scientists set to rest, there is ample reason to think that experimental and experiential archaeology could exist. However, it will take perhaps a tenth, twelfth or even twentieth EAC for these theoretical questions to come fully into focus, and receive the treatment they deserve. I, for one, am looking forward to the discussion.


Trigger, Bruce G. A History of Archaeological Thought, second edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996)


[1] Bruce G. Trigger, ‘A History of Archaeological Thought, second edition’, Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 26.

[2] Ibid., p. 386

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