Experimental Archaeology

Experimental archeology is a method of scientific analysis of archeological sources. It should be understood as this branch of archeology which tries to interpret the material culture, technology or ways of living in the past through scientific experiments (Callahan E. 1999, p. 4). In a similar manner it was perceived by Peter J. Reynolds (1999, p. 156) recalling the definition of experiment proposed by H. Margenau, according to which it is: a method of obtaining conclusions through an attempt or a test of justified relative to an initial hypothesis (Margenau H. 1950)1. Little has thus changed in this regard from the time of writing by John Coles, a pioneering work for experimental archeology, in which he stated that […] the word ‘experimental’ suggest an attempt, a test, a means of judging a theory or an idea, and this is the essence of the method (Coles J. 1973, p. 13)1. But how contemporary experimental archeology looks like and how is it perceived in our country? The answer to this question is not easy. It seems that the way of its understanding in Poland is perfectly illustrated by the object of interest of lectures given at the end 2007 at the international conference Application of experimental archeology in reconstruction of primeval reality, held at Krosno. In practice, the vast majority of them was devoted to archeological parks and festivals organized by them. Thus, a situation arose which may be observed also in the case of Western Europe, i.e. to a displacement of three, originally completely independent subjects – experiment (experimental archeology), experience (historical reconstruction) and education (por. Reynolds P. 1999, p. 156). Education is the basic purpose of archeological parks’ activity. The term “experience” is understood as various types of projects relying on live reconstruction of the past, participation in reconstructed (among others, through an experimental process) aspects of past life, application of such techniques etc. This activity is also described as ‘living history’ schools/shows. Neither “educational activity”, nor “experience” have a direct connection with scientific studies. However, they are based on popularization and “experiencing” the knowledge gained through them. Science is a definitional attribute only of third of the mentioned subjects, i.e. experiment, which often (as a result of assumptions made) is not very spectacular, and sometimes unpredictable. Without a final confirmation of the results, it also cannot constitute the subject of educational activities, or those from the range of historical reconstruction. Thus, combining of the described fields does not make sense, especially that it leads to degeneration of the scientific value of experimental research, which currently is, unfortunately, associated with festivals organized by archeological parks. Thus, only distinguishing between the mentioned subjects will allow give back to experimental archeology the proper place among rightful analytical methods. One should do one’s best to achieve that, because there is much truth in statement of John Coles, that this method (…) provide a way, the only way, for testing archeological interpretations concerning human behavior in the past (Coles J. 1973, p. 13)1. But how should a properly conducted archeological experiment look like?

            All works of this kind must be based on archeological sources. They constitute the basis for putting forward hypotheses, which may stimulate experimental work. As rightly pointed by Y.M.J. Lammers-Keijsers []        using nature as a laboratory, quartering animals and/or cutting trees with use of stone tools does not seem to be scientific and to provide scientifically valuable conclusions. However, when experiments are conducted for testing hypotheses which are based on archeological data, it is surely possible to obtain important information which may be used in archeological reasoning (Lammers-Keijsers Y. M. J. 2005, p. 19)1. Hypotheses put forward on the basis of archeological sources have to be formulated in such a way that the resulting questions are suitable for verification by means of a simple, not depending on many variables, experimental process. Thus, not every hypothesis can be experimentally tested. 

After wording of a question, one may proceed to experiment preparation. At this moment, it is necessary to perform a detailed analysis of all the steps undertaken during the experiment. One should see a possibly large amount of variables that may occur during its course and think about the ways of their elimination or (at least) control. On this depends the credibility of the findings made. It is also necessary to prepare instruments for making a suitable documentation. It has to be as precise as possible, because sometimes an omission of even a seemingly unimportant observation might influence the results. 

The experimental process has to be carried out professionally. A layman cannot perform a scientific experiment. An experiment is not learning through experimenting (Kelterborn P. 2005, p. 120)1. However, one also should not employ modern professionals (for instance, today’s lumbermen for works with stone axes), because they are “infected” by habits acquired over the years and it is difficult for them to get used to new techniques. About the rules of conducting archeological experiments relatively much has already been written (among others, Coles J. 1979, p. 46-48; Callahan E. 1999; Reynolds P. J. 1999; Keltborn P. 2005; Lammers-Keijsers Y. M. J. 2005; Mathieu J. R. 2005; Outram A. K. 2005; Schmidt M. 2005; Tichý R. 2005 – see for further literature). 

            A properly performed experiment results in acquisition of data, which are compared to observations made on an archeological source. This leads to conclusions answering (in this or other way) a question posed before the process. They might also constitute a basis for formulating further hypotheses verifiable in an experimental way. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                    Grzegorz Osipowicz



Callahan E.
1999          What is Experimental Archaeology? [w:] Wescott D. (ed.), Primitive Technology. A Book of  Earth  Skills,  1999, s. 4-6, Salt Lake City.           
Coles J.
1973          Archaeology by Experiment, Nowy York.
1979          Experimental Archaeology, Londyn.
Kelterborn P.
2005          Principles of experimental research in archaeology, (Re)construction and Experiment in Archaeolgy – European Platform, Vol. 2, p. 120-121, Hradec Králové.
Lammers-Keijsers Y.M.J.
2005         Scientific experiments: a possibility? Presenting a general cyclical script for 
experiments    in   archaeology, (Re)construction and Experiment in Archaeolgy – European Platform,    Vol. 2, p. 18-26, Hradec Králové.
Margenau H. 
1950          The Nature of Physical Reality: a philosophy of modern physic, New Reality: a philosophy of modern  physic, New York.
Mathieu J. R.
2005          For the reader’s Sake: Publishing Experimental Archaeology, Re)construction and Experiment in Archaeolgy – European Platform, Vol. 2, s. 110, Hradec Králové.
Outram A. K.
2005       Publishing Archaeological Experiments: a quick guide for the uninitiated, Re)construction and Experiment in Archaeolgy – European Platform, Vol. 2, p. 107-109, Hradec Králové.        
Reynolds P.J.
1999          The Nature of Experiment in Archaeology [w:] Harding A.F. (ed.), Experiment and Design in Archaeology, s. 156-162, Oxford.     
Tichý R.
2005          Presentation of Archaeology and Archaeological Experiments, Re)construction and Experiment in Archaeolgy – European Platform, Vol. 2, p. 113-119, Hradec Králové.