Finding evidence from our ancestors

FIRE SIDE The melting prossess used by experimental archaeologists during the Primitive Technology event
FIRE SIDE The melting prossess used by experimental archaeologists during the Primitive Technology event

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Curator of Fishbourne Roman Palace, Robert Symmons, says experimental archaeology will help us learn more about our past

MORE than 100 archaeologists and archaeology students will descend on a field near Chichester on Thursday for this year’s annual ‘Primitive Technology’ event.

For four days the air will be thick with wood smoke from dozens of campfires, kilns, ovens and furnaces, as they recreate activities ranging from prehistoric butchery to making Egyptian glass beads.

I will be part of the event, digging ditches with tools made from antler that are no different to those used to create prehistoric monuments 3,000 years ago.

Archaeologists call this experimental archaeology. Much of what our ancestors did in the past left evidence that can be excavated by archaeologists hundreds or thousands of years later.

We use this evidence to work out how people lived and what they did to survive.

The problem is that we don’t always know which ancient activities relate to different types of evidence, and the best way to find this out is through experimental archaeology.

For example, modern experimental archaeology has shown that skinning an animal leaves distinctive marks on its bones.

If we can recognise these marks on excavated bones then we might conclude that leather was important at that site.

These types of experiments have been a vital part of archaeology since the mid-1900s and while they are often quite mundane, they can also be quite extreme.

The 1947 Kon Tiki Expedition saw a raft sail 4,340 miles across the Pacific Ocean, proving that the journey was at least theoretically possible in ancient times – an idea which has been supported by DNA analysis in recent years.

Perhaps the greatest dedication to experimental archaeology was shown by the researcher who learnt how to tell whether excavated bone fragments had been eaten by different animals by feeding bones to modern carnivores and minutely analysing the contents of their droppings.

Clearly, these experiments don’t always take place in a lab and more often are happening in a researcher’s kitchen at home or garden, but the information they provide can be invaluable.

Archaeology isn’t just about excavating artefacts; it relies on a detailed understanding of the ancient people and processes that we are investigating.

Experimental archaeology is one of the ways that we can improve this understanding. It can also be enormous fun.