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Experimental archaeology

How did Bronze Age soldiers fight? How did they build their houses? Experimental archaeology has the answers!

Have you ever wondered how archaeologists can describe the way an ancient people made or used a particular artefact? The answer lies in what is called experimental archaeology which involves the re-creation and testing of physical artefacts, such as making an old bow and arrow to see how it would have been used. A number of prehistoric buildings, for example, have been rebuilt to allow archaeologists to study the techniques of building and the processes of decay.

Proving a point

One of the most famous experiments to date is Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition. Heyerdahl's theory concerned the colonisation of parts of Polynesia. Polynesia is a collection of islands situated between New Zealand and South America. Most archaeologists at the time believed that Polynesian people had come from Southeast Asia, but Heyerdahl believed that the people came from America, despite the journey from America being longer and more difficult.

To give his theory some credibility, Heyerdahl decided to experiment. Records showed that in 1526, a Spanish expedition had encountered a large balsa raft far out into the sea. The Spaniards had made a very detailed description of the craft. In 1950, Heyerdahl constructed a raft using the same basic materials and set-up. His craft made the 6900-km journey from the western coast of South America to the Tuamotu Islands. Some of the superficial features such as the cabin and masts were destroyed by the waves, but most of the cargo and all of the crew made it safely. This experiment didn't change everyone's thinking on the origin of the inhabitants of Polynesia, but it showed that it was possible.

Leather vs metal

One of the oddest experiments concerned shields. In 1963 two swords, a metal shield and a leather shield were made to resemble as closely as possible Late Bronze Age English weapons. Then two respectable archaeologists each equipped himself with one of the shields and a sword and started fighting. Fortunately it was a very short fight as the metal shield was cut and slashed into pieces by the first blows while the leather shield stood repeated heavy blows. The conclusion was that the metal shields were not suitable for actual physical conflict. Who said archaeology was boring?

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