You are here

Presentation of Archaeology and Archaeological Experiment

Radomír Tichý (CZ)
How to publish Experimental Archaeology?
EuroREA is a magazine dedicated to publishing reports on experiment and education in archaeology. But what are the ways of publishing archaeological experiment? We asked this question and here we present the answers we received.

Radomír Tichý, Society for Experimental Archaeology, Czech Republic (Translation J. Kateřina Dvořáková). This article discusses the relationship between presentation of archaeology and archaeological experiment in open-air museums.
Presentation of the results of archaeological research represents a wide range of activities. Among these are the already classical popular archaeological books and magazines, history text-books, TV educational programmes, history lessons at schools or universities, museum exhibitions, conferences on reconstruction or education and opening archaeological sites to the public. The modern or fashionable is represented, for example, by presentation on internet or open-air museums/ archaeoparks. I personally hope that books and magazines will keep their place among the above mentioned activities, also that teaching and museum exhibitions will survive modernization and that virtual or electronic form will not completely edge out the others. On one hand the position of virtual reconstructions is irreplaceable because of its ability of depicting far-off realities, multitudes of variants and the speed of reaction to new information. On the other hand it reduces the possibilities of a sensual experience and its two-dimensionality separates people from the actuality. Therefore a welcome possibility is a so called 'touch prehistory', meaning a visit to a 'real' prehistoric world, where the visitor is surrounded by structures and artefacts made at a 1:1 scale from authentic materials. The presence of a 'human factor', we can call them instructors, whether an archaeologist or informed teacher is also of importance.

In this paper I will attempt to consider the significance and problems of open-air museums. These museums attract several times more visitors from the ranks of the lay public than classical museum exhibitions, but they have their own problems. One of the fundamental ones is the definition of the terms 'presentation of archaeology' and 'archaeological experiment'. With presentations we usually mean reconstructions in the sense of our idea of the past, while experiment should be an objective scientific method. Their relations are more complex and we can outline it with the help of further terms, such as experimental archaeology, experience, time, physical performance and dexterity, building reconstruction, documentation and publication of experiments or conditions of archaeological experiment. In the next part of this paper I would like to comment on them.
1.The activities, which most correspond to the strict definition of experimental archaeology are scientifically structured experiments, for example firing pottery in reconstructions of various types of kilns, experiments with glass melting, bronze casting or iron smelting. Their common denominator is the high number of measured variables (tempera­ture, time, humidity, hardness and so on) and the impression of a separation of the experimenter from the development of the experiment. According to some any activity, which lacks this underlying scientific character is not an experiment. But such a limit dramatically decreases the range of the activities available to study through experiment. The remaining activities are transferred from the category of 'archaeological experiment' to the category of 'archaeological reconstruction'. The definition of a reliable experiment is not fully clear, for example Czech historian Dušan Třeštík says that “today even natural scientist do not doubt that the observer is a part of the object of his observation”. A practical (non compromised) solution can be seen in the defining of a social science experiment. It demands the formulation of a hypothesis to be tested by the experiment. The process is described by fundamental parameters which are necessary to allow for its repetition. In addition the difference between the starting and final stages has to be well documented. In practise experimental archaeology covers a wide range of activities. One of them is so called 'living prehistory', the leisure activity of laymen, who often carry it out to the limits of perfection from a presentation point of view. The critics sometimes describe such activities as only the gaining of experience and make the 'real' experiments dependent on the existence of laboratory conditions without the influence of the human factor. 'Experience archaeology'1 has become an opposite pole to specialist experiments.

2. Another problem is the position of experience in archaeological experiment. Let’s discuss this with several examples. The first example: Any visitor to an archaeopark on meeting for the first time with an unknown material or artefact can set up for themselves a simple experiment. It is not possible to deny that this is an 'experiment'. But what about their experience, or rather inexperience? This fundamentally influences the nature and results of the experiment. Another example is an instructor at an open-air museum, who shapes from clay a vessel in the form of known pottery shape of some archaeological culture in front of a visitor. The difference between the instructor and the visitor is evident. The latter is described as 'experience' archaeology. Where is the border between 'experiment' and 'experience'?
The third example: A number of commonly accepted notions of the function or nature of archaeological artefacts was gained at the beginnings of experimental archaeology. At that time though it lacked exactly measured variables. Despite this the information gained has become a part of history text-books. For example the fact that the making of a polished axe was not started by a grandfather and finished by a grandson, as was thought originally, or that these tools were not used for ploughing but working wood. This was shown by a simple experiment but without measured variables. Was it considered an experiment then but not any more?
A reasonable compromise therefore is an admission that the situation is more complex than mere opposition of a laboratory scientific experiment to human experience, or admission that experience is one of the integral variables of archaeological experiment. From this point of view the visitor’s experiment is on the level of a school laboratory test and the instructor is here in the role of a teacher carrying out a demonstration. In certain areas experience with immeasurable variables can gain reliable information, as long as it verifies a theory. I cannot think about any other term than 'experimental archaeology concerning immeasurable variables'.

3. Time, necessary for the activity, physical performance, necessary for the realization of a task, and ­dexterity in the manipulating the replicas or artefacts are important variables in characterising presentation and experiments. The majority of questions from the members of the public concern these variables. How far can experimental archaeology go? Do we know anything about the working times and physical performance of ancient people? The main problem is the experimenter – a modern person with different experiences, motivation, beliefs and physical condition. But we do not need to derive this from the person; we can derive it from the nature of the artefact. Current experience for example shows that some archaeologically documented and well known artefacts like axes or hoes limit physical performance by their weight and suitability to the given task. Prehistoric wooden hoes with their restricted possibilities of sharpening create bigger resistances to the soil than modern mattocks. It has to be used by somebody who can overcome these forces. The time necessary to reach the work target is, of course, an inaccurate data but is more suitable than a mere estimate. We can gain an interval expressing with certain probability the necessary time or physical performance, which gives us orientation values. For example an interval of data from an experienced experimenter in good condition to an experienced experimenter in poor form. We cannot project into the past data gained by an inexperienced experimenter.

4. Another important range of pr­oblems concerns the building of reconstructions of archaeological structures. Their major parts belong to a surface space which is not generally covered by archaeological excavations. It is possible and necessary to use lucky finds of construction elements of organic materials, finds of models and prehistoric depictions. Even then the number of unknown variables dramatically rises for even a simple experiment. The late Peter Reynolds from Butser Ancient Farm justly demanded the differentiating between the term reconstruction, rebuilding the original form, and construction, building one of the possible forms of a prehistoric surface building. In practise there are always several possibilities for hypothetical forms of prehistoric structures. Here, drawings and virtual reconstructions can play a vital role. The construction at 1:1 scale is for financial and organisational reasons realized only once. The advantage of virtual reconstruction is that it is possible to change the hypothesis according to increasing knowledge in the drawing/virtual form and at the same time we have an idea on the building demands of the chosen archaeological structure. This can concern a house, outbuilding, production device, fortification element etc.

5. Important part is played by do­cu­mentation and publication. Documentation should record the gist of the basic formula of an experiment that means the difference between the starting and final stage while registering all the acting variables. While the difference between the starting and final stages is usually evident the single factors are problematic. Sometimes the effort to approximate the experiment to the condition of a natural scientific laboratory experiment is excessive. Then there are measured insignificant variables. The practical problem is again the position of the experimenter who is engaged in the experiment and cannot attend the recording of the measurements, respectively the attempt to measure causes an unnatural progress of the activity.
Introducing the archaeological context of the experiment, which means the correlation of the experiment and archaeological material, should be an integral part of any publication. In ideal situations it might be possible to use a natural scientific analysis. Cautiously and in my opinion only as an illustration, ethnographic and ethological parallels can be used. They are mostly alien to the conditions of prehistoric Europe but they contain a level of experience typical for aboriginal unlike modern people. At the phase of the publishing itself there is a wide range of possibilities on how to improve the clear representations of the results. The fundamental role is played, as elsewhere in archaeology, by drawing and photographic documentation, charts, tables etc. Publication of results of any type of experiments is of a fundamental importance. As it has already been said elsewhere the difficulty of carrying out certain demanding experiments, caused in the past repetition of certain questions as if previous results had been forgotten. One of the possible explanations of this is the basis of experience which is difficult to transfer and thanks to this new generation of researchers commit the same errors and invalid ideas on the solution of certain problems of experimental archaeology as others in past did. The previous findings have been either insufficiently published for their needs, inaccessible, or scattered. The publication of results and their natural surpassing but also recognition of classical results achieved earlier is the main asset of learning. Personally I believe it is possible to recognize good and sustainable results from those, which are bad and easily discarded.

6. The securing of conditions of archaeological experiment is complicated. For example there are experiments which do not allow for everyday reality to follow some basic conditions of an experiment, as repeatability. That concerns, for example further experiments with replicas of ancient vessels where new experiments are prevented by, for example a change in political situation or changes in environmental conditions. The problems with the controlling of an experiment have been outlined in the previous paragraph. On the other hand without following certain conditions an experiment or reconstruction looses sense even for presentation. Among those are nonobservance of authenticity of the cultural placement of an artefact or structure, used material, sizes and so on. We see it often in presentations, which are aimed only at creating a visual impression. Here I would like to put forward my belief that in the recognition of a useful experiment we are not helped by a control of the presence of several principles, rather the relation between expectancy and fulfilment of ideas of target groups. Many experiments will be for a technologist of a certain discipline for their interest, archaeologists appreciate contact with original material, a laymen are interested in everyday life in the past and follow possibilities of tools, time or energy demands, and general consumer outstanding performances with a possibility of danger or at least actions. It is at this point that the contact with archaeology finishes and living prehistory becomes only inspired by archaeology, more a theatre performance or artistic representation. The possibility that even these can bring new knowledge only complicates the situation.
In the conclusion I would like to, for reasons of clarity, introduce the position of experiments of various degrees as used by open-air museums:

1. Experiment

Open-air museums are suitable forums for the presentation of the results of archaeological research to the public. Their programmes should be based on the possibilities of archaeology. It is an introduction to past life, functions of artefacts and structures and the presentation of technologies. Archaeological experiments should be present in the programme. The fundamental principle is that the scientific can be also presentable. In a version, which is more difficult to realize, they can be presented with the help of multimedia, presenting the recorded experiment or in presence of experienced experimenters. This can concern pottery firing, glass making, iron or copper smelting, bronze casting. The common features of these usually are large demands on time, the presence of physical measuring appliances and a seeming detachment of the experimenter from the process. It seems that the experimenter does not interfere, which is connected to the mentioned time demands rather than reality.

2. Experiments with unmeasured variables

The experimenter in the case of activities, which are reduced to quality experience, is very visible. Through it he/she justly entertains visitors and shares knowledge. We can describe it as an experiment with variables, which are difficult to measure or immeasurable. The perception of correctness is underscored by the use of the correct materials, production methods and authentic tools. Even simple measuring appliances (time, weight) are not present as the values are not measurable in practise and their presence seems to be either irrelevant or affected by the presence of a modern experimenter. Despite this the dexterity of the experimenter increases and does not exclude overcoming already determined values. This type of experiment usually also relates to activities which happen in short bursts and are interrupted by the modern rhythm of life. They can concern pottery making, bone and stone working, cooking and baking, smith craft, hoeing or working wood with tool replicas. These activities are probably related to the past reality although not always directly documented in archaeological material.

3. Experience

When gaining experience the original technology or material is not always strictly followed. Despite this the result of such activities can correct all our ideas on a given problem. If the model is connected by at least part of its characteristics to the characteristics of the archaeological originals it can be an asset to learning. For example the recognition of the function of a door latch or the quality of fired roof tiles dating to Great Moravian period. If the activity is carried out by an inexperienced person who compares his/her results with the life long experience of a prehistoric craftsman then it is teaching. But if the instructor of an open-air museum is inexperienced then it is a fundamental fault.

4. Original archaeological finds

These cannot be missing in the offering of open-air museums. Not to remind us of the museum shelves filled with dead artefacts but to make the authenticity of originals accessible to the visitors. This is also a reason why many open-air projects are part of the presentation of an important archaeological site or archaeology of a certain region. In these cases it is not about the experiment, nor even about experience of touching the past. Only about the visual impression. Maybe, we are used to perceive these fragmentary or damaged original artefacts as a faithful depiction of the past. Therefore ancient tools continue to surprise us with their small sizes, differing functions or the effectiveness of simple technologies. In spite of this many original artefacts have as yet not been successfully replicated.


I have tried to ponder the problems of archaeological presentation and experiment. The simple conclusion is that the use of experiment for science and presentation is difficult to define. Although if it was unambiguous or easy it would have been done long time ago.
If I was to summarise it in one sentence, which is clearly difficult, then it is good if the presentation is related as closely as possible to a quality experiment within its wider definition: from controllable repeatable through to immeasurable and well managed craft. This of course means that the functioning of an open-air museum is a project with high demands on knowledge, physical condition, experience, organisation and in the end also finances. Therefore we need to improve the exchange of information.
  • 1. Experience archaeology is a term introduced into Czech archaeology by Zdeněk Smetánka to describe reconstructive archaeological activities which do not fulfil the criteria of natural scientific experiment. It overlaps with experimental archaeology in the cases of experiment demonstrations and a preparation of experiments and causes controversy.
Experience archaeology is a term introduced into Czech archaeology by Zdeněk Smetánka to describe reconstructive archaeological activities which do not fulfil the criteria of natural scientific experiment. It overlaps with experimental archaeology in the cases of experiment demonstrations and a preparation of experiments and causes controversy.


Zur Darstellung von Archäologie und archäologischer Experimente
Die Darstellungen der Resultate archäologischer Forschungen umfassen eine große Spannbreite unterschiedlichster Möglichkeiten und Aktivitäten. Eine der bedeutendsten Plattformen sind hier Freilichtmuseen, die wesentlich mehr Besucher anziehen als traditionelle Museumsausstellungen. Eines der wesentlichen Probleme von Freilichtmuseen ist es, eine ausgewogene Balance zwischen der „Darstellung von Archäologie“ und dem „archäologischen Experiment“ zu finden. „Darstellung“ bedeutet hier zumeist Rekonstruktion im Sinne einer Idee bzw. Vorstellung von der Vergangenheit, während ein Experiment eine objektiv nachvollziehbare wissenschaftliche Methode sein sollte; in der Realität ist die Beziehung dieser beiden Punkte zueinander jedoch viel komplexer.
Vielfach wird die Meinung vertreten, dass jede Aktivität, die keinen wissenschaftlichen Charakter (im naturwissenschaftlichen Sinne) besitzt, kein Experiment sei. Solch eine Eingrenzung vermindert jedoch dramatisch die Spannbreite möglicher Aktivitäten, die durch Experimente untersucht werden könnten. Das Hauptproblem ist hierbei nämlich die Person selbst, welche das Experiment durchführt – es ist ein moderner Mensch mit anderen Erfahrungen, Motivationen, Vorstellungen und körperlichen Fähigkeiten als wie sie ein urgeschichtlicher Mensch besessen hat. Wichtige Variablen bei einem archäologischen Experiment sind die Zeit, die für eine Tätigkeit benötigt wird, die praktische Durchführung, die für die Realisierung einer Aufgabe notwendig ist, und die Geschicklichkeit bei der Herstellung der Repliken; die überwiegende Zahl von Fragen durch die interessierte Öffentlichkeit bezieht sich auf diese Punkte. Ein weiteres bedeutendes Problemfeld betrifft die Errichtung von Gebäuderekonstruktionen. Hier steigt die Zahl der unbekannten Variablen sogar bei einem einfachen Experiment extrem an. Freilichtmuseen sind geeignete Foren für die Darstellung der Ergebnisse archäologischer Forschung und archäologische Experimente sollten hier zum Programmangebot dazu gehören. Das fundamentale Prinzip ist es hierbei, dass das Wissenschaftliche darstellbar sein kann und muss.

Présentation de ľarchéologie et ľexpérimentation en archéologie
La présentation des résultats issus des recherches archéologiques implique plusieurs activités. Accueillant quelques fois plus de visiteurs que les musées traditionnels, les parcs archéologiques constituent ľune des plate-formes les plus importantes. Et là, le problème du rapport idéal de la présentation à ľexpérimentation compte parmi les plus essentiels. D‘habitude, pour la présentation de ľarchéologie, on tient des reconstitutions sorties de nos idées sur des réalités anciennes, tandis que ľexpérimentation en archéologie devrait constituer une méthode objective scientifique. En fait, le rapport des deux est bien compliqué.
D‘après les uns, aucune activité qui manque de caractère de ľexpérience scientifique, telle qu’elle est définie pour les sciences naturelles, n‘est considérée comme expérimentation. Cette restriction fort diminue le nombre des activités susceptibles ďêtre étudiées à ľaide de ľéxpérimentation. Le problème principal, c‘est ľexpérimentateur - homme moderne, avec des expériences, foi, motivations et condition physique tout différentes. Temps de travail, performance physique, habileté dans le maniement des répliques constituent des variables importantes. En fait, la plupart des questions posées par les visiteurs y ont rapport. Un autre domaine de problèmes importants touche ľarchitecture des constructions. Voilà une multiplication dramatique des inconnues, même pour une expérimentation simple. Les parcs archéologiques, ce sont des forums favorables à la présentation des résultats sortis des recherches archéologiques et ľexpérimentation devrait figurer dans leurs programmes. Le principe fondamental ne change pas: ce qui est scientifique, c‘est également susceptible d‘être présenté.
© by: EXARC since 2001. All rights reserved