Experimental archaeology


What is experimental archaeology?

This is a branch of science which tests archaeological theories, hypotheses and facts by conducting practical experiments. At the Hunebed Centre this means recreating our ideas about prehistoric working methods such as smelting iron or spinning wool to see if they actually work in practice. Are our assumptions correct? Could prehistoric people have actually carried out tasks in this way?

Experiments must be carried out in a scientific manner and this requires a proper plan of action and full documentation at all stages of the process. Examination of an object, for instance, must examine and show not only how the object was made but also how it was used.

Many practical experiments have already helped us to gain new insights into the past. Research can take many forms. For instance:

– measuring how much food must be grown on fields to supply a community

– examining tools and utensils to reveal how intensively they have been used

– analysing ground traces to identify what houses and farmsteads looked like

Science and the Hunebed Centre

The Hunebed Centre is more than just a museum, it is a point of exchange between archaeology and the public. Our contact with other scientific institutions and archaeological practices gives us constant access to new information. One important link is our intensive collaboration with the University of Groningen. In addition to existing partnerships, we are always looking for new ways to involve the wider public. Experimental archaeology plays an important part in that approach, bringing the local community into direct contact with archaeology in an imaginative way.

Chopping with a reconstructed axe to make a comparison with traces on archeological finds.

A success?!

To be successful, experimental archaeology must bring together not only scientific institutions and archaeological organisations but also craftsmen and experts in many fields. With around 120 volunteers and a high degree of teamwork, the Hunebed Centre has access to an extensive store of knowledge, skills and handicrafts. Indeed, the basis for many of today’s crafts and trades was laid in prehistoric times. Early types of textile and methods of spinning, for example, already existed in the Stone Age, and metal has been worked and forged since the Bronze Age.

It is true that some crafts have almost disappeared in the meantime, but in the Prehistoric Park you can still see volunteers knapping flints, working with bone and stone and so on. Successful experiments begin not only with sufficient knowledge and skills, but also with the right people.

Working with bone

Sustainable collaboration

Another requirement when carrying out experiments is to find the right site. For many reasons, such as safety, some experiments need to be carried out away from public view or be repeated several times under close supervision. The Hunebed Centre is working closely with the Groninger Institute for Archaeology (GIA) and the WEAG (Workgroup Experimental Archaeology Groningen) to identify a suitable site.

This collaboration with the GIA also extends to various archaeological educational programmes and new activities which, because of logistical problems, cannot be carried out within the city of Groningen. In addition to this collaboration, the Hunebed Centre also has its own agenda offering experimental workshops and courses.

Riemke explains the possibilities of work placement to students of archaeology at RUG.

People are the key

In order to conduct successful experiments, the people involved must themselves acquire new knowledge and new skills; and these will in turn help to improve the experiments. That is why we are already offering workshops and courses to our own colleagues. In this way they learn how to carry out processes and use materials themselves so that every experiment is an improvement on the last one and provides new data.

Experimental archaeology provides a wealth of knowledge about the past as well as instilling a greater understanding and more respect for the knowledge and skills of that distant time; more knowledge about which materials are appropriate; and a greater insight into the investment of time that was necessary.

Translation Alun Harvey


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