Experimental Archaeology

25 October 2009


Yap, Federated States of Micronesia

Yap, Federated States of Micronesia

There is an interesting article on the BBC about the recreation of early ocean-going canoe voyages in the south Pacific, Yap revives ancient art of star sailing. I find this a fascinating example of experimental archaeology.

Yap outrigger canoe in 1936.

Yap outrigger canoe in 1936.

Experimental archaeology really runs the gamut. Here’s an informal definition of experimental archaeology that I found at the Archaeology Expert website:

Experimental archaeology is one of the very practical methods of archaeological interpretation. It is a living analytical process used to re-create aspects in part or in whole, of ancient societies in order to test hypotheses or proposed interpretations and assumptions about that society.

The BBC article referenced above focuses on the recovery of the cultural tradition represented by ocean-going outrigger canoes and celestial navigation for Yap island, but it could still be considered a form of experimental archaeology. As I said, experimental archaeology runs the gamut. There are serious studies and there are media stunts and there are the many European open-air museums (among my favorite places to visit). Open-air museums are sometimes maintained in part to reconstruct the life of the past and also in part as an entertainment for tourists.

A few years ago when so-called “reality TV” was getting its start, public television jumped on the bandwagon and produced several series — some trivial, others riveting — that were essentially documentaries of experimental archaeology. I watched several of these with great interest.

Perhaps the most famous example of experimental archaeology in our time is the work of Thor Heyerdahl in recreating ancient sea-going vessels and recreating long distance voyages with them in order to demonstrate the possibility of his archaeological theories that were rejected by the mainstream historical and archaeological community. The Thor Heyerdahl Kon-Tiki museum in Oslo is absolutely fascinating. I visited it more-or-less on a whim a few years ago in Norway, not expecting it to be all that interesting, but I ended up staying for several hours. I heartily recommend it.

Voyages such as are made by the Yap islanders and those recreated by Thor Heyerdahl are crucial to our understanding of the last phase of human expansion and migration (which is not yet complete, but continues in an altered form even today). It is likely that the South Pacific was the last place on earth inhabited and settled by humanity. Perhaps if we had known the paradise that awaited us there, we might have gotten there sooner, but when men sail into the unknown they never know what they will find or whether they will ever return. And if they do not return, those who did not go do not know if they were lost or whether they found a better place and stayed there.

The Pacific is an enormous ocean. It was not crossed by European vessels until Magellan’s expedition (though Magellan died before the circumnavigation was completed and did not live to see the Pacific crossing). To set out upon the Pacific in nothing more than a canoe, and to live to tell the tale, is a feat equal to any in the history of human achievement. Whether we should think of this as a moment in natural history or a moment in human or cultural history is not clear. I don’t know what to call it myself, since the settlement of the South Pacific by ocean going canoes, while it constituted the last stage of the globalization of the human species, still took place in prehistory.

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Ocean going canoes of the Polynesians that enabled the exploration and colonization of the South Pacific.

Ocean going canoes of the Polynesians that enabled the exploration and colonization of the South Pacific.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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One Response to “Experimental Archaeology”

  1. Very interesting information and beautiful canoe image.

    Thank you,

    Emma Howard

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