More Experimental Archaeology

30 June 2010


Last fall in Experimental Archaeology I discussed the recreation of several sea voyages in the interest of determining what exactly is possible in terms of the capabilities of early seafaring technologies. Today my attention has been directed to another form of experimental archaeology in the form of the construction of a castle, Guédelon, in Yonne, Burgundy.

On the BBC front page the story about the castle was called “France’s Folly” and even the website maintained by the castle builders calls the project an “idée folle” and further identifies it as “Michel Guyot’s crazy scheme” and a “hairbrain scheme.” There is, of course, nothing crazy about it. Ever since the first Skansen (open air museum) was founded in the late nineteenth century near Stockholm, Europeans have been attempting to preserve the rural heritage of Europe’s Agricultural Paradigm.

The open air museums of Europe range from the simple preservation of historical structures to elaborate reconstructions of rural and village life before the Industrial Revolution. And in Sweden, the point of origin of the Skansen movement, there is even an open air museum dedicated to the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, the Siljansfors Skogsmuseum, which has an early blast furnace and Bessemer works on display. I have especially enjoyed open air museums since my first trip to Europe in 1988 (when I visited a large open air museum outside Copenhagen), and have visited as many as I could locate in subsequent years.

While open air museums usually focus on reconstructing life within actual buildings preserved from the past, it is an obvious next step to seek to recreate a building in furthering the mission of experimental archaeology. One learns much by attempting to live as our ancestors lived and in their structures. One also no doubt learns much from attempting to build from scratch the kind of structures that our ancestors would have built. The construction of a small castle would have much to teach the experimental archaeologist, since it would involve not only the castle itself, but the crafts, skills, tools, and materials needed to build a 13th century building with 13th century tools and technology.

Previously I wrote about reconstructing sea voyages, and today I have touched on the reconstruction of the built environment. It is interesting to note how schematically these two approaches to experimental archaeology divide between an activity that represents a mobile way of life (sea borne trade) and a structure that represents a settled way of life (subsistence agriculture). These two approaches to experimental archaeology (which are in no sense mutually exclusive) also constitute two approaches to life and to civilization: the mobile and the settled. These two attitudes also embody a distinction that I have made between social technologies and hardware technologies: choosing to move is a behavioral modification that is essentially a social technology, whereas choosing to settle means developing a settled civilization whose primary monument is its material culture, i.e., its hardware technologies.

Obviously, and in the big picture, mobile and settled societies are inter-dependent. In the long term, the bulk of the human species may tend more to the one or to the other, but the mobile life and the settled life are both perennial aspects of the human conditions. The nomad and the settler re-appear time and again throughout history, each playing a role that is related to the other.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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