Wednesday


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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Experimental Archaeology

25 October 2009

Sunday


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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