Re-Living History: In an Experimental Approach to Research, Archaeologists Recreate Ancient History and Learn from First-Hand Experience

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In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl designed and built a ship of balsa wood, the Kon-tiki, to see if such craft could have sailed from South America to Polynesia. His successful voyage is the stuff of legend. In 1969 he successfully sailed a reed boat based on ancient Egyptian prototypes from North Africa to the New World.

These were among the first attempts at what is now a recognized approach to archaeological investigation, known as experimental archaeology. Through trial and error, researchers try to rediscover how objects and buildings were made and used in the past.

After Heyerdahl's efforts, professional archaeologists soon began to adopt his approach and it became a mainstay of archaeological research. A classic early example is England's Butser Ancient Farm. Started in 1972 by Dr. Peter Reynolds, who became Britain's leading experimental archaeologist, the farm is a re-creation of an entire Iron Age settlement, the original of which dated to about 400 BCE to 400 CE. By actually living the life of these ancient people and using reproductions of the artifacts they made, archaeologists greatly improved their understanding of living conditions and methods of agriculture, animal husbandry, and manufacturing during this time period (see butserancient farm.co.uk).

Today it's quite common for archaeologists to discover more about an object of antiquity by making a copy and putting it to use. Besides professional archaeologists, people called "re-enactors" are attracted to this approach. Some are just eccentric people who like to dress up, but a great many are serious researchers who put their hearts into expanding their knowledge of history. You could call them "amateurs," which to me is a fitting term, since etymologically it refers to people who love what they do.

One aspect of re-enactment is presenting knowledge to the public through demonstrations, which sometimes take place in museums. Such "living history" exhibits are a power ful way for people to understand what it was really like to live in the past, to see, touch, and perhaps even taste and smell history. During March Break, the ROM uses living history exhibits in the popular medieval program, which features accurate recreations of costume, dancing, weaving, sword-fighting, archery, falconry, and even writing with quill-pens. The power of this programming is that it entertains, making the audience receptive to learning. Visitors enjoy watching our medieval dancers in beautiful dresses and often rather absurd men's attire of the period (I am personally convinced that fashion throughout the Middle Ages was a female plot!). It's an evocative way to communicate what we know about the past.

Recently I was asked by a television company to take part in some experimental archaeology "tests" for a series about significant historical figures. Called "Ancients Behaving Badly," the series will air in Canada on History Television. What first attracted me was the opportunity to do horse archery with the well-known US horse archer and bow-maker Lukas Novotny. And, I have to admit, it also turned out to be a lot of fun.

I had never before combined my limited skill as a horseman with my questionable ability as an archer to develop an understanding of one of history's most important forms of warfare. Mounted archers were an important element of the battlefield since the 8th century BCE when Scythians came galloping and shooting their way out of the Eurasian steppes into the Mediterranean world. Huns, Parthians, Turks, and Mongols were among the steppe peoples to use this form of warfare. Unfortunately, what the producer wanted from me was to demonstrate the relative inefficiency of shooting an English longbow from a horse. Real horse archers used composite bows of horn and sinew with a wood core, and these were shorter and easier to shoot than the longbow, which is essentially just a really long stick with a string on it. …