The closest I’ve ever come to experimental archaeology was firing a trebuchet dressed as a knight. (Why a knight would be bothering with the lowly duty of firing siege weaponry is unknown.)
But the more I learn about experimental archaeology the more intrigued I am by it. Intrigued enough, perhaps, to drag poor Mrs. Hopeful and Archie Jr. off to some remote part of the country to spend our vacation lifting rocks and splitting logs with inefficient tools.
To some it may look like these projects are glorified make believe, but experimental archaeology has contributed to some significant discoveries in our understanding of past technologies. I thought I would share a few of my favorite projects.
The Butser Ancient Farm
This is the grand-daddy of them all. The Butser Ancient Farm was established in 1970 to recreate the processes of building and operating a farm in the British Iron Age. It has been moved several times but is now also home to an authentic Roman Villa. Here is a video of the late, great, former director Peter Reynolds explaining what the farm is all about and, by proxy, experimental archaeology. The music and video quality will bring you right back to grade school if you’re my age!
Marcus Junkelmann Crosses the Alps
Marcus Junkelmann looks like a character Brian Blessed might have played in an Indiana Jones movie. He’s a German experimental archaeologist whose focus is on the Roman Military. In the 1980s Junkelmann determined that the best way to understand the practical implications of moving Roman Legionairres was to reconstruct their armor and gear and cross the Alps on foot. I tried to find some footage in English, but the best I can come up with is this more recent German documentary.
Building a replica long ship has been an archaeological pastime since the first boat burials were excavated in the 1800s. The first one was built in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition, but there have since been countless reconstructions (of varying accuracy) made. To my knowledge, the current record for largest reconstruction goes to Havhingsten fra Glendalough, or “Sea Stallion from Glendalough.” It is a reconstruction of the 100 ft. Skuldelev 2 recovered from Roskilde Fjord in 1962. Dendochronology revealed that the original ship was constructed near Dublin in 1042.
I’ve mentioned these guys before, and it’s mainly because I have now seen my dream job and it is in Denmark. Nestled in the Danish town of Nykøbing Falster there is another, smaller town. A late medieval town with its own port and artillery range. A place where you can see people firing catapults and cannons that they made, or where Leonardo DaVinci’s fantastical designs are attempted using medieval technology, and where you won’t see any pirate-fairy-gypsy-prostitutes because they’re not period. Here’s another non-English video, but who needs vocabulary when you have cannons?
Michel Guyot builds castles from scratch
Michel Guyot is my kind of people. It is probably fair to describe his overarching philosophy as “Castles are Neat.” Michel has a history of restoring historic buildings, up to and including buying his own set of ruins and funding their restoration by staging flashy, touristy shows. It wasn’t long before he had the bright idea to build a castle from scratch. Twice.
Good on you, M. Guyot. Good on you.