This week: experimental archaeology

Morgawr, a full-scale reconstruction of a Bronze Age boat, makes her maiden voyage in Falmouth Harbour.  IMAGE: P Marsden.

The word ‘experimental’ can be confusing, or even alarming. It suggests an area of activity in which people are pushing at boundaries, or acting somehow without official approval. Attached to the word ‘archaeology’, however, it simply denotes a field of academic study that uses controlled experiments to form a clearer understanding of the past.

Sometimes, such ‘experiments’ catch the public imagination – as was the case, a few years ago, with a collection of large-scale recreations of the inventions of Leonardo da Vinci, which formed the basis of a globally popular touring exhibition. At other times, they can even achieve notoriety – as with the Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition, designed to prove his misguided theory that Polynesia had been settled not from the Asian mainland but by drifting across the Pacific by raft from South America.

Closer to home, experimental archaeology can take many forms. Recreating ancient structures using historically accurate tools, for instance, helps archaeologists to understand building techniques. Careful observation of the effects of weathering, meanwhile, can teach us much about how the archaeological record is formed.

As we learn this week on The Past, some of the most fascinating experiments of recent years have taken place at Butser Ancient Farm, an archaeological open-air museum in the South Downs, where staff specialise in exploring the past by engaging with ancient tools and techniques. In the new issue of our sister magazine Current Archaeology and on the latest edition of The PastCast, our unmissable podcast, Butser archaeologist Claire Walton takes us behind the scenes of their latest creation, an expertly reconstructed Neolithic house based on a 6,000-year-old outline, to describe the research that went into its design – and to relive the ups and downs of the construction process.

Elsewhere this week on The Past, we continue our experimental archaeology theme with another fascinating piece from the latest issue of Current Archaeology, reporting on an ambitious project to reconstruct the famous ship discovered at Sutton Hoo in 1939. And we’ve also been digging into the archive, in search of the most enlightening coverage from past issues of CA: we joined a team pulling together at Stonehenge to discover how the monument’s famous bluestones may once have been moved; and we even took to the waters of Falmouth harbour aboard Morgawr, a modern vessel designed to show off the latest in boat-building technology from c.2,000 BC.

Finally, if all that leaves you still hungry for more coverage of our ancient past, why not have a go at our latest quiz, which this week is designed to test your knowledge of Neolithic Britain. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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