Experimental Archaeology


In the introduction to his book, Archaeology by Experiment, published in 1973, John Coles listed eight rules which he suggested should underpin any experimental archaeological project. Briefly, those rules were as follows:

  1. The materials used in the experiments should be those considered to have been locally available to the ancient society.
  2. The methods used in the experiment should not exceed those presumed to have been within the competence of the contemporary society.
  3. Modern technology should not be allowed to interfere with the experimental results.
  4. The scope of the experiment should be assessed before work begins.
  5. The experiment should be repetitive if possible.
  6. The experimental work will be undertaken with a desired result in mind, but there should exist a genuine uncertainty the the method adopted will succeed.
  7. The results of the experiment will consist of a series of observations that lead the archaeologist to certain suggested conclusions.
  8. The experiment should be assessed in terms of its reliability, that it asked the right questions of the material, that the procedure adopted was appropriately conceived and honestly applied, and that the results were observed and assessed fairly.

Only eight commandments you might say! If you want the detailed qualifications to each track down the book – you won’t be disappointed. Suffice to say, he does sum up the eight rules with an almost terrifying honesty:

“Experimental archaeology then cannot and does not pretend to prove anything. It provides a tool by which some of the basic economic activities of ancient man, those concerned primarily with subsistence and technology, can be assessed for their development and their competence. As such it can and should lead on to further considerations of patterns of human behaviour, the concern of archaeology as a science and as a humanity.” (Coles 1973 p15-18)

At which point you might ask – what am I doing? Fortunately, the late Olaf Goubitz (1934 – 2007) an archaeologist and specialist in ancient leatherworking provided a simple answer. He made replicas and tested them for wear and durability. In his view it is not possible to understand an ancient technology unless you have tried it. If you really want to understand what drove the man and makes his two books Stepping through Time and Purses in Pieces such invaluable resources and an example to follow then read his obituary by Carol van Driel-Murray which opens Purses in Pieces and be inspired.



Full Details on the books referred to are in the Reference and Bibliography section.