Winter 2012 Edition
The hunt for the Higgs

Fired up: Experimental Archaeology puts learning into practice

UCD School of Archaeology is positioning itself to become a leading centre for experimental archaeology in Europe.

Professor John Coles from Cambridge University was the foremost expert in the field of experimental archaeology for decades. Recently retired, he has bequeathed his archive to UCD School of Archaeology. How did they get it? "We asked him for it," says Dr Aidan O'Sullivan senior lecturer, UCD School of Archaeology. "He's an old colleague of ours as we do a lot of wetland archaeology and he was the world's leading wetland archaeologist. We told him we were starting a new undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and research programme in experimental archaeology and he offered us his archive." The collection, containing about 20 boxes of books, papers, photographic materials and unpublished materials, is a major coup for UCD. "We now hope to secure funding to get it all scanned digitally."

Experimental archaeology involves "the creation of objects, buildings, activities and contexts from the past, through which people's lives can be thought about in more practical terms." In other words, this is a "hands on" approach where archaeologists don't just collect and study existing archaeological finds but they actually try to replicate anything from pots to houses, using only the materials and techniques that would have been used from the time period in question.

While this approach has been around since the 19th century, it only caught on in the 1960s through the work of the aforementioned Professor John Coles in Cambridge. However, UCD is aiming to be the new leader in this field.

"We decided we wanted to start expanding our artefact and material culture teaching and one way of doing this is through experimental archaeology," says O'Sullivan .

"We're already doing it in various different ways – experimental archaeology is really about making objects, buildings and environmental contexts that replicate past conditions so you can think about people's lives in practical terms."

Housing and pottery look certain to be two of the main focal points for the newly formed UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Ancient Technologies. The development of the centre means that, with the help of UCD Buildings, a dedicated fenced-off enclosure about 40x40 metres has been created on campus. "It's very close to the archaeology research building and we also have PHD students up there," says O'Sullivan. "It's fieldwork oriented. We want to build a series of replica buildings and on the same site, carry out traditional activities such as making pottery and crop cultivations."

"Our first construction will be a Viking long house, typical of what you would have found in Dublin around the year 1000AD. This will probably take about two months and we will use the structure as a teaching space but also to carry out experiments in terms of light, temperature, smoke levels etc."

Pictured above: Students Rowan Lacey (with camera: Level 3 and now MA student on Archaeology at UCD) and Dianna Bartone (with bag: JYA from Notre Dame University) with Conor McDermott, lecturer, UCD School of Archaeology (right) monitoring firing of the replicas of early medieval ceramics made by students as part of the Experimental Archaeology module (ARCH30240) in March 2012.

Plans are also in place to build an early medieval roundhouse and a Mesolithic hunter gatherer house. Dr Graeme Warren, lecturer in the UCD School of Archaeology, will lead the construction of the Mesolithic house dating from around 8000BC. "We have a mixture of undergraduates, postgraduates and PHD students on our construction team," says Warren. "These buildings are quite big and impressive and were occupied three or four times over 200 years by various generations of the same family.

"Through experimental archaeology we can learn a lot about the number of people needed to build such a structure, what materials were used, and how long it would have taken. We'll be using traditional technologies for all of the structural features. We'll even use stone axes" says Warren, noting the popularity of the undergraduate module with students, who become fascinated by engaging with material culture and understanding people's lives in very different worlds.

Warren is also brining in expertise from fields outside of archaeology. "We've got students from architecture and forestry as well with lots of things to bring to the table," says Warren. "We are learning as we go.. For example, as of now we don't know what to put on the roof. Turf has been used here, as has thatch. Some of the ones discovered in Britain were covered with animal skins. There were not a lot of large animals in Ireland at the time. Bear would have been the biggest but you could also use seal skin. Salmon skin is also a possibility. It's a learning process and the students will really enjoy it."

"Pottery is hugely important for archaeologists as it survives so well. We'll be studying a variety of prehistoric and medieval technologies – including pottery manufacture," adds O'Sullivan. "By doing experimental archaeology projects replicating prehistoric and medieval pottery, we get our students to think about how people sourced and processed clays and temper, actually made pots using coil and wheel techniques, and fired them in open bonfires and clamp kilns, using different fuels, to achieve different colours and textures that we can see in the pottery from archaeological excavations. They then look at museum collections far more informed about the questions we can ask."

Despite using traditional tools, materials and techniques, the hardest part of experimental archaeology is stepping outside of your 21st century mind set.
"It's difficult to not want to use modern approaches," says O'Sullivan. "When we go into these constructions it's us in the 21st century. We have very different concepts of privacy, comfort, hygiene and toilet facilities, all very modern priorities. But we're getting better at putting ourselves in our ancestor's shoes and if we can do it, we'll be able to gain valuable insights into what living conditions might have been like in the past."


Dr Aidan O'Sullivan and Dr Graeme Warren were in conversation with journalist John Holden (BA 1998, MA 2004)
Produced by UCD University Relations