examine the things of the past. They can describe the homes,
tools, food and clothes of our ancestors. Artefacts tell us how
shoes looked 3,000 years ago. Scientists can identify the animals
killed to provide the leather, the chemicals used to tan the hides, and
the tools, that scraped, cut and sewed. But artefacts reveal
little of what it was like to walk in those shoes.
For that, you must make the shoes and use them. That is the task of an experimental archaeologist.
The popular notion Bronze Age life mostly fits Thomas Hobbe’s seventeenth century description of life as “nasty, brutish and short” People too primitive for technology were cold, sick, hungry, and thoroughly uncomfortable as they scrabbled for a meagre subsistence.
Nonsense. Building a British Bronze Age settlement - using the materials, tools, and techniques of the time – allowed me to partially recreate everyday life from 2500 to 500 B.C. Experiencing a taste of the Bronze Age suggests a very different image. Prehistoric Britons faced the challenges of day-to-day living with ingenuity, invention, and sophistication.
Their lives were, in many ways, efficient and comfortable.
That is the power of experimental archaeology: to go beyond things of the past and study the experience of the past. In this fascinating branch of research, problems are solved today as they were then – through trial and error.
My work shows that Bronze Age Europeans built homes that kept out the elements and included windows with shades. Aromatic plants gave flavours to butter and cheese while driving insects away. Tin and bronze were smelted, while an ingenious “Bunsen burner” offered not only a lantern for stormy nights, but likely served as a soldering fire for metal-smiths.
The ingenuity of Bronze Age people is amply demonstrated by Otzi the Ice Man, whose 5,000-year-old mummified body was found in an Alpine glacier in 1991. I recreated the cloak and shoes, and found both to be effective garments evening the winter Alps.
At my Middle Bronze Age village, near Truro in Cornwall in south-western England, I reconstructed all aspects of lifestyle. Activities often shed light on one another, as the solution to one problem suggests ways to solve another.
The most important requirement of experimental archaeology is to use only the materials that were available to the people being studied and to ensure every aspect of recreation is consistent with the archaeological evidence. I have no formal training in any modern craft, which many be an advantage for understanding how ancient people might have approached a problem. Skills are only invented when a need for them arises – and I believe the simplest and most logical solution would have prevailed.Many practical solutions to prehistoric problems are confirmed by archaeological evidence. But others cannot be supported by hard evidence. Science minded archaeologists must choose whether or not to accept them. Yet I believe that if my solution is practical, effective , and uses only the materials available at the time, someone somewhere quite possibly found that same approach