The lure of experimentalism

Out of fear of the danger that is determinism, always looming around the corners on the road of experimental archaeology and because I am – perhaps unusually for an archaeologist – slightly uncomfortable with the alienation of `re-enactment´, I have always steered clear of experimental archaeology. Except for once, when I helped S. Dennis with her project in Beidha, Jordan. This project didn’t pretend to reconstruct the past in its totality, though, and had very clearly described aims. This summer, I once again succumbed to The Lure.

In June, Fiona McCullough and I were guest in the lake-side village in Gletterens. We were accompanied by Marquita Volken (Gentle Craft, Musée de la chaussure), who generously shared her extensive knowledge of skin-working and by Regula Gubler Cornelissen, who helped us with the execution of the experiments.

At Arconciel/La Souche many very small scrapers have been found. We had a number of questions to answer about these artefacts. We wanted to know whether these tools would have been any use for working skins at all, and whether they could and / or would have to be hafted. Secondly, the aim was to use some of the experimentally produced tools, so they could be included in the reference collection for the use-wear studies. The tools were made by Michel Mauvilly of the same raw materials, as many tools at Arconciel are made of. The hafting we did ourselves.

We were successful in answering our questions and in producing tools, which could act as references for the use-wear work. The scrapers were easily hafted on the end of hazelwood-sticks, using vegetable tar and synthetic sinew. We subsequently used them on fresh and dried sheepskin and on young goatskins soaked in a water – (wood-)ash mixture. At the end, the skins were treated with boiled pig brain and smoke. The scrapers that will serve as references for the use-wear work were each used on one of the skins and were used for various amounts of time, either hafted or un-hafted. The un-hafted tools were held by hand. This was not very successful, as it was difficult to apply the right amount of pressure. They were rather difficult to hold. Using the small scrapers on the soaked skins was of limited use.

Of course, Fiona and I don’t pretend now to know for sure these scrapers were used to work hides. What we do know, is that it is possible. However, there might be better uses for the scrapers and there might have been more effective tools than these scrapers available for working skins. What is also interesting, is the question of the ontogeny of these tools. Were they meant to be so small? Did they get their small size as a result of repeated re-sharpening? Were these pieces of stone always what we now call scrapers, or was that only a second or third or fourth etc. incarnation? We hope to publish the results of these experiments some day in more detail.

So, I realise experiments like these can informally answer some questions and might help us direct our reflections on past realities. I am still not certain whether we should use these results as truths. The experiments we execute, take place in totally different contexts and are done by very different individuals. Even if singular aspects of past contexts are reconstructed with much care and in great detail, at best they give indications about past realities and – if regarded with caution – might be able to aid us in our understanding. However, I still believe they can also misguide us, present-day archaeologists.

After having dodged the dangers of determinism – or so it seems – Fiona and I would be intrigued to hear about your experiences with small mesolithic scrapers and experiments similar to ours. And I know I am ready to allow myself to succumb to The Lure of experimentalism again. In fact, I already made some birch-tar with Matthias…

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