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Experimental archaeology in a museum – an exhibition review

«Savoir-faire – Mit Kopf und Hand, die experimentelle Archäologie erzählt»
Museum Schwab – 28.05.2011 -26.02.2012

A man with a long grey ponytail, dressed in yellowish leather clothes assembles a stone axe. A little later we see him stalk through the forest with a hafted stone axe in hand, looking for a victim. After a while he finds an average sized, living tree. Within a few minutes he has the tree down.
You wonder why he has to chop down a living, healthy tree. But that is not the main point here. This stereotypical scene of experimental archaeology is shown on a big screen in the entrance hall of the Museum Schwab in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. This small archaeological museum shows a small selection of excellent finds from the rich archaeology of the region of the Lake of Biel.

Museum Schwab. Biel, Schweiz

Museum Schwab. Biel, Switzerland

The ground floor, however, is reserved for temporary exhibitions. Until Feb. 26th 2012 one can still visit the exhibition «Savoir-Faire», on experimental archaeology. So what does the exhibition show us? I believe the film scenes I described above are a little unfortunate. Throughout the exhibition one does not get to see many experimental archaeologists working, neither in photos not in film. To then start with such a stereotype, which also probably is not true for many exp. archaeologists, is a shame. Especially, as it seems that the rest of the exhibition and also the accompanying booklet tries to give us a very different impression. L. Marquis, the museum’s director, writes in the introduction of the exhibition booklet: “Experimental archaeology asks, using a practical method, about the function and production methods of archaeological finds, asks about the `how´.” (my trans.)

The first half of the exhibition is very hands-on. On a number of low tables examples of materials used to produce various archaeological artefact categories are presented: wooden throwing sticks and spears, pottery, bows and arrows, chipped stone artefacts and polished stone artefacts etc. Considering the location of the Museum within the Three-lake –region, it is not surprising many examples come from the archaeology of the lake side villages. The material samples can all be handled. Each category is accompanied by a leaflet in which the production of the artefact category is described and an example is given of how experimental archaeology has contributed to our understanding of them. Furthermore, examples of each of the artefact categories are presented in nearby a glass case. There is no definite order in which to view the small exhibition and that is fine, really. Especially, if there are many visitors it might be nice to be able to manoeuvre freely around the room. The design is very clean and easily `read´. The visitor is not bombarded with images and text and the designers worked with few colours.

A second room is largely taken up by two `tableaux vivant´. Continue reading

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