Session 23 – Experimental Archaeology as Performance

Timetable: Saturday afternoon 1430-1800 in the Theresa Singleton Zoom Room.

Format: Standard session

Organisers: Caradoc Peters, Sally Herriett, Stuart Falconer


Archaeologists’ work is often thought of a mixture of humanities, science and technology, but it is also Theatre (cf. Pearson & Shanks 2001). How much more so when archaeologists are involved in experimental work. With a growing interest in the experiential aspects of such reconstructive activities, practitioners recreate not just maquettes of past objects and structures but also patterns of behaviours, that can lead to the experience of, emotions and sensations. Such behaviours, emotions and sensations are then scrutinised by audiences for authenticity and accessibility. These dramatics and indeed dramaturgy can be organised and performed in Real Life or even in Virtual Reality via machinima.
Furthermore, the performance of experiment can be perceived through the experiences of different backgrounds and demographic statuses (cf. Ihde 1995). The materials used and their authenticity are also performers of a sort, so it is not simply a question of a fixed predictable outcome but also an authenticity of immediacy and at least an element of unpredictability (cf. Coole & Frost 2010).


1430 – Session introduction

Caradoc Peters

1440 – Plaquettes as performance: Reflections on experimental replication of Magdalenian engraved limestone plaquettes  

Andy Needham, University of York; Matt Amy, Independent Researcher; Izzy Wisher, Durham University; Andy Langley, University of York; Aimée Little, University of York

Engraved stone plaquettes are a type of portal art found on many Magdalenian sites. They are made of varying geologies and featuring diverse animal, geometric, and abstract compositions. In contrast to Palaeolithic parietal art, they are typically found in occupation sites, suggesting they may have been a visible part of Magdalenian daily life. We present the results of an experimental archaeological programme exploring plaquette biographies and their association with hearths, focusing on limestone plaquettes from the French Magdalenian site of Montastruc. We argue plaquettes at the site were positioned purposefully in close proximity to hearth structures, which may have been significant in how the plaquettes were used and understood. Using experimental archaeology and virtual reality modeling, we suggest that plaquettes took on new significance in low light levels by the fire, with art and the roving firelight commingling, creating a performative experience. We further reflect on the experiential process of experimental plaquette production and use, both in the context of controlled experimentation, but also in the creation of plaquettes during teaching, outreach, and conference activities. The experiential aspect of experimental archaeology can fuel new insights about the objects in question and can be an effective means of engaging diverse audiences in detailed and nuanced discussions about the artefacts at the centre of the experiment.  

1510 – The Serendipity of Sound and Colour: Stone from the Past  

Caradoc Peters, Truro College, University of Plymouth

No vocabulary remains for colours and sounds from prehistory and it can even be limited for historic periods.  Indeed, the vocabulary that we take for granted turns out to be highly variable through time and from language to language.  

Together with students, archaeology staff experimented with the working of stone types from a variety of periods in Cornwall. Videos and sounds were collected of the processing. Colours from the worked stone and from the dust produced during the processing were noted too.  

These samples were then compared to colours and natural sounds in the environment. The idea was that in the absence of pre-existing terminology, especially for prehistory, nature would have been an obvious source for inspiration. The results were not always as expected, and they raised more subtle and complex questions of perception. 

1540 – From Repulsion To Admiration – Understanding The Nuances Of Primitively Processed Animal Skin  

Sally Herriett, Truro College, University of Plymouth

When we attempt to recreate an artefact, it is vital that the materials used are as authentic as possible. Whilst the manipulation of flint, ore, clay, fleece, and plants are considered enjoyable, the manipulation of animal skin may not be quite so pleasing. The physical act of handling what is a cold, wet, slippery, often smell remains of an animal can be distinctly repulsive. This can be compounded by the language used to describe the actions of processing, and fleshing, graining, wringing, and stretching. Or by the realisation that plausible additional processing ingredients can be the brains, liver, or fat from the animal, all of which may do little to inspire the processor. Nonetheless, the correct use of terminology is paramount if an appreciate the diversity of processing and resulting materials is to dispel the common misconception that all primitively processed skins are equal, and that they result in a material that has the same properties as leather.  

Whilst much of this resulting material can appear to be leather like, there are striking differences that can be noted microscopically and importantly in the ability for it to survive in particular depositional environments. This paper seeks to demonstrate the variety of materials that can be made using skin by explaining the methods and ingredients used in primitive processing and the resulting materials differences. Understanding this diversity supports an appreciation, not only for the skill it takes to make these different materials but also the craftmanship required to fashion the skin further into an artefact, which in turn enables gaps within the archaeological record to be filled. This paper will discuss a range of skin processing and the results from peat bog deposited to dispel modern negativity and revulsion regarding the handling, processing and use of what is obviously the skin of an animal. 

1610 – Break

1630 – From Classroom to Kitchen in a Digital Age –  The duality value of engaging with ancient cooking 

Stuart Falconer, Truro College, University of Plymouth

The benefit of utilising the medium of food preparation and cooking in experimental archaeology is a well-established, offering the opportunity for students to engage in experiential learning techniques beyond traditional lectures.  The inherent importance of effectively applying this educational tool is apparent, with applications in not only in behavioural archaeology and agency, but with socio-cultural connotations. The technique feeds into notions of a spiral curriculum and allows for development of much more sophisticated interpretations of the Roman past. An equally important aspect in this modern digital age is how these activities can used as a way to better understand the intricacies of socialisation and diversity within an undergrad student group. Given the current pandemic we find ourselves in, by embracing theoretical opportunities linked to connectivism and developing experiential learning activities such as ancient cooking can not only enhance the student experience but also the understanding of student body dynamics and interaction with such an uncertain future. 

1700 – Spectacular! Theorising Theatrical and Archaeological Recreations of Protest 

Caitlin Kitchener, University of York

From recent protests such as Extinction Rebellion to the Matchgirls’ Strike in 1888 to the Spa Fields Riot of 1816 to large scale processions from followers of John Wilkes in the 1760s, political protests can often be dramatic and theatrically charged events. Processing across spaces and landscapes, dressing in eye-catching clothing, and displaying political ideologies with banners and flags connects temporally separated events together. Movement, poor survival rates for material culture, and lack of surviving buildings usually makes pre-1900 protests intangible events. However, does this change if we consider both archaeology and protest as Theatre and sites of performance?  

Using the idea of ‘spectacle’, this paper will theorise how experimental archaeology could be emotionally and politically relevant in capturing the ‘feeling’ of historical protests. Whilst not a scientific endeavour, these recreations or theatrical performances could engage people with their political heritage in ways other mediums find difficult. Through occupying contemporary public spaces, the experimental archaeology becomes a form of spectacular protest in itself, connecting to past political movements through following in its material, spatial, and theatrical footsteps.

1730 – Discussion

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