In this great Future, we cannot forget our Past

My first experience with archaeology was through the Young Archaeologists Club in the Netherlands: as a young teenager, we could actually go excavate every weekend, discover artefacts and document those, while the lead archaeologist would turn all of that into a good story. I remember spending weekends in a castle, cleaning sherds, and trying to reconstruct pots. The best thing was having the area around the castle for ourselves in the evenings. This way of working with archaeology was about getting a personal thrill, a satisfaction, discovering and learning new things. It did not take long until we started explaining to passers-by about the exciting things from the past we had just found out. Maybe we were attention seekers in the beginning, but our stories improved and so did our methods. We learned to try out how we believed people in the past had cooked, fought, worked, not just to test our ideas, but also to tell others.

Open-air museum at Oerlinghausen, Germany

Open-air museum at Oerlinghausen, Germany

I then went to university and there it hit me: many people do research (that is what they teach you there), but the question “why do you do this?” is not often asked. Is it personal satisfaction? I got the question at my next university, though. After gaining my MA, I started working in a museum. I was eager to go tell complete strangers about what I had learned at university, from books and excavations. My museum colleagues however had different methods to do research and also different stories with mixed qualities. Now, I learned very fast not to become the Authenticity Police but help these colleagues in doing simple but effective research. It is very important that literature has become more accessible in recent years, and is not monopolized by scientists. Many archaeologists have become more approachable for the public. Even if ten percent of those approaching scientists may be difficult cases, we should not turn ourselves away from the other ninety percent.

These museums are good at quite a lot of things, but if it would be a bit better structured, so much more value would come out of it. I feel that these museums are very much in the air, not linked well with science on the one hand and with the public on the other. So I went back to university, and did a PhD in archaeological open-air museums. On my first day there, I got the question: “do I want to do research to pursue an academic career (ivory tower) or is my intention to use what I learn in the real world?” I believe there are enough archaeologists out there doing research, but if we do not make the insights we gain from that available to the public, then why do research, except for personal satisfaction?

My position, I feel, is in-between: sitting in a museum, I can help get the message across to the public, but without underlying research, these stories are worthless. That is why I am part of an international network, called EXARC. This is an international networking organization for Archaeological Open-Air Museums, Experimental Archaeology, Ancient Technology and Interpretation. EXARC aims to improve professional standards and promote professional ethics. We provide advice, information, practical tools and learning opportunities to our members. We issue publications and provide opportunities for members to meet. Finally, EXARC actively represents the interests of its members.

Experienced people or newbies, all are working with reconstructing the past. Our membership (300 members across 40 countries) includes Lofotr in Norway, Guédelon in France, Saalburg in Germany, and Butser in the UK. We are a very mixed group of people and organisations including scientists, museums, craftspeople, teachers and actors. More information about EXARC, including an open access Journal with hundreds of articles, can be found at:

As EXARC director, I facilitate our members, showing them where in our network to find the answers, the resources and ideas for quality research and dissemination. We believe in open access, not only online, but also the chance for outsiders to step into our bubble and ask questions, join us in conferences, workshops or writing their first serious research article and publishing with us. The strength of EXARC is our diversity. We decided very early we do not want to be an exclusive club of museum directors only, but an inclusive network, somewhere at the edge of the establishment and those who rather step off the beaten path.

Our aim is to improve the stories told to the public: not just making sure the latest archaeological research is reflected in the museums and at festivals, but also how professionally these stories are told. One can have a brilliant professor orating for an hour but he should be a good researcher, actor and teacher, all in one person. You do not find such people easily. And there is more to it: it is not just about the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which in a museum context means that if there is no good coffee and toilets, people will not be able to pick up the message you try to share with them because physiological needs are not met. It is also about simple things, like you may have a great story to tell, but how do you reach your potential audience, how do you convince them to come and see you?

I started with archaeology because of the great stories about the people who were here before us. I however believe there are much greater researchers and better storytellers in this world. With EXARC, we create the tools; we master the logistics of how to get these stories across. Janus Bifrons was a Roman god. He was the patron of our Young Archaeologists Club; god of beginnings, transitions and endings, he looks in two directions.

I am fully convinced that if you look in only one direction, you will hit your head hard, very hard.  We should work together towards a well-informed presentation of the past to the public, with relevance to the present. That is the only way to catch the attention of the audience and enable them to learn something useful from the past.

Roeland Paardekooper is Director of the ICOM Affiliated Organisation EXARC (International Organisation of Archaeological Open-Air Museums and Experimental Archaeology).

Archaeological experimentation with an audience: the personal reward

I did my MA in Experimental Archaeology in 2006-7. Part of the course was two modules on communication and outreach; one for academic communications and one for working with the public. Part of the course was also to highlight experimental archaeology as a research method. I knew I liked the latter part better. To research on my own was my dream. I actually had this picture of myself with a box full of archaeological lithics that I would tip out on a table and peruse with a steaming mug of coffee and a notebook.

Post-MA, I started to do my own experimentation. I realised that to do archaeological experiments you needed space – it truly can be very gritty, messy, and smelly, and you would not want to use your office. I also realised that with space comes an audience. You are typically doing prepwork and experimentation either in a public or a shared space, where people regularly walk both by and into. That means you have to tell people what (the earth) you are doing. I soon came to realise that to work in a shared space is a very useful stimuli to my research, and it also felt good to see that others could be interested in my work.

As a part of my early experimental career, I twice executed own experiments at Land of Legends in Lejre, Denmark. Land of Legends was founded as an archaeological research centre in 1964, and has later evolved into a shared space for research and visitation. In this space – now formed as an open air museum – researchers have since the 60’s performed experiments in front of an audience who are intentionally visiting to see experimentation in practice. We should have enough experience from crafts demonstrations in archaeology by now to know that visitors like to see action in practice, but the performance of a research experiment in front of an audience adds another layer to the visitor’s experience, as people are stimulated to ask their own interpretive questions and enter into discussion with the archaeologist directly. But, what is less often highlighted is the other layer it adds to the researcher’s own experience of the experiment, and how s/he would approach the entire topic and problem.

For me, personally, and the teams I have been working as part of, the presence of an audience has been a particularly valuable contribution to an experiment. It makes me think about why the experiment should be done, as this explanation is regularly called for. Also, the audience may open new lines of insight. Once, while experimenting with aceramic birch bark tar extraction at Lejre, a chemist from the conservation department of the National Museum of Copenhagen came by, and stayed for hours while us experimenters discussed and learned about the chemical prerequisites for the necessary procedures to occur. Other parts of the audience have been crafts specialists, such as the pyrotechnological insight of a professional potter. But in general, the questions vary from “what is that” to “have you thought about adding…” (these two opposites are actually very frequently posed); and from “can I do it” to “Would you like to try?” – “No thanks.” The various research teams and experiments I have been part of have ranged from the total and necessary exclusion of spectators, to the total and obligatory inclusion of spectators. Even when I have experimented in private space, such as a garden, we have invited people to witness and opine on our procedures. Even if outsider’s suggestions are not particularly helpful, we have honed our own argumentation of the research problem to perfection.

My various positive experiences from working in groups and inviting the audience in has made it hard for me to experiment on my own. To me, it feels rather lonely, and I am also not able to gauge interest for my topic in the same way. There are no stimulating discussions around my topic, and my arguments stay the same, and they are not necessarily very good. I have therefore sought out an audience by including for instance students, friends or colleagues. I prefer to be able to bounce ideas off others, and others seem to like to be present to discuss my research problems with me. It has made me think more broadly about issues relating to my experimental questions, and sometimes has turned the experiment in new directions entirely.

A bonfire firing of pottery during my PhD, together with friends and colleagues, was one of the most rewarding experiences throughout my entire postgraduate degree.

A bonfire firing of pottery during my PhD, together with friends and colleagues, was one of the most rewarding experiences throughout my entire postgraduate degree.

It is of course also personally rewarding to get the acknowledgement of others. As part of my PhD, only one of the four case experiments I set up have been executed by me alone, and to be honest, this is the experiment that means the least for me emotionally. I literally feel that it has not been approved, and is therefore less interesting than the three others that have gotten quite a good audience response. Although this is not necessarily the case technically, I have become an experimental team worker. Especially since I am not a technological specialist, but rather have my specialty in the methodology itself, I have not taken part in the crafts environment that an experimental archaeologist is often a member of. For me, the audience has become my social environment and has the same functionality as a discussion between technological colleagues: I discuss my ideas with non-archaeological friends, I have learnt about chemistry, beer brewing, food plants, materials engineering, and archery, and I have taught and explained experimental archaeology in return. This dynamic environment has not only made me a better experimenter, but a better archaeologist. I have been enabled with the understanding that our professional understanding is not necessarily better, only different. I am able to justify what I do to its fullest extent. And in doing so, I have had so much fun I can barely begin to describe it.

Tine Schenck is a Norwegian archaeologist with a specialism in the experimental methodology in archaeology.

Using ‘primitive’ technology as an educational tool in archaeology

I have been teaching primitive technologies and ancient skills for over twenty years; working with schools, the general public, Native Awareness, and the Universities of Chester, Edinburgh and York. Throughout this time, the feedback from participants has always been extremely positive, they enjoy learning skills that would otherwise be lost to society, they enjoy working through the same problems as our ancestors. They enjoy the fact that something, e.g. a stone bead that may have just been recovered from the ground, is now being created by them using primitive technology, placing the artefact in a ‘creation’ context.
A key part of my PhD (Mesolithic fishing and shellfish procurement strategies on the west coast of Scotland) was the involvement of students. I taught them to make and use their own primitive fishing gear. A clear distinction developed between the experiences gained through individual activities and group activities. Students collaborated in small groups throughout the manufacture of portable traps, and, though working individually when making lines and hooks, sat together and were able to share their feelings and experiences. Through this the students gained an important social interaction and interestingly in some cases developed their own vocabulary as a way of communicating a new task.
flint knapping

Of course this experimental work can only benefit archaeologists if it is evaluated. Aspects of procurement, manufacture, the activity itself, evidence of learning and understanding, together with social interactions, are all important in unravelling how our ancestors might have lived.
This use of experimental archaeology to give an active living context to archaeological artefacts is an important educational bridge, linking often speculative theories with actual physical experience and increasing our understanding of the making
The use of primitive technologies and ancient skills as an educational tool found a passionate advocate in Cutts (2004, 45) who believed that such skills beckoned “us to reach across the eons to touch the core of humanity”. Not only do they open up the past to us providing an insight into the lifeway’s of our ancestors, Cutts believed such skills could also engender a genuine respect for our environment and our place within it. Important considerations when conducting a primitive skills workshop are;
1) Can the task be completed in the time allocated?
2) What is the skill level of the participants?
3) What are the facilities?
4) What resources are required?
5) What are the health and safety implications?
Remember, participants will want to go away enthused and inspired, not confused and frustrated.
Finally, ensure that the site is suitable for your activity. I can well recall a workshop at a University where I was teaching primitive fire making. Moved from a classroom which had a sprinkler system to a more suitable outdoor location, I discovered (once we had lit the fires), that we were directly outside the main air intake for the entire building. The students with me were tremendously enthused by their newly acquired skills, however some of the staff in the building were less so.
Cutts, R., 2004. Public Education and the Paleokit. Bulletin of Primitive Technology 28: 45.

Dr Peter Groom is Course Manager of the Environmental Archaeology and Primitive Skills Programme at Reaseheath College, Nantwich, Cheshire, and a director of the Mesolithic Resource Group