Experimental Archaeology: Learning about Technologies in the Past

by Susan Kruse (ARCH and NOSAS)

Thanks to funding from Historic Environment Scotland and the Heritage Lottery Fund, ARCH launched an exciting project ‘Experimental Archaeology: Learning about Technologies in the Past’ in October 2017. The project had three main strands. In the first year, 13 experimental archaeology days and 10 school visits took place where craftspeople demonstrated and explained different technologies used in the past. The workshops were filmed and the edited videos and blogs for each workshop can be accessed on the ARCH website.

Jim Glazzard at the Viking ring silver workshop

In the second year, the objects resulting from these workshops will then be used to create loans boxes which will be freely available to borrow. Our workshop leaders often generously provided more than one object. An archaeologist and teacher will now work together to create learning materials, so that the loans box and videos of the experimental sessions can be used in schools and other groups. The project already has attracted a wide and diverse audience, and we hope that the loans boxes will also contribute to this legacy.

The idea for the project emerged from North Kessock & District Local History Society’s Feats of Clay project, where ARCH helped facilitate a visit by Neil Burridge who demonstrated Bronze Age metalworking. Everyone in the audience was caught up in the excitement of the day, and learned so much about how objects were made, what raw materials were needed, and how craftsmen in the past managed without gauges and modern equipment.

Neil Burridge at the Bronze Metaworking workshop

In the first year 13 workshops took place, one a month, each showcasing a skill from the past, spanning from earliest settlers to more recent times. The workshops were exciting to attend, but were also filmed.

The events held were as follows (click on the bottom right of the videos to open a full screen version) :

Green Woodworking

Saturday, 28th October, 11-3, Dingwall Community Centre

Lachlan McKeggie introduced green wood working skills, using lithic and metal tools.

Bronze Age Pottery

Saturday 18th November, 11-3, Dingwall Community Centre

Pat Gulliver explored Bronze Age pottery techniques, especially on decorated beakers.

Textiles through the Ages

Saturday 16th December, 11-3, Spectrum Centre, Farraline Park, Inverness

Lynne McKeggie looked at textiles through the ages, and in particular tablet weaving.

Flint Knapping

20 January, Inverness Library, 10-4:30.

James Dilley from University of Southampton showed how prehistoric tools were made, such as blades, axeheads and arrow heads.

Lead Seals and Ropemaking

17 February, Dingwall Library, 11-3.

Lead seals provide evidence of the 18th & 19th century cloth trade to the Highlands. Ian Hammond showed how they were made.

Bone Working

17 March, Dingwall Library, 11-3.

Jim Glazzard showed how various Iron Age bone and antler objects were made, including pins and combs.

Carved Stone Balls

21 April, Black Isle Showground, Muir of Ord, 11-3.

Chris Gee from Orkney showed how these enigmatic Neolithic stone objects were made.

Pictish Carved Stones

19 May, Black Isle Showground, Muir of Ord.

Sculptor Barry Grove who made the replica of the Hilton of Cadboll Pictish cross slab demonstrated Pictish carving.

Bronze Age Metalworking

23 June, Black Isle Showground, Muir of Ord.

In a summer solstice workshop, Neil Burridge from Cornwall demonstrated the magic of bronze casting.

Telford Technology

21 July, Inverness Library, 11-3.

Alison Ward from the Institution of Civil Engineers explored some of the technology behind Telford’s bridges.

Viking Ring Money

25 August, Black Isle Showground, Muir of Ord, 11-3.

Jim Glazzard from Asgard Craft showed us how Viking silver armrings (‘ring money’) were made.

Medieval Coinage

15 September, Inverness Library, 11-3.

Stuart Strong demonstrated how medieval coins were made, focussing on issues of Alexander III, minted in Inverness.

Crafting Day

6 October, Black Isle Showground, Muir of Ord, 11-3.

As part of Highland Archaeology Festival four crafts were featured: basket making with Monique Bervoets, flint knapping with Peter Bye-Jensen, green woodworking with Lachlan McKeggie and striking lead seals with Ian Hammond.

All workshops were free and family friendly. Over the first year over 1200 people attended the workshops or school visits, showing a keen interest.

All workshop leaders were asked to discuss issues of production. Where would the raw materials have come from? What tools would have been available? Who would have made the objects and what was their position in society? How long would it take to produce the object? What special skills were involved? For some of the questions we had no answers, but stressed the importance of thinking about these issues.

In almost every case the workshop leaders were able to shed interesting perspectives, as can be seen by the videos created in the first 12 workshops and the blogs posted on the ARCH website after each workshop, which also provide links to other resources. See http://www.archhighland.org.uk/experimental-archaeology.asp

Die punching at the medieval coin workshop with Stuart Strong.

Altogether the workshops confirmed the value of having archaeologists and craftspeople explore technologies in the past, each providing valuable perspectives. They were also exciting to watch, and a great intergenerational activity. Feedback forms consistently came back requesting more – and there are plenty of other crafts to explore. We now look forward to the creation of the loans boxes.


Above: Some of the items created at the workshops for the loans boxes.

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