Developing experimental approaches in archaeology

Research Projects
An experimental identity
Project staff

Iron Ages village reconstruction at Lejre Experimental Centre

This 1 year project, funded through the SHES 2007 Research Project Competition, developed experimental archaeology at Reading, building upon existing expertise across the school, methodologies and research collaborations were developed, and future research grant applications and publications generated.

The project focused on the importance of multi-disciplinary, controlled, and replicable experimental research as a key component of human and environmental sciences through its contributions to the understanding of biological, chemical and physical processes, and the formation of material/sedimentary records. Within its initial phase, the project undertook a pilot research to generate preliminary data sets, intended to support the future development of long-term projects appropriate to the timescales required by robust experimental research.

Research Projects

Initially three small pilot projects were run:

1. Slope processes and the formation of the archaeological record (Hosfield)

This project was concerned with the physical modification and dispersal of cultural materials in off-site settings, as these processes are a major influence upon the structure of the archaeological record and the nature of archaeological investigations.

Over a 7 month period the pilot project studied the dispersal (transport, burial) and modification (breakage, abrasion) of replica lithic artefact scatters, pottery scatters, and animal bone material in a variety of topographic settings (e.g. variable-angle slopes) at the University's Sonning Farm site.

The project built upon Hosfield's recent research into the fluvial modification of lithic artefacts which also highlighted a number of other factors (e.g. the nature of artefact 'supply' into fluvial systems from surrounding terrestrial landsurfaces) which require further study.

2. In situ preservation of biological evidence and artefacts (Bell)

Sampling the floor of the Longbridge Deverill roundhouse at Butser for pollen and phytolithsThis project undertook a preliminary pilot study of previously uninvestigated soils and biota buried beneath the experimental earthworks at Butser and Fishbourne for 20 years, with specific reference to the in situ preservation of biological evidence and artefacts.

The project reflected the growing need for scientific research to underpin policies of in situ heritage preservation, arising from developments in Planning Policy Guidance, heritage legislation, and implementation of the Valetta (Malta) Convention. The Experimental Earthwork Project (Bell et al. 1996) and Danish research on burial environments within barrows has also shown that short- and medium-term experiments make a valuable contribution to this issue because many key changes occur rapidly after burial, prior to a state of quasi-equilibrium. Results from the Experimental Earthwork Project have also suggested that land-use factors (e.g. type/intensity of grazing) can have significant effects on soil chemistry and preservation properties.

3. Life-history of buildings and site-formation processes (Matthews, Nortcliff, Brown & Banerjea)

Onset of soil development in one half of an animal pen floor due to partial roof loss (Lejre Experimental Center)This project built upon recent geoarchaeological and palaeoenvironmental analyses which highlighted a series of major problems in the interpretation of material assemblages, site-formation processes and settlement space. Most important is the wide range of variables (e.g. environment, human agency, materials, and timescales) that affect pre-depositional, depositional and post-depositional histories of micro-artefacts, sediments, plant remains and organic matter.

The pilot project sought to identify these variables and design research strategies for their measurement and examination in future research, through inter-disciplinary and multi-proxy characterisation of experimental archaeological spaces and taphonomic processes.
This project undertook preliminary experimental analysis of sediments and organic remains, in crop-processing, food-cooking, and metal-working areas; animal pens; and comparative off-site controls including surface soils and moss-polsters. The work was undertaken at Butser ancient farm, the Lejre experimental centre near Copenhagen, and the Peat Moors project, Somerset.

The project also developed and tested new techniques, including the integrated analysis of phytoliths, pollen and calcareous dung spherulites, and 13C NMR and BCPA Black Carbon analysis to study the nature and taphonomy of organic matter.

An Experimental Identity

To promote and develop our experimental research identity the project ran a series of events over the course of the (2007/8) academic year: We hope that the project will interest staff and postgraduate students from across the school, and we look forward to seeing you at the next experimental archaeology conference.

An Experimental Archaeology at Reading brochure, which summarises preliminary results from the pilot projects and results from completed experimental research, is available for download (see Things to do in the right-hand column).

Postgraduate study

If you are interested in the possibility of doctoral (or masters dissertation) research on an experimental topic please contact any of the project's academic staff (Bell, Hosfield, Matthews, Nortcliff).

Undergraduates at Reading

For current Reading students, guidelines for the use of experimental archaeology approaches in dissertations and doctoral research can be found on Blackboard.

Undergraduates (non-Reading)

For non-Reading students, guidelines for the use of experimental archaeology approaches in dissertations and doctoral research is available for download (see Things to do in the right-hand column)

Project Staff

If you would like further details on the overall project  or have any comments regarding the website, please contact Dr Rob Hosfield. For details on the individual projects (including ideas for future collaborations and grant applications), please contact:

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