As a SCDNR Archaeology graduate student intern, Angelina Towery-Tomasura participated in experimental archaeology workshops during the summer of 2022. Here, Angelina reflects on what she learned.
Have you ever taken a moment to look around, truly observe the environment around you, and ask how the rocks at your feet and the branches above your head were once transformed into tools? Have you ever wandered the halls of a museum, enamored by jewelry of the past, such as hand-crafted beads made of shell, and contemplate how did someone pierce a hole through the shell’s thick exterior without the use of a power tool? If you ever spent time thinking of the ways people from the past transformed the rocks on the ground into projectile points now found on museum shelves, wonder no further – begin to transform the world around you and find possibility in the tiniest of twigs.
While picking up artifacts from the dirt that have not been touched in thousands of years is one way to engage with the past, experimental archaeology gives us the ability to connect with the past through experience. It is through experimental archaeology that the world around you comes alive and the processes from the past connect with the present. Experimental archaeology gives us the opportunity to connect with those in the past, beyond the artifacts in the cases of a museum. Not only do you see the artifacts – you get to make them.
Experimental archaeology offers insight into the past and provides a new appreciation for the work that people once needed to simply survive. Making beads or the wooden scratch and burn mortar and pestles was no easy feat. These processes took all day.
During my internship with the SCDNR, part of our research involved experimental artisanship, hand-crafting similar versions of artifacts that have been discovered.
To even create a bead, we first had to choose stones, and diligently break them apart until a small point was created. After that, a piece of rivercane was chosen and cut using a flint flake knife. Pitch was created by melting pine tar in an oyster shell over a fire, and our canes were placed in the flames to straighten them out. The points were then connected to the river cane using the pitch.
From there, we started making beads with soapstone, grinding our points into the malleable material. Then, we embarked on to tougher material – shells. After knapping my shell and grinding it in a mixture of sand and water to smooth it, I spent at least an hour attempting to get a hole through the shell, but to no avail. As my arms ached and my shoulders felt heavy, I gained a whole new appreciation for the artifacts I find in the bottom of my shovel test pits.
Experimental archaeology connects you more closely to the artifacts you might find during an archaeological excavation and encourages you to test the limits of what you think might be possible. It goes beyond the tools that we make and lets us, as archaeologists, look at the trash that we have left behind from our ventures in tool creation. By understanding the debitage we leave behind and the processes that create this refuse, experimental archaeology gives us an idea of what we might find at tool production sites within the archaeological record. It offers us a deeper understanding of the amount of effort that goes into making these tools that served as a means of survival that allowed for us to stand where we are today. It gives us the ability to connect to the world around us in ways similar to the people who lived thousands of years ago. And you get to show off your pretty cool creations!
Disclaimer: The work done in this article was supervised by Experimental Archaeologist Scott Jones.
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