by Ava Kanitkar, 2023 SCDNR Archaeology Intern
The study of archaeology is best defined as a way to learn about the history of humans using material remnants of past human activity. In essence, through observation and analysis of artifacts, features, and other information gathered from archeological sites, we seek to understand and connect to the people and cultures that were here before us. In order to gain a greater perspective of our history and to learn from these cultures, we must fully observe the experiences of those who were part of past civilizations. Experimental archaeology provides a way for us to truly relate to the people in past cultures through replication of the processes ancient people used to create objects that were used as tools, decorations or other parts of their daily lives.
We were given the opportunity to try our hand at some of these methods during my internship at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Specifically, we were instructed on the creation of containers made from gourds — large squash plants whose hollow dry shells prove useful and functional. We were given tools to use similar to those used by Native Americans in South Carolina, such as bone awls and stone flakes. Our first task was cutting the top from the gourds. This was my first hands-on encounter with using these archaic types of tools and we were able to observe firsthand the different functions these could serve- while the bone awls were useful for more refined decorations, they weren’t as beneficial for creating holes in the gourds as the stone flakes proved to be. Similarly, metal awls could pierce through gourds but not clean the insides, and shells proved useful for removing the seeds and layers inside the gourds. We also were able to more deeply appreciate the effort and skill that these took to create- some of the gourds were harder to perforate than others, and making the cavities exactly the shapes we intended them to be required more dexterity and capability than it had appeared during the demonstration we observed.
After the initial creation of the containers, we were instructed to add decorations or additional functional aspects to the gourds. While the initial demonstration had seemed fairly straightforward, I found myself branching off more from the original examples as I experimented with different techniques. While I didn’t have the artistry or expertise required to make the charcoal designs on the outside of the gourd as precise as I would have loved them to be, it was interesting and fun layering different designs on top of one another and attempting to make the designs bolder and more symmetric using a bone awl, charcoal and water. I added a handle using cordage made from raffia, and weaved the cordage through holes in the gourd to create designs. By the time I was finished, I had a product I had spent a lot of time on and was surprisingly proud of- the same way Native Americans in South Carolina must have felt when they created these containers that they would later use for food, water, and other items.
While I enjoyed the activity a lot and was able to better appreciate the work that went into the creation of these items, I also was able to more clearly connect these ancient cultures to more recent and even present cultures. Creating these containers and adding designs and artistry to them reminded me of similarities between these and later containers made from ceramic and metal, and more presently, plastic and other materials. Artifacts we had observed from different periods included similar concepts and methods- some of the designs we created were comparable to decor on pottery from other periods, and the bone and nail awls we used were equivalent to how we use screwdrivers, drills, and more refined awls today.
Overall, what I learned was that actually experiencing similar things to people in the past allowed me to more closely relate to and understand them. Unlike simple observation of artifacts, experimental archaeology gives you a glimpse into what life was like in past cultures. Through practical contact with cultural history, we can gain a fuller understanding of the history of our world and learn from the events and experiences that would otherwise be lost to time.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.