Theorising experimental archaeology

Anja Mansrud (Museum of Archaeology, University of Stavanger,

Aimée Little (University of York,

Experimental archaeology is currently gaining momentum as a viable approach for investigating past technologies and crafts. Yet, criticisms are profuse, questioning the theoretical foundations, scientific basis and validity of concepts, methodologies and objectives and the replicability of experiments. This session aims to bring together scholars interested in exploring how experimental archaeology can address these challenges and bring new insights into the social aspects of craftwork. We aim to address the epistemological pitfalls of using experimental replication as analogues for interpreting past practices. Many research questions cannot be answered by experimental archaeology alone. Interpretation of the wider implications of prehistoric craft is also dependent on theoretically grounded framework, because social and ideological notions, not just rationality, practicality or common-sense underpin a particular technology. Past practices further involved ecological knowledge, social context and many culturally specific variables that are impossible to replicate in the present. Arguably, experimental practice enables us to resonate with people in the past, rather than replicate them (Elliott 2019:6). We welcome papers seeking to combine controlled and/or actualistic experimental research with theoretical perspectives addressing the social dynamics involved in the making and use of material culture, to better our understanding of crafts in different time periods/ societies. How do we theorise actualistic (non lab-based) experiments? What value do they have beyond gaining hands-on experience of manufacturing processes and use? How do we translate the experience of making, the tacit knowledge and the embodied skills and know-how into academic words and conceptions whilst recognising the degree of subjectivity within our experimental work? How might we better navigate between our acquired personal experience and traditional indigenous knowledge? Can we really connect manufacture processes in the archaeological record and the organisation of everyday craft in prehistoric communities? What kind of social organisation ensured the transmission of knowledge and skill? Can we address issues of communal production, enabling us to place domestic groups rather than skilled individuals, at the centre of inquiry? Similarly, how do we identify individual agency within persisting cultural traditions?

Literature: Elliott, B. (2019). Craft Theory in Prehistory: Case Studies from the Mesolithic of Britain and Ireland. In Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society (Vol. 85, pp. 161-176). Cambridge University Press.