Experimental Archaeology– How Will It Help?

I’m at the point in my research now where I can’t understand how anyone could think that the method I’m researching wasn’t used in the 15th century. It may have been one of several methods, but not used at all? Impossible? I suppose it’s like how “pink isn’t period” or “They didn’t have buttons back then.” Someone starts a strange rumour, it gets passed around as fact until everyone believes it and then when someone actually does the research they find that the common knowledge isn’t the case and they feel pretty stupid for believing it in the first place.

My understanding of experimental archaeology is that you construct a hypothesis and then test it with practical experiments. In essence it’s applying the scientific method to reconstruct the past where the records and material culture can’t tell us what we want to know. For example, if you’re digging up a bunch of arrows and your fellow archaeologists are speculating that these were used for hunting as they “aren’t strong enough” to pierce the amour of the time so therefore wouldn’t be used in warfare. Sure you can use an electron microscope to analyse trace elements, you can look at their context in the ground, you can look at paintings and read literature but there’s another way. You can make some bows and arrows using the same materials and techniques, make some amour using the same materials and techniques and then put that amour on some ballistics jelly or a pig carcass and take some pot shots at it.

I know which sounds more fun to me.

Many re-enactors would wonder at what experimental archaeology has to do with discovering how they spun in the 15th century. The reason for this is the majority of re-enactors you see spinning use a modern-styled drop spindle made out of period materials and use it in the modern drop spindle method. Note when I say modern I don’t mean it’s recent– it dates back to well before the 15th century– just that it is the current method most westerners are familiar with. Why do they use a modern spindle? Medieval ones don’t spin well. The whorls have their mass distributed close around the central spindle which gives them a short, fast spin. Drop spinning is most easily done on a whorl weighted to the rim to give a long, slow spin. Another thing that baffles me. Re-enactors will pick up a replica spindle, notice that it doesn’t spin well and rather than questioning that perhaps they span it differently back then they trade it in for a more modern-weighted one so it’s easier and then try to prove that the way they’re doing it is the only way it was done back then. The experimental archaeology for me come in when I make some spindles in the 15th century style and experiment with spinning them. My spinning technique will be based on a combination of what I can see in the medieval images and what I can see in videos of more modern women (no videos in the 15th century, sadly!)  where their spinning technique produces the same hand positions as in the medieval images.


My next step is to order supplies! Yay! Shopping!


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