Friday 23 August 2013

The Rules of Experimental Archaeology.

Let's say you are thinking about running, or you are planning, an Archaeological Experiment. You have started with defining and phrasing your key question*, and you have done all the background research. Your outline is written and has been checked by someone else to help make sure that nothing is missing. You have made a list of the tools, materials, and other resources that you will need.

And now the actual experiment is drawing nearer and you have to prepare it. And do it. So here are the Rules for Experimental Archaeology...

Rule #1: Things always take longer than you expect.
This does not only apply to researching and writing the outline, but also to sourcing your tools and materials. And, of course, to the experiment run itself. Oh, did I forget the post-experiment analysis, synopsis, additional research and writing of the publication? That, too.
Rule #2: Something that you need is always missing.
If nothing is missing from the list you have written down beforehand, you will probably need something that was not on that list. Or you would have needed it twice and it's only available once. Or something is not working and therefore missing in regard to all practical purposes.

Rule #3: The only way to make sure things will not go wrong badly is by having enough surplus material available.
If you have just enough to make the experiment run... you are tempting fate. If something goes wrong and you lose some material, you will be right back at Rule #2, and in the worst case that will kill your whole experiment run.

Rule #4: You cannot document too much.
While having a huge load of photos and taking copious notes of everything (including subjective stuff) can be a real pain in the neck when finishing up the documentation and writing the paper, it's always easier to pick a sample of photos than do another run of the experiment because you lack documentation. Plus, in case of a repeat performance, one of those additional snapshots might be just the thing to remind you on how you did it last time... for example in case something is missing (remember?), and you have to find a substitute.

Rule #5: If you did not write it into your plan, chances are high you'll forget it.
Experiments tend to eat you alive, and they will suck up your brain capacity. It's even worse if you start the experiment run not really well rested (possibly due to Rule #1), or if it's a very long experiment (or becomes one because things take longer than planned), or a very complicated one. Thus it's immensely helpful to have a cheat-sheet, also known as The Plan, where you have written down all the single steps to do during the actual run, in order and with remarks of what you must document by taking measurements or photographs. A detailed plan is also a good way to make sure that everything is listed in your requirements list and a good way to estimate how long the single steps will take.

So... plan ahead, plan for more time and more material than you think you need, get someone (preferably with crafts knowledge in that area) or several someones to check your plan... and then go for it. Experimental Archaeology is a lovely thing to work in.

* If it has no key question that it's designed around, if it's not as objective as possible, or if it is not documented well enough to be repeatable, it's no archaeological experiment. It may be something else and it may be important or helpful... but no true experimental archaeology.


Anonymous said...

And print two versions of the plan:

- the concise one that's readable

- the one with gaps in so you can scribble notes and comments on every bit as necessary as you work through the experiment!


Anonymous said...

THese are all accurate, although I suggest adding "It will always go wrong first time you try something new". Maybe that doesn't matter so much in textile studies, but in the archaeometallurgy and alchemy stuff that I'm interested in, there's always something that goes wrong, unless you have good quality instructions available.
When it does go wrong I am usually left with a better appreciation of the skills of our ancestors.

a stitch in time said...

Heather, I prefer the readable one with gaps for scribbling in - that makes it less confusing as you don't have to keep track of where you are in two plans.

Guthrie, trying something new should not be part of an experiment - that's for the preparatory exercises and tests. If you still need instructions on how to do the basics, that means you'd still have to do some practice runs with the technique, not tackle an archaeological experiment.
But you're totally right, otherwise - it takes time and practice to figure out things, and something new tends to go wrong (or go right and be impossible to reproduce). And I'm often amazed by the skill level of those long gone!

Anonymous said...

The short readable one is the laminated/sealed one stuck to the wall and therefore 'unloseable' and can be referred to throughout. The one with gaps in is also the one that acquires the charcoal smudges. Otherwise, as I found, you spend half the time leafing through an experiment spread over several sheets, which has the potential to cause problems.

The smallprint where I did my experiments was that for health and safety reasons there had to be a concise, offical and approved version prominently displayed and publically viewable throughout for any visitors (including health and safety persons) to review or make themselves familiar with.

Also, checking that the 'obviously workable idea' really does work can be an experiment in its own right. The first experiment I did with the apparatus was to see if we had all the bits because according to one school of thought we did and no further research into the apparatus was necessary. The other more practical schools of thought were proved right when we showed that even with the best will in the world it wasn't going to work like that...


a stitch in time said...

Ah, yes. I can see how one wants a second version in that case :)