Below is the abstract I submitted for the 6th Experimental Archaeology Conference.

Learning and teaching in experimental archaeology

The ways in which past peoples communicated knowledge is of considerable importance to studies of technological processes, and is an area in which experimental archaeology could prove highly informative. Whilst some teaching of experimental work takes place within traditional Further Education structures (c.f. Sheffield University), much of the techniques we seek to study are learnt or communicated in a strictly ad-hoc, informal, and sometimes solitary manner. In all cases, it is difficult to assess methods of past communication without codifying our own methods of teaching and learning.

In this context, I use the term ‘experimental archaeology’ to encompass not only strictly empirical hypothesis testing (Johnson 1999), but also the domains of experiential work (Mathieu 2002) and the ‘re/creation’ of past technologies for demonstration, replication and pleasure. I argue against the act of seeking legitimacy in the eyes of ‘mainstream’ archaeologies (cf. Experimental archaeology session at EAA 2006) by focussing on empirical approaches, and for a rejection of the hierarchical perspective (cf. Jones 1974) which privileges this. Rather I propose an integrated model where we accept that experimental archaeologists often work within multiple domains and that this contributes to deeper, more complex understandings of technological practices than any individual approach.

Within this structure I propose four distinct patterns to learning and teaching; describing these modes as self-taught, advisory assistance, formal apprenticeships (cf. Barab and Hay, 2001) and informal participation. I discuss their use in terms of the domains of practice discussed above, and crucially how these different teaching and learning relationships contribute to different understandings of the technological process itself. The teaching and learning environment has considerable and prolonged impact on our understanding of both the finished object and the technological process, and I explore how this has the potential to influence the way we frame and contextualise the practice of these technologies within our own work, and how this can echo beyond to confines of experimentation to the interpretation of archaeological evidence and its communication.

Understanding our own learning environments therefore forms an important part of a self-reflexive and critical approach, and is necessary in contexts where we position ourselves as experts, whether those are formal academic, informal exchanges of knowledge or experimental studies or interactions with the public. In identifying the way we have learnt our own skills by mapping these different learning environments, we are closer to understanding the modern context of our experimental practice, a necessary step towards relating our own experiences to past practitioners. Whether we consider ourselves empirical, experiential or re/creative experimental archaeologists, understanding current methods of knowledge communication should help us better ground our own practice and our research into past practitioners.

Barab, S.A., and Hay, K.E., 2001. Doing science at the elbows of experts: issues related to the science apprenticeship camp. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 38 (1), 70-102.

Coles, J.M., 1979. Experimental archaeology. Academic Press, London.

Hurcombe, L., 2005. Experimental Archaeology. In Archaeology: The Key Concepts, edited by C. Renfrew and P. Bahn, 110-115. Routledge, London.

Johnson, M., 1999. Archaeological Theory. Blackwell, Oxford

Mathieu, J.R., 2002. Introduction – Experimental Archaeology: Replicating Past Objects, Behaviors, and Processes. In Experimental Archaeology: Replicating PastObjects, Behaviors, and Processes, Mathieu, J. R. (ed),  1-11. BAR International Series 1035, Oxford.

Update: You can read about the conference through a Storify I created based on the tweets that were written.

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