Before there were historic trades there were prehistoric technologies. Here comes a rare opportunity to see them side-by-side. For one day only, Saturday, November 19, RE-Arc, a meeting of reconstructive and experimental archaeologists, will bring some of the foremost experts in the world to demonstrate ancient technologies in conjunction with the group’s annual conference in Williamsburg.
Reconstructive and experimental archaeology tries to interpret how early humans might have hunted, made tools, dressed, and solved the problems of everyday life. To do this, they conduct experiments by combining evidence found using archaeology with the resources and technologies that would have been available to early humans.
It may seem like a strange fit with the 18th-century environment, but our tradespeople are actually practicing experimental archaeology. They just happen to work in shops, and they have access to substantially more evidence. But the process is similar, as they use period methods and tools to make things.
“We’re bringing in world-renowned primitive technologists to demonstrate alongside Colonial Williamsburg tradespeople to help remind all visitors that the skills they see demonstrated here every day have significant and deep prehistoric roots,” explained Bill Schindler, a professor at Washington College and star of the National Geographic show The Great Human Race, and director of the conference. “Experimental archaeology is a discipline which helps inform how open-air museums tell their stories. To be able to do this here, at Colonial Williamsburg, makes it extra special.”
“What we have created for Saturday is a virtual living time machine that will engage visitors in deep prehistory all the way through the colonial period, showing a variety of the prehistoric technologies that allowed our ancestors to survive and thrive in the past,” said Schindler.
Demonstrations will take place Saturday, Nov. 19 from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. at three locations near historic trade shops doing comparable work: prehistoric weaponry at Capitol Green near the Gunsmith; prehistoric tools and foodways at the Public Armoury; and prehistoric textiles at Market Square near the Weavers. Here’s what you can expect to see.
The atlatl, a spear-throwing tool, may have been invented as early as 40,000 years ago and was the first composite weapon our ancestors ever developed. Atlatl technology spread throughout the world and is so powerful it could be used to hunt woolly mammoths and mastodons! Doug Meyer of Poison Dart Frog Production in North Carolina, one of the only experts in the world in prehistoric blowgun technology, will demonstrate and share some of his collection. See his display of atlatls from all over the world.
Mesolithic Bow in a Day
Diederik Pomstra is from the Netherlands and is an extremely well-rounded and skilled expert in prehistoric technologies. Through his work he has “re-discovered” how stone age nomadic hunter-gatherers may have actually made bows using stone, bone, and antler tools in one day from start to finish! See how he does it, as Diederik will use Mesolithic replica tools to transform a fresh-cut sapling into a working western European-style bow.
Viking Age Bow Technology
Stephen Fox, a graduate student at University College Dublin, will demonstrate the various phases of a Viking Dublin bow’s production based on archaeological evidence, using the tools and techniques he learned while researching Viking bows. Learn what it means to tiller a bow, and exactly why and how a bow really bends.
The manner in which we procure, process, distribute, and consume food is uniquely human, and the understanding of how we did this in the past is essential for addressing modern issues surrounding food, diet, health, and human/environmental relationships. For millions of years our ancestors sought out nutrient-dense foods and developed technologies to increase the density and bioavailability of nutrients in their food.
Learn about the most significant food processing technologies in our prehistoric past from Bill Schindler, who has researched ancient foodways as an academic and put his skills to the test in the National Geographic television series The Great Human Race.
Stone Tool Technology
The development of stone tool technology began almost 3.4 million years ago and completely transformed our ancestors’ relationship with their environment. This demonstration by Jack Cresson of Primitive Industries in New Jersey will focus on the basics of stone tool production and the production of some of the most important stone tool technologies.
Bronze Smelting and Casting
Fergus Milton of Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, England will be demonstrating copper smelting and bronze casting, the two main technologies used in Britain at the beginning of the Bronze Age (around 2000 BC) as copper and copper alloys were first exploited by humans. The smelting demonstration shows the conversion of special rocks (ores) to metal, while the casting demonstration shows one way that metal was formed into a desired shape.
Neil Peterson of Wilfrid Laurier University and Darrell Markewitz of Wareham Forge in Canada will be demonstrating Viking-era iron smelting. This iron smelt uses techniques that span many cultures and times from the Vikings of 1000 AD to the early settlers in the American colonies. The demo will use over 100 pounds of charcoal to reduce more than 60 pounds of ore. If all goes as planned the bloom, the mix of slag and iron, will be pulled late in the afternoon.
Fiber Usage from Prehistory to Vikings
Dr. Linda Hurcombe, a professor in the Experimental Archaeology program at the University of Exeter in England, will be demonstrating plant and animal fibers, from obtaining the raw materials to the processing methods and uses, including drop spindle spinning. Reconstructions will be on display of the earliest woolen check cloth from Scotland, as well as Bronze Age nettle cloth, and a variety of wild plant and tree fibers as well as animal fibers from both Europe and North America.
Animal Skin Processing and Leather Production
Theresa Kamper is finishing up her doctorate on prehistoric tanning at the University of Exeter in England. She will be demonstrating two of the world’s oldest and most widely used tannage technologies, Fat-Tanning and Bark-Tanning. The pre-processes of de-fleshing and de-hairing will be shown, in addition to the actual tanning steps which chemically change the skin. This will be followed by the softening or currying process. Smoke Tanning, often used as a final step in the Fat-Tanning process, will be covered toward the end of the day.
Want to see this for yourself? Demonstrations will be Saturday, November 19 from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. A Colonial Williamsburg admission tickets is required for access to the Tools and Foodways demonstrations at the Public Armoury. Check out the details in our Events Calendar.