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Re-living history: in an experimental approach to research, archaeologists recreate ancient history and learn from first-hand experience.





In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl designed and built a ship of balsa wood, the Kon-tiki, to see if such craft could have sailed from South America to Polynesia. His successful voyage is the stuff of legend. In 1969 he successfully sailed a reed boat based on ancient Egyptian prototypes from North Africa to the New World.

These were among the first attempts at what is now a recognized approach to archaeological investigation, known as experimental archaeology. Through trial and error, researchers try to rediscover how objects and buildings were made and used in the past.

After Heyerdahl's efforts, professional archaeologists soon began to adopt his approach and it became a mainstay of archaeological research. A classic early example is England's Butser Ancient Farm. Started in 1972 by Dr. Peter Reynolds, who became Britain's leading experimental archaeologist, the farm is a re-creation of an entire Iron Age settlement, the original of which dated to about 400 BCE to 400 CE. By actually living the life of these ancient people and using reproductions of the artifacts they made, archaeologists greatly improved their understanding of living conditions and methods of agriculture, animal husbandry, and manufacturing during this time period (see butserancient

Today it's quite common for archaeologists to discover more about an object of antiquity by making a copy and putting it to use. Besides professional archaeologists, people called "re-enactors" are attracted to this approach. Some are just eccentric people who like to dress up, but a great many are serious researchers who put their hearts into expanding their knowledge of history. You could call them "amateurs," which to me is a fitting term, since etymologically it refers to people who love what they do.

One aspect of re-enactment is presenting knowledge to the public through demonstrations, which sometimes take place in museums. Such "living history" exhibits are a power ful way for people to understand what it was really like to live in the past, to see, touch, and perhaps even taste and smell history. During March Break, the ROM uses living history exhibits in the popular medieval program, which features accurate recreations of costume, dancing, weaving, sword-fighting, archery, falconry, and even writing with quill-pens. The power of this programming is that it entertains, making the audience receptive to learning. Visitors enjoy watching our medieval dancers in beautiful dresses and often rather absurd men's attire of the period (I am personally convinced that fashion throughout the Middle Ages was a female plot!). It's an evocative way to communicate what we know about the past.

Recently I was asked by a television company to take part in some experimental archaeology "tests" for a series about significant historical figures. Called "Ancients Behaving Badly," the series will air in Canada on History Television. What first attracted me was the opportunity to do horse archery with the well-known US horse archer and bow-maker Lukas Novotny. And, I have to admit, it also turned out to be a lot of fun.

I had never before combined my limited skill as a horseman with my questionable ability as an archer to develop an understanding of one of history's most important forms of warfare. Mounted archers were an important element of the battlefield since the 8th century BCE when Scythians came galloping and shooting their way out of the Eurasian steppes into the Mediterranean world. Huns, Parthians, Turks, and Mongols were among the steppe peoples to use this form of warfare. Unfortunately, what the producer wanted from me was to demonstrate the relative inefficiency of shooting an English longbow from a horse. Real horse archers used composite bows of horn and sinew with a wood core, and these were shorter and easier to shoot than the longbow, which is essentially just a really long stick with a string on it.

Luckily, the horse I rode, a seasoned performer called Hercules who had much jousting experience, knew exactly what to do. He charged down the lists, as jousting fields are called, with no need of persuasion, leaving me free to focus on the target. A good horse archer should be able to release an arrow as he charges towards the target, another as he passes it, and a third while charging away (the famous Parthian Shot). With the longbow, it was clear that to shoot forward I would poke the horse in the eye with my weapon and to shoot backwards I would poke the horse in the rear, demonstrating only too well the reason that horse archery depended on the development of the more advanced and shorter composite weapon. After failing miserably with the longbow, I switched to using the composite bow, and was able to fire three times.

For the same show we also tested "steak tartare," preparing the steak by putting it under a saddle that was then ridden upon for eight hours (the steak was quite tasty once you took all the horse hairs off).

A segment dedicated to the Romans' obsession with technology featured a system of levers and pulleys that was infamously used by Caligula in an attempt to assassinate his mother. (He tried to drop a lead weight on her head with it and sink her barge. He failed.) We also set up a trebuchet, a medieval siege engine that hurled massive rocks and fire-bombs at castle walls with great destructive effect, to recreate the sack of a city by Genghis Khan.

Next we tested the efficacy of the Greek phalanx (a huge rectangular formation of warriors) at the time of Alexander by staging an attack on a number of extras hired in Toronto. The extras were trained for some hours in the use of the 15-foot-long spears that would have been used by the phalanx. First I attacked the phalanx equipped as a hoplite, the lightly armoured warrior of the Mediterranean world. Armed with a 6-foot-long hoplite spear and a large shield, I found the hedge of longer spears of the phalanx I was facing intimidating. But once I had parried my way past the points, their weapons, so effective as a barrier, proved unwieldy for fighting. We didn't just hypothesize about how this would have happened, but I actually felt the threat of a solid mass of men bristling with spears.

Like the sun breaking out from behind a cloud, it suddenly was much easier to understand how Alexander could have conquered an empire using the phalanx. But we also saw how vulnerable the phalanx was to a determined and confident attack with hoplite equipment and to Persian archers, whose equipment I next used against the extras. Slow-moving foot-soldiers are always vulnerable to the attack of archers, particularly horse archers. Even the redoubtable Roman legions behind their big square shields were vulnerable. In the Battle of Carrhae, or Harran, in 53 BCE, an army of 35,000 legionaries under Crassus was annihilated by 10,000 Parthian horse archers. (If you've ever watched Spartacus, you will have seen the Roman leader played by Laurence Olivier. This same Crassus brutally suppressed the slave revolt led by Spartacus.)

But perhaps the most fun was recreating an attack on a Roman city by Attila the Hun. We used a battering ram wielded by the members of the Hamilton Police Emergency Response Unit, (known in American police-drama lingo as a SWAT team). Their experience in forcing entry was useful as they swung the battering ram to smash through the walls and doors of our stand-in Roman city: a condemned warehouse in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. The sheer power of this large beam of wood suspended on ropes, pulled back by Hamilton's finest, and released to swing forward with destructive force through anything we put in its way, gave us significant insight: when deployed, the battering ram must have struck fear into the hearts of Attila's victims. The simulation also provided practical information. Historical records attest that chains were used for suspension, a must if we ever try this again, because in our experiment the ropes were constantly being stretched by the weight of the wood.

During the Hunnic invasions of the Roman world, there were a number of leaders, but Attila is the most remembered. Huns were horse archers, and very effective against the slow-moving Roman legionaries, but little use against cities. So Attila adopted the siege equipment of the Mediterranean world, including the battering ram. It was sobering to think that the residents of these Roman cities would hear the crashing of the ram and know it was only a matter of time before the Huns entered their gates. When cities are taken, no matter how noble and righteous the cause of the attacker, bad things happen. The blood-crazed victors flood through the city streets looking for victims, and it's from such brutal human tragedy that names such as Attila are remembered.

If you see any of the series, "Ancients Behaving Badly," you may see our small contributions to experimental archaeology caught on film, and perhaps they will help you to imagine, and understand, the lives of those in our medieval past.


The Hun Empire under Attila



In the late 4th century, the Huns came out of the Eurasian steppes and invaded Europe. These nomadic people used mounted archery in their warfare, which was quite effective against the slow-moving Roman infantry legions. Generally, the Huns were stable neighbours to the Romans--as long as they were paid off. The greatest extent of the Hun empire was under Attila, who invaded the Balkans, Gaul, and Italy. The empire collapsed within 15 years of the end of Attila's rule.

a. The Hun Empire under Attila

b. There is no first-hand description of Attila, but accounts describe him as abroad, with a thin beard, flar nose, and tanned skin, It is thought that the Hun leaders were of Turkic origin. He ruled the empire from 434 to 453 CE.

If you'd like to see a living history exhibit in person, join us during March Break at the ROM from March 15 to 19, 2010.

Battle of the battering ram

At a condemned warehouse in the suburbs of Toronto, our intrepid archaeologist and the Hamilton Police emergency Response Unit attempt to replicate the terror of a siege of a Roman city by Attila the Hun.


c. Engineer Paul Swayze rigs up the ram. The ropes needed constant re-rigging as the weight of the ram stretched them. Sources say the original ram would have been suspended by chains.


d. Members of the Hamilton Police Emergency Response Unit wield the ram. It is pulled back and released so its weight can pound into the surrogate Roman city.


e. Robert Mason smiles with joy at the effectiveness of the ram as it smashes through the wall with ease.


f. Although our ram was not the full size of Attila's, our wall was cement block, rather than a thick Roman stone wall. The Huns could take some time to breach a Roman wall, pounding away until it was finally brought down. The effectiveness of the ram was amply demonstrated.
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Author:Mason, Robert
Publication:ROM Magazine
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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