Experimental Archaeology and Paleotechnology – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Experimental Archaeology and Paleotechnology

Students in “Experimental Archaeology and Paleotechnology” will begin the academic year transported to a time in prehistory, after hominins had created tools and before the invention of writing systems. Their coursework will take them outside the classroom, where – just like their hominin predecessors – they will engage with the local environment and exploit locally available resources.

Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Brian Clark says the goal of this immersive, hands-on class is for students to learn the fundamentals of experimental archeology and to actively replicate pre-modern technologies beginning with Stone Age tech, such as flint knapping, fiber twining, fire starting and mastic making.

“I have framed the course so that you’re very much starting as prehuman hominins, just learning to work stone tools. Then we get more complex technologies in the Middle Stone Age and the Late Stone Age. Then finally you’re graduating into the Bronze Age with the smelting of copper,” says Clark.

Clark Brian Classroom KColton
Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Brian Clark demonstrates how to use a model trebuchet.

The class will meet once a week for a three-hour period. “Because this is an experimental archaeology course, we’ll first read and discuss various papers or reports, or watch demonstrations, but then we will go outside and replicate the technology, or run tests on it or compare different methods. This is so we can ask ourselves, ‘“What does this tell us about the archaeological record? What does this tell us about people in the past? Can we learn more about past societies and past technologies by doing this on our own,”’ Clark explains.

While Clark expects students to be “somewhat familiar” with items such as flint or chert, and the process of friction fire starting, other innovations may be a surprise and will push them to reconsider what they know about Neanderthals’ intellect.

“It was recently discovered, and there is good evidence, that Neanderthals used magnesium dioxide – which can be found in little nodules in rivers in Western Europe – as an accelerant when starting friction fires. We have long known that they had used it as a black pigment. One of the questions always was, they also used charcoal, which is also black and far more abundant, so why go through all the trouble to gather these little pebbles (magnesium oxide).”

Faculty and staff with specialized knowledge have also volunteered to teach historically local crafts, including spinning and weaving. Professor of Chemistry Walter Bowyer, whose scholarly interests include the study of prehistoric art from a scientific perspective, will teach a lesson on hematite and goethite, which have been used as pigments from the Stone Age to the Industrial Revolution.

Further activities will include making glue out of pine sap, plant identification walks, using an Atlatl (spear thrower) or boleadoras to hit targets, and hollowing birdhouse gourds to make vessels. One activity will require students to apply multiple technologies and work together to create their own Atlatl darts.

“To create the Atlatl darts they’ll learn how to twine fiber, how to work wood, how to make stone tools, how to make glue, and then they’ll have to combine all of that to make the dart. It always turns out that there will be one person who’s really dexterous and able to craft a more useful stone tool, and someone else who loves to twine,” Clark says, which he adds reveals a host of soft skills even more important to human evolution than any specific technology, such as cooperation, strategy and the division of labor.

Clark previously worked at Rice University. His scholarly interests include the study of complex civilizations in East Africa and specifically post-Aksumite Ethiopia, as well as geoarchaeology, landscape formation processes, archaeological site formation and landscape historical ecology in the Horn of Africa.