Workshop 1 - Robin Skeates, 'Archaeology as/and experiment'

Robin Skeates (Archaeology, University of Durham) presented his talk in two parts. Part 1, 'From experimental archaeology to experimenting with archaeology', looked at some of the different ways in which 'experimentality' has been understood and used by archaeologists. Part 2, ‘Experimentation in prehistory’ was a speculative attempt to consider experimentation in prehistory, with reference to Skeates’s own research on social and material lives of prehistoric people in the Central Mediterranean region.

Part 1 'From experimental archaeology to experimenting with archaeology'

Opening with the quote, Skeates situated experimental archaeology as:

‘The systematic approach used to test, evaluate and explicate method, technique, assumption, hypothesis and theories at any or all level of archaeological research’ (Ingersoll et al. 1977).

Following, Skeates distinguished 3 different kinds of experimental archaeology:

  1. ’reconstruction archaeology’ – understood as replication of artefacts or known activities
  2. testing hypotheses and the validity of theoretical assumptions
  3. archaeological site-formation processes, focusing on the alterations of materials over time and the processes that they were submitted to.

Skeates then outlined the different approach to contemporary experimental archaeology, emphasising the more self-critical nature of this practice and its engagement with other social sciences. Further, he addressed the intellectual shift of the focus away from objects to human practitioners (in particular their craft, skill and performance). Skeates introduced experimentalism in avant-garde archaeology, pointing to its more subjective as well as challenging nature in questioning earlier norms.

Part 2 ‘Experimentation in prehistory’

In this part Skeates presented some provisional statements about the process of experimentation, both in general and in Central Mediterranean later prehistory, which then encouraged a very engaged debate amongst workshop participants.

Firstly, Skeates argued that experimentation did have some potency in shaping the future of prehistoric societies, suggesting that at least some people did indeed, must have – engaged in 'experimentation' in their thoughts and actions, and moreover that experimentation must have contributed significantly to short-term strategies and long-term cultural change, including the transformation of the material culture that archaeologists inevitably focus their attention on.

Secondly, he argued that although experimentation is probably a perennial aspect of human culture and being-in-the-world, experimentation is never unbridled, and probably not continuous: in the deeply traditional cultures of the Neolithic, that endured for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, experimentation was constrained (and unconstrained) - by the dictates of tradition and public opinion, and according to wider contexts.

Thirdly, experimentation is never an exclusively personal, local, or indigenous, process, but is also coloured by participation in wider networks of communicating.

Fourthly, Skeates also pointed to the fact that experimentation can also be marginal: in some cases, experimentation may only have been permissible on the margins of society, at certain times and places, and especially in or for liminal ritual performances, and its results may not have been accepted for the common good, either ever, or for many generations.

Fifthly, he argued that experimentation can be stimulated by political demands - at times of social competition and stress, in particular, influential members of local communities may have encouraged the most skilled individuals in their communities to experiment and innovate, so that their desirable products could be mobilized for political gain.

And finally, Skeates explained that experimentation can vary within as well as across cultures and communities - access to experimentation and its products is likely to have been socially restricted (at least initially) - to adults, to ambitious or prominent men, to ritual leaders, for example.  As such, experimentation may have comprised an ingredient of power and inequality, or of contestation and subversion.

Particular interest was raised by Skeates’s reference to experimenting with sensescapes in the context of Maltese Islands - the domestic landscape of Final Neolithic Malta and marginal land, the sea, and southern Sicily. Here Skeates probed the topic through examples including Xemxija rock-cut tombs of Malta and the West coast of Gozo. He presented those geographical locations as sites for social and technical experimentation, linking alternative sensory stimuli to practices of reflecting on the past, experimenting with the present and thinking about the future.

In conclusion, Robin Skeates suggested that there was potential for the idea of experimentality to be productive for archaeology, if the focus can be shifted from looking at similarities to experimenting with variations.