How did our ancestors create the world they lived in? How did they survive without the modern accoutrements that make our lives easy?
The question is at the heart of archaeology and forms the basis of a unique project in a quiet corner of University College Dublin’s sprawling Belfield campus.
UCD is the only university in the world with a centre for experimental archaeology. It is not made of bricks and mortar, but of wattle and hazel sticks.
Experimental archaeology involves reconstructing buildings and artefacts from ancient culture, using only the tools and materials from that period.
Such a method gives students of archaeology a grasp of the past they would not get from studying books, according to Prof Aidan O’Sullivan, director of the Centre for Experimental Archaeology.
“It’s absolutely transforming. If you get a student who digs up clay and makes a pot, when they go to a museum they are looking at these artefacts differently,” he said.
PhD student Brendan O’Neill says recreating artefacts has increased his admiration for how our ancestors lived. Where we have scientific rigour, they had tradition, and trial and error.
All fired up
They had an “incredibly sophisticated” understanding of fire, he says, and were able to recreate intense fires of up to 1,500 degrees, hot enough to smelt iron, in furnaces made just from clay and sand.
MA students on site have been using charcoal and a bellows made from leather and twine to smelt copper. “It gives us an understanding of the time and investment that was put into things, and their relative importance,” said Mr O’Neill. “I work in the early Christian period. They had iron and bronze. Iron was used for working the land, but they put just as much investment into bronze, which were things of adornment.”
The students have built a reproduction of one of Ireland’s oldest houses, from 7800 BC, using intertwined birch trees like a wicker basket to create a structure that looks like a giant chimney stack. A previous attempt blew down but this one is secured from the inside using sticks and rope.
Another PhD student, Bernard Gilhooly, has built stone axes and tried them out on meat and trees. The handle is made from the holly tree, the head from shale and the axe secured with pine roots
It does not look like it would cut through butter, but it is capable of cutting down a small birch tree in five minutes.
Mr Gilhooly said experimental archaeology is a way of getting reconnected with our ancestors. “We want to understand the people who created these. If we can bring that to the fore for the public to know and understand, that’s our job done.”