Constructing the life as lived by our ancient forebears

Experimental archaeology helps show how people lived in the past

Have you ever tried digging a hole with a stick? Or chopping down a tree with a stone axe? How about living on porridge for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a month? Reading about the way people lived in Stone Age and Mesolithic (10000-5000 BC) times gives only a very limited understanding of how things were in the distant past. Actually recreating everyday life introduces a sense of empathy and other dimensions which paint a far more detailed picture: the essence of experimental archaeology.

Let’s begin with a clarification. Experimental archaeology should not be confused with reconstruction. Those involved don’t dress up as cavemen and women for the sake of an audience. They are using certain tools and techniques common in different time periods to try and learn more about the variables which affected hunter gatherer life while also exposing some of the misunderstandings that have become accepted truths.

The University College Dublin experimental archaeology department is currently building a Mesolithic structure based on the only surviving example on this island: Mount Sandel in Co Derry, which dates from 7800 BC.

"Our structure will be six metres in diameter with a number of timber posts going up and forming an apex – not unlike a teepee – but bigger in scale," explains Dr Graeme Warren of UCD's school of archaeology. "Smaller hazel sticks will also be stuck in the ground to support it and we will then weave hazel like a basket around. We'll leave one area as an entrance and have a turf covering on the lower half and possibly thatch on the top half.

Wild boar
"We could also use animal skins to cover it. It would be easier now to get them than it would have been in the Mesolithic period as the fauna was quite restricted. The biggest animals they would have had were wild boar but seal skin and even salmon skin might have been used back then."


Structures like this, which can be found across Europe, question much of the conventional wisdom of the life of the hunter-gatherer. “People assume they were very mobile and didn’t have many possessions but we’re building a six metre diameter house that will be seven metres high and there’s evidence to suggest structures like these may have housed up to five or six generations of the same clan in their time.”

In fact, in parts of the Pacific North West, archeologists have found evidence of huge halls from Mesolithic times and communities with up to 1,000 people living in the vicinity.

Talking shop is the easy part in all this. UCD undergraduates, postgraduates and doctorate researchers are all giving up their time to work on building this structure – and several more down the road – using traditional techniques, such as digging with a sharp stick.

PhD student Niamh Kelly, 25, has found it somewhat easier than expected. “It’s obviously no shovel and spade but it’s not too bad. I was also involved in chopping down trees with stone axes. We worked in groups and these took about 40 minutes each.”

There are approximately 50,000 trees in UCD and the experimental archaeology team felled 23 birch tress in order to build this structure. The group have no timeline as to how long it will take. “We don’t know how long it took back then but we know that they would have been much faster as they’d be more skilled than we are,” says Warren. “It’s very clear so far that this would have required the labour of a lot of people so they had to be mobilising some kind of community or kin group.”

Eventually the UCD group plans to build a number of other structures on the same site including the Mesolithic house, a Neolithic structure, an early medieval round house and a Viking Dublin long house.

They also have sections of the site divided up into particular types of factories – for things like pottery and stone-working.

What is interesting about the project is leaving the structures to decay will be part of the process as they will then be able to estimate how long such buildings lasted before the early settlers decided to rebuild or possibly move on.

"Ironically the biggest threat to this structure by far is someone breaking in and burning it down," says Warren. "It has happened elsewhere."

Ancient diets
Prehistoric people couldn't be too choosey about their diet. Dr Aidan O'Sullivan from the UCD school of archaeology has been working with a number of students in the ancient art of pottery and then using traditional pots to cook foods that would have been eaten by Mesolithic man.

“Students go down to Wicklow usually, dig up clay, add some sand and water and then process it by hand,” he says. “Then they would add some temper – which might be crushed bone, dung or chopped grass – and then the pot is fired up.

“One of the reasons why we make the pots is to get a sense of how long the process takes, how long a Mesolithic pot lasts, what it can be exposed to etc. Experimental archaeology is a combination of intellectual and empathic engagement with the past,” he says. “There are skills and issues that involve using your hands, like pottery making, that you don’t really think about until you actually physically do it.”

Once the pots are made they are then used for cooking. “We know in the early Middle Ages for example that people would have eaten a porridge-like dish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They would have also eaten some dairy products and cheeses but very rarely meat. It was too expensive plus they had no salt or no other way to preserve it. So any animal killed would have to be eaten in its entirety.

“Most people’s diet would have been fairly bland,” he adds. “Some new evidence from human skeletal remains shows how a lot of people would have suffered from vitamin deficiencies, scurvy, and various stomach ailments.”

John Holden

John Holden

John Holden is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in science, technology and innovation