The Importance of Experimental Archaeology

When archaeologists discover or archaeologically excavate artefacts, they identify and interpret these ancient objects in the context of their location on an archaeological site and relationship with the immediate surroundings and other artefacts. This allows archaeologists to understand the importance and purpose of the artefact for a past society or culture and how it may have fit in to everyday use. Over time and as archaeologists uncover more archaeological sites in which this artefact is found, they build up a greater knowledge each time of this artefact. This allows them to identify and create a chronological sequence or timeline of how the artefact may have progressed from being a simple object to a more sophisticated one. This is known as taxonomy or typology. Almost always the typology of an artefact is based on changes or improvements over time, whether in how it functions, appears, how it inter-relates with its surroundings or what materials it is made from.

Examination of dugout boat remains

While archaeologists develop a comprehensive understanding of an artefact, their knowledge remains incomplete. They have studied the artefact – but they have not used it… When they use it, their knowledge become complete in how and what context the artefact was used and the role it once played or relevance it had in that past society or culture. Of course, it is not possible or permitted to use the actual artefact. Usually the original artefact can be incomplete or has become too fragile to use, or simply it is now protected national legislation. The endeavour to find out more about these artefacts, gave birth to a new form archaeology, called experimental archaeology.

Experimental archaeologists make or reconstruct copies of the original artefacts. They seek to make them by using the same techniques and materials. As there is no written record of how this was originally done, they remake the artefacts through a process of trial and error. Through keeping careful records of what does not work as much as what works, they finally comprehensively understand the artefact’s manufacture and use – much more so that excavating, studying and interpreting it.

Reconstructing a dugout boat
The Role of Experimental Dugout Boat Archaeology

When it comes to Irish dugout boats, comprehensive studies of them have enabled greater understanding of Irish prehistoric to post-medieval society. However, without experimental archaeology, we could only learn so much and how they were used. Over time and with more discoveries of these boats, archaeologists learnt that there is a great variety of sizes and shapes to these boats. Originally it was speculated that the more crudely shaped and smaller boats, were earlier prehistoric boats and the larger more finely shaped boats were from more recent medieval times. However, as new scientific techniques were used to date them, such as radio-carbon dating or dendrochronological dating, archaeologists learnt that the different size and shapes of these boats belonged to all periods of human activity.

Examination record sheet for dugout boats

Archaeologists learnt that creating a chronological typology of these boats based on size or shape does not work. In the 1970s a typology was created based on the shape of the boat and what shape of boat it most resembled in the modern era. So for example, if the boat had a canoe shape, it was called a canoe, or if it had a barge shape, it was called a barge. However, some archaeologists now recognise that this still does not help us to better understand these boats and how they functioned or what role they had in past society. Current development of a dugout boat typology is based on where or how a person would use a boat.

Development of new dugout boat typologies.Typology 2

In order to prove or disprove the latest theories, experimental archaeologists in different locations around Europe are now making dugout boats to comprehensively understand how they were made in different eras, by using replica tools of that era; as well as how the boats perform when used. These experimental archaeologists then collaborate by sharing the records they keep of their experiments and of course – the results of their experiments.

Woodworking Toolkit

Bonane Heritage Park has the privilege of being one of these centres of international experimental dugout boat co-operation and collaboration, through a global organisation called Early Watercraft Association.

Bonane Dugout Boat Experimental Archaeology Project

Bonane Heritage Park’s dugout boat project started in 2017. The initial idea of siting the experimental project in the Park was raised by Dr. Niall Gregory. Dr. Gregory had originally lent assistance to the community from the early 2000s in establishing the heritage park, which was generously supported by Kerry County Council. His own specialisation is dugout boats and he has previously made a number of them as part of this work.

Hard at Work

The heritage park readily agreed to the project and applied for and successfully achieved grant funding from South Kerry Partnership who were very enthusiastic about the project. One of the key components financed by South Kerry Partnership was the specialist commissioning of replica medieval wood working tools – a key part of the overall project. While the transport of the oak tree trunk was also funded, its purchase was not. Oak trees of sufficient size are protected by law. Consequently, the Heritage Park was in the hands nature and awaited the unique combination of availability of a storm fallen tree and a donor. After a few failed attempts on both counts, the tree finally arrived in March 2019 to the Heritage Park in from a generous benefactor in County Tipperary.

Recording the use of the replica tools

The project was created with four stated aims:

The project seeks to make replica dugout boat(s), by learning through evidence from the original boats in construction techniques and filling in the gaps in our knowledge through trial and error and use of the boats. We can better understand the dynamics of different hull shapes and sizes and how they original boats performed. While we undertake this work we carefully make records of each stage of the project, so that we can publish and share the results of our work – both our failures and our successes. This then enables us to collaborate and share what we learn with other dugout boat experimental archaeologists around the world.

By making these boats in a publicly accessible location and in an environment reasonably approximating where they would once have been made, it allows us to bring to life these boats for visitors to the Park. Visitors can meet the experimental archaeology team; handle the wood working tools; and feel the texture of the oak timber from which the boat is being fashioned. This accessibility allows the visitors to our park to learn about how these boats are made and their importance in past societies, including the environments and uses to which they were put. In effect it breathes life into our prehistoric and historic past and allows for a greater understanding of how our own ancestors lived. It is also importance that as archaeologists or as custodians of our past, whether as professionals or enthusiastic amateurs, we have the opportunity to share what we learn as widely as possible.

Bonane Heritage Park is unique in terms of it’s archaeological resource. Many heritage parks house examples of archaeological sites that once existed and are built for the purpose of displaying our heritage. Instead, Bonane Heritage Park is the custodian of actual archaeological sites from different eras, clustered together in a layered landscape or mosaic. The Park undertakes this in a low impact and environmentally sensitive manner. We realise we are merely the caretakers of all of our heritage displayed here. Our custodianship extends to being sensitive to the parks’ setting, environment and aesthetic. We seek to enhance the visitor’s experience of the park. One of the ways in which we have identified how to enhance this experience, is to bring in other complementary aspects of our heritage, such as the dugout boat project. The project is located at the start of the park, where the trees meet and strive to create a natural canopy as a gateway into the park. It is also located away from the archaeological sites in the park so that it does not interfere or impact upon the archaeological sites or their settings. In this way we seek to enhance and further enrich the experience of the visitor to the park.

The members of both the Heritage Park and the wider community are involved in the project and all have given freely of their own time to bring the project to life. The Pak as also been greatly rewarded and enriched by the participation of Persons in need of International Protection who live in Kenmare Direct Provision Centre. It has allowed all of us to come together and learn of each other’s diverse cultures and how we practise our daily lives. While this may have occurred by other means, it has in this project allowed for fostering of lasting friendships and understanding. This happened to be an incidental and unplanned consequence of the project.

The planned sustainable part has been to train members of the Heritage Park and community to in turn be able to train other people in experimental boat archaeology and share the knowledge of these boats. In turn it creates an invaluable role, in which members of the park can share the knowledge they obtain with the archaeological profession. It is also hoped that through time, the continuing boat project can become self-financing.

Once more boats are made, the Heritage Park can host the International Dugout Boat Regatta. Started in Switzerland in 2015, the Regatta has since been hosted in Austria, France and Slovenia. Through the work of the Park, it is hoped that we can also host it in Kenmare River.

Niall Gregory