2013 April 8 - May 27
A New Approach to Experimental History of Science
Part 1: Prelude
An "Iron Age field-forge" -- and its bellows, connected to the forge by underground clay pipes not shown! It was constructed not in the Iron Age but in 2008, the excellent work of Keltengruppe NANTAROR, a Swiss historical re-enactment society that tries to depict life in the Third Century BC as authentically as possible. Since English is not the first language of the re-enactors, they may be forgiven for having entitled this video "Iron Age Field Forgery". But this minor error raises an interesting question: are re-enactments of the past "forgeries", or are they valuable sources of information? Or, perhaps, something else?
Archæologists have long valued re-enactment -- so long as it is conducted under the guidance of establishment-approved authorities, and not by mavericks like the late Thor Heyerdahl. This is particularly true in America, where archæologists frequently hold degrees in anthropology and esteem the "participant-observer" ideal, but wherever excavators confront an obsolete technology, at least a few of them will ask: "Does someone, somewhere, still use it?" Very probably the answer is yes -- in a way.
The problem, of course, is that knapping flint for a country church-façade is a long way from making an Acheulean hand-axe or a Clovis point. Nevertheless, one assumes there must be some continuity of knowledge, or at least some universal techniques which work. After all, how many ways to flake chert can possibly exist? Ask the knappers of Brandon; ask aboriginal hunters; experiment: sooner or later, one will learn how to replicate any ancient artifact. Flint-knapping "on period instruments" (as a musician might say) is a skill in many a prehistorian's repertoire, usually acquired early in a career.
Of course, it is impossible to know with certainty whether ancient flint-knappers really used these reconstructed techniques, much less what they thought about while using them. This is true even in the case of modern "Stone Age" hunter-gatherers making arrowheads which look identical to those found in situ. Are they really using methods passed down for millennia, or just methods which turn out a similar product, perhaps more (or less) efficiently than did those of their ancestors? What if some relatively-recent hunter-gatherer once found an ancient point, thought "I could do that!", and indeed could? If modern people associate flint arrowheads with elves, or with thunder, or with the monster-slayer god, does that mean their ancestors did as well?
These problems are often discussed in the archæological literature, naturally with inconclusive results. But there is another issue brought up by re-creations of old technology which is usually ignored.
What if the re-enactor discovers a better way of doing things than the "authentic" one? For example, modern hobbyist flint-knappers, a few dedicated traditionalists aside, almost always use metal tools ... as did the knappers of Brandon ... as do many people in "traditional" cultures where stone implements remain a part of daily life.
One might say that this is irrelevant to archæology, which concerns only the past. But is this really so? Flintknapping, the palæoanthropologists assure us, is part of our intellectual inheritance as hominins, possibly even connected to the evolution of intelligence and language. (This idea is currently fashionable in part because of studies in which re-enactors attempt to replicate stone tools from different eras while undergoing brain-scans, or wearing "data gloves" which measure manipulative complexity; the philosophical assumptions underlying such studies are worth thinking about.) And flintknapping, obviously, has itself evolved. The discovery of new techniques is in some sense a part of "traditional" flintknapping.
I would emphasise that such new techniques go far beyond simply "using metal", which could perhaps be seen as somehow violating the boundaries of the alleged "Stone Age". What if a "Stone Age" person, committed to the strict use of "traditional" knapping methods, faced a shortage of chert? It must have happened, right? What if this took place in, well, say, a modern dump? No flint, but lots of beer bottles ...
Historians talk about "diachronic" and "anachronic" approaches to history. I will propose, in the next part of this essay, a third approach, which I will call "cenochronic". The glassknapper turning beer bottles into arrowheads is doing cenochronic history.
We will see next time what this means more precisely, and how it applies to the history of physics and mathematics.
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