Inside the World of an Experimental Archaeologist: A Stone-Age Adventure on the Thames

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Experimental Archaeology

Produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

What triggered your passion for ancestral crafts like basket weaving and stone tool making?

My love for ancestral crafts came from a childhood spent mostly outdoors. My dad, a scout leader, once casually mentioned that cattails were edible. Next thing you know, six-year-old me is at a cow pond digging up cattail roots and chomping on one, only to be warned about salmonella by my dad, who then boiled the roots for me. So yeah, the allure of using natural resources has been a lifelong fascination for me.

How did you get hooked on crafting leather attire and equipment?

I was 11 and really wanted a chic leather dress. Leather ain’t cheap, but then it struck me—people have been tanning hides forever. My parents were saints for putting up with the stench, as I ruined plenty of deer hides in the learning process. But the challenge of it all? Man, it was addictive.

You even earned a PhD focusing on ancient hide-tanning methods.

During my undergrad studies in anthropology, I pestered my way into an internship at the Smithsonian. That’s where I was told about the University of Exeter’s experimental archaeology program—it was basically tailor-made for me. I soon found out that academic resources on tanning were scarce, and thought, “Well, here’s a gap I can fill.”

What drove you and fellow ancestral skills expert Sarah Day to undertake a Thames journey in Stone Age canoes?

The Thames is basically the OG trade route. From an experimental archaeology standpoint, paddling it in Stone Age canoes was the ultimate real-world lab. We wanted to see the limits of low-tech boating, the maintenance needed for the boat’s skins, seams, and framework, and to test out other gear we’ve made. Think of it as arts and crafts with a side of wilderness survival.

Can you describe the canoes and gear you used for this expedition?

Archaeology hasn’t exactly left us blueprints for Stone Age boats. So, we improvised. Our canoes were woven from willow and hazel and coated with rawhide cowskin, then sealed with a mix of fat, beeswax, and birch tar. For gear, we went authentic: fur blankets, reindeer leather tents, buckskin attire. Our rations included dried berries and meats, and we foraged and cooked in clay pots.

Any obstacles during the 136-mile, 12-day trip?

Wind, my friend, was a relentless adversary. Legally, we also couldn’t light fires nightly to dry out the boats, which would have made them more seaworthy. But hey, even drenched, those canoes were MVPs, requiring minimal upkeep.

You’ve appeared on survival shows like Alone and Surviving the Stone Age. How has that shaped your view?

Being on those shows was a chance to put theory to practice. Now when people question me about different skills, I can draw from firsthand experience. These adventures have also improved my research, helping me make educated guesses about how ancient peoples interacted with their environments. I came back leaner but feeling healthier and invigorated. Plus, it’s taught me patience and provided heaps of joy over the years.

Why does Stone Age living attract you?

It’s all about simplicity. There’s something empowering about having the skill set to tackle any challenge. We’re not advocating for everyone to become forest hermits; instead, we’re trying to integrate the best elements of these ancient crafts into modern life.

What’s on the horizon for you?

Sarah and I have set our sights on paddling France’s Dordogne River in 2024, visiting its ancient cave sites along the way. My most thrilling venture? I’m scouting for land in Sweden to establish a Centre for Ancient Technologies. I envision it as an educational hub for both ancestral crafts and bushcraft, as well as a research center for experimental archaeology.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Experimental Archaeology

What inspired the journey on the Thames using Stone Age canoes?

The journey was driven by experimental archaeology, aiming to contextualize ancestral skills. The Thames served as a historic trade route, allowing the team to test low-tech boats and gear in a real-world setting.

How were the Stone Age-style canoes and equipment made?

Since no archaeological examples of skin boats exist, the team improvised with materials available to prehistoric peoples. The canoes were woven from willow and hazel, covered in rawhide cowskin, and sealed with a mix of fat, beeswax, and birch tar. Authentic gear included fur blankets, a reindeer leather tent, and buckskin clothing.

What challenges did they face during the 12-day journey?

The wind posed a major challenge, and the team couldn’t legally light fires every night to dry the boats like Stone Age people could. However, despite the wet conditions, the canoes performed admirably with minimal maintenance.

How have survival shows like Alone and Surviving the Stone Age influenced their perspective?

Participating in these shows allowed for practical application of ancestral skills, enhancing their ability to answer queries and make educated assumptions about ancient peoples’ interactions with their environments. The experiences also brought personal growth, improved health, and a wealth of joy.

What attracts them to Stone Age-style living?

The appeal lies in the simplicity and self-sufficiency of having the necessary skills and tools to face challenges head-on. The goal isn’t to revert to ancient ways, but to integrate the best elements of these skills into modern life for a more well-rounded perspective.

What’s next for the team?

Future plans include a journey along France’s Dordogne River, visiting prehistoric cave sites. Additionally, they aim to establish a Centre for Ancient Technologies in Sweden, serving as an educational and research hub for ancestral crafts and experimental archaeology.

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