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I received an email a few days ago about the value of reconstructive achaeology. It has prompted me to ask a question of this forum.

I believe the best Roman re-enactment groups demonstrate accurate reconstructions to the public. Let's assume for the moment I don't care how or with what tools they were made.

The very best groups go a little further. They consider how artefacts were used, wear patterns, limitations etc. Hopefully some hard data will be produced. But re-enactment is largely a hobby, and the work is done by enthusiasts.

How much use is this information to academic historians or to archaeologists? Is it worthy of consideration, and if so how much? Or is reconstruction forever tainted by a perception that re-enactment is full of middle-aged overweight white men hitting each other? Is that all it can ever be, apart from fun?

And finally, perhaps selfishly, do any of these attitudes matter? Put simply I rely on archaeologists to dig things up. I rely on historians to put things in context. My interest then leads me to find out for myself how something works. This is my interest, and perhaps a few other like-minded people. Who cares what others think? After all if we did care, we should be publishing one paper after another on our findings, rather than enjoying ourselves so much!

My own opinion is that reconstructive archaeology is of some value to archaeologists, and perhaps less value to historians. My correspondent believed that academics will never take it or re-enactment seriously.

Opinions please.
Hi John,

An interesting question.

Quote: My correspondent believed that academics will never take it or re-enactment seriously.
To start with that closing statement, I think there is plenty of evidence around to flatly deny that. Academics do talk to re-enactors and seriously consider their methods and findings. For me, I've had very fruitful discussions with historians, such as Philip Rance, who was very interested in the practical problems of Late Roman formations or plumbatae throwing from the propect of a detailed research of the Strategicon.

Quote:The very best groups go a little further. They consider how artefacts were used, wear patterns, limitations etc. Hopefully some hard data will be produced. But re-enactment is largely a hobby, and the work is done by enthusiasts.
Maybe it's not so much groups and re-enactment to consider here, but the individual talent of the person who actually reproduces the artefacts.

For me, I'm of the opinion that we'll never be sure if a reproduction is a 100% correct or not, imply because it's too hard to determine a 100% with process was used to create the artefact in the first place. But in trying to re-create (re-enact) that process, valuable insights are produced that are of serious interest to the academic world.

Quote:How much use is this information to academic historians or to archaeologists? Is it worthy of consideration, and if so how much? Or is reconstruction forever tainted by a perception that re-enactment is full of middle-aged overweight white men hitting each other? Is that all it can ever be, apart from fun?

I think this is up to the individual. Serious academics will consider the value of each experiment and judge it on its merit. Those who aren't serious will consider it on what they express as a level of professionalism - if you have a grade your opinion counts, if you haven't it doesn't. that's to do with ego, not with science, but there you have it.
:evil: Btw, such attitudes are similar between some 'professional' historians and 'mere' amateurs. Cry

Quote:And finally, perhaps selfishly, do any of these attitudes matter? Put simply I rely on archaeologists to dig things up. I rely on historians to put things in context. My interest then leads me to find out for myself how something works.
Well, yes, it matters. Not to me personally f that's waht you mean, I think i know my stuff and I'm not bothered by 'professional' attitudes. The reason? Too often I've read archaeologist 'misusing' historical data, and historians doing the same! Big Grin

But if you want to see results of serious experiments recognised in the academic world, I think it matters, yes. But thank god for the internet.

Quote:My own opinion is that reconstructive archaeology is of some value to archaeologists, and perhaps less value to historians.
If you limit it to that, I agree. But building a wall in the Roman way is, I think, much more difficult than reproducing a sword or a fibula. Are there even serious experiments going on? The only one I know is the experiment with that earthwork in Wilts.
Quote:that academics will never take it or re-enactment seriously

I"m not sure if you have it better in Europe than we do here. We have some really knowledgable students, but I think reenactment is still pretty unknown among classical academics. I think reaching out directly to them helps, and it takes a while to inculcate the benefits of working with reenactors.
Thank you for your reply. It is an interesting question, and I would like to hear as many opinions as possible.

Historical reconstruction is often defined and graded by the use of period tools and techniques. But I seldom/never feel a reproduction is 100% like the original. Even when using period tools to make bone buckles etc. I have to acknowledge the animal from which I derive the bone is fed differently, a different size etc. And the man making the item has different artistic sensibilities. But in some ways recreating the item is less important than how it is used. I will always admire a good reproduction of a helmet, but at the end of the day it's a helmet. I know what it's for. But something like a saddle is more interesting because I want to know how it works.

I also think that some groups as well as individuals collectively try to maintain a high standard of interpretation. And data gathered from a large sample is very useful.

I suspect, compared to some subjects, the study of Roman military equipment is less subject to an academic/non-academic divide. There are some fine academics with whom I've enjoyed a pint or two. Hugh Elton and Jon Coulston spring to mind.

But the email I received has really made me question my view. For me this question is very important.
How would you quantify the benefits of working with re-enactors?

Last march Comitatus were the major sponsors of an academic conference in the UK. I suppose that is in a way reaching out to the academic community.
Interesting thread John! It's a little like the recent discussion whether History is a scientific discipline. IMHO reconstruction qualifies as such, provided that one is prepared to cite primary sources, document metrics, disclose compromises/substitutions, objectively engage in peer review, and most importantly change/adapt one's theory or design when necessary. The next question is "Who is qualified to conduct the experiments?". Is it rightly the exclusive domain of professional academics? I hope not! To deny the efforts of amateurs would be both arrogant and wasteful. Many of us started out as history majors so we have a general understanding of the process, but have made different career choices. As Robert Frost said, "and that has made all the difference". Had I become a history teacher as once intended I would have missed many of the experiences which most influence my approach to reconstruction. The widening divide between academia and the military would be especially detrimental if it wasn't mitigated by re-enactment which brings many millitary types back into the fold. Having a purely academic mind reverse engineer a weapon is like getting advice on marriage and sex from celibate clergy. All educated theory but no practical experience. :lol: The hardest part of the modern military mindset is resisting the urge to shave all excess weight and slather it in camouflage. A weekend or two spent in a Napoleonic Line of Battle will start reversing that process.
I like the definition of of what is needed to make reconstruction a discipline.

I must admit I assumed that academics would discriminate against re-enactors. A few personal emails later I suspect re-enactors discriminate against poor foolish academics. I wasn't expecting that view.
Quote:I received an email a few days ago about the value of reconstructive achaeology.
....

My own opinion is that reconstructive archaeology is of some value to archaeologists, and perhaps less value to historians. My correspondent believed that academics will never take it or re-enactment seriously.

To clarify, reconstruction/reconstructive archaelogy and reenactment are not one and the same thing. Sometimes there is not enough or simply none archaeological data for some of the items that reenactors use. For instance, subarmalis - it is not a reconstruction, since there is nothing to reconstruct (no findings). Or 1st century legionary scuta - how much archaeological data for the 1st century scuta do we have to call our reenactor scuta a reconstruction proper? The list can be continued.
Hmmmmm. I think the best re-enactment is a form of reconstructive archaeology. But the evidence for some reconstructions is weaker than for others. And therefore little information can be gleaned from them.

Is that fair?
Quote:Hmmmmm. I think the best re-enactment is a form of reconstructive archaeology. But the evidence for some reconstructions is weaker than for others. And therefore little information can be gleaned from them.

Is that fair?

I think re-enactment is a cross-over between having a good time, education to others, living history and reconstructive archaeology. That's a bit like a wider scope whereas reconstructing a single item is pure specialism.

As to information, I think it depends on what your goal is - the production process or the end result? Thinking about the whole process can give you quite some information!
Quote:Hmmmmm. I think the best re-enactment is a form of reconstructive archaeology. But the evidence for some reconstructions is weaker than for others. And therefore little information can be gleaned from them.

Is that fair?

As I pointed out, regarding certain parts of the equipment, reenactment simply cannot be reconstruction, because there is nothing to reconstruct due to the absence of archaeological findings. To summarize,

1. there are items of equipment where complete reconstruction is possible and should be pursued (e.g., gladii, certain helmets, pila)

2. there are items where archaeological data is available only for parts, and not for the whole. Those pieces are in part reconstruction, and in part conjecture (e.g., early imperial scuta, Melun pugio)

3. there are items where none archaeological data exists. Those cannot be reconstructed, and are conjecture (e.g., subarmalis).
Quote:To clarify, reconstruction/reconstructive archaelogy and reenactment are not one and the same thing.

Very true. But sometimes even the crappiest (all right, NEARLY the crappiest!) reproduction equipment can be used to prove or disprove very basic points, or correct misconceptions. For instance, hang a zinc-bladed "Gladiator" sword from a piece of string over your shoulder, and you can still demonstrate that the gladius can be drawn easily when worn on the right side. A Museum Replicas lorica segmentata will still show that armor was flexible and not as heavy as some people think. Granted, most of us are WAY beyond this level of learning! But many of the people who see us in action are not--including academics!

Mind you, I still stress historical accuracy!! The better our stuff is, the better the conclusions we can draw from it. Education must progress, not stagnate with a few basics.

I also agree that a lot of academics simply don't realize that good reenactors are around, nor that we can be of benefit to them. I've also met teachers who think that the movie "Gladiator" was historical.... So yeah, we've got our work cut out for us!

Valete,

Matthew
Quote:But I seldom/never feel a reproduction is 100% like the original.

Several times this past year I have been overwhelmed with despondancy about any merit whatsoever in reconstruction. I caught myself on numerous occassions asking myself:"what are the chances that what I and my fellows are doing and how we look bear any resemblance to men who lived in the 4thC AD?"

A good deal lies in mindset, language, belief, contemporary society, and authentic physique (for good or ill).

For me reconstruction is very much personal, and my most successful ventures have been in the most 'authentic' surroundings possible. Rope barriers, portaloos, carparks and waste bins ruin any sort of group reconstruction or re-enactment - however neccessary.

THat doesn't relate to the academic aspect, though.
Well..... we know that we are close since the same hinges break of at the same places on the ones we find, eben though our segmentata hinges are thicker tan the original ones... also, we lose the same hobnails and break our Caligae on the same spots as discarded ones we find in the ground...

furthermore theories on how the Romans wore their shields during marching have been changed due to practical information we could give archaeologists.. same with the Pilum.. also due to our displays and training fights in full kit we discovered that even a trained person cannot fight in full armour for more than 10 to 15 minutes... so the theory of rotation in the ranks during a battle was, apart from the bibliographical info of primary sources, confirmed by practical use...

also, during ballista firing with the Guard, we saw how wooden balls were caught by the wind, whereas stone shot was less prone... the ballista bolt damage we find in historical context is the same as the damage "modern" ballista bolts show when hitting hard targets.. whether or not the spanning material is horsehair or rope........

Shield rims fall off and get damaged the same way discarded ones did...

Matt has shown the power of a Dacian Falx on a scutum... also since we find two types of shields, ones covered with linen and leather, and some covered only in linen, and the plywood system which proved to be sturdy in modern reconstructions as well of course as in the ancient scuta, prove we are close...

of course we cannot feel or know really what it must have been like back then, but we are closer than any leather clad hollywood Roman ever has been.

We lose the same hangers from our Aprons as the ones we find...

ok, given (apart from the damage being buried for 2000 odd years) the fact that out equipment is less flimsy and thin as the original stuff we find, we also still are pretty close...

we discover that a flint fire is manageable, we find that with enough people we can make a ditch with Roman reconstructed equipment very quickly, as well as the wall and using muralia and use of Dolabrae..

cavalry sometimes falls off their Horses, the horned saddle reconstruction proves something about the geniousness of Roman inventions....

need I go on??

Proper educational re-enactment and experimental archaeology WORKS!

and it has its use...

M.VIB.M.
Quote:I like the definition of of what is needed to make reconstruction a discipline.

I must admit I assumed that academics would discriminate against re-enactors. A few personal emails later I suspect re-enactors discriminate against poor foolish academics. I wasn't expecting that view.

Unfortunantely the word discriminate has many loaded implications these days. I prefer to see the relationship as adversarial, similar to that found in many legal systems. Each side presents it's case, examining the evidence, presenting witnesses, and calling upon expert testimony. All those who testify are subject to cross-examination. The greatest difference is that there is no statute of limitations and retrial (doulblejeopardy) is allowable when new evidence becomes available. The goal for all involved is provide each idea with a fair trial and most accurate verdict.
An Example:
For a long time the accepted "truth" was that the ballista bases on Trajan's column appeared too short due to artistic liscense. Everyone "knew" that they were really about a meter tall. Some of us sceptics saw reasonable doubt. The only first person testimony was the work of stonemasons who were unble to testify on account of being dead for nearly two millennia. Experts had built working models to demonstrate their theories. To my knowledge, no one had fully tested them firing from the bed of a mule cart. When I built a cart and tested a reasonably similar weapon I found potentialy exculpatory evidence. This caused me to return to the carved testimony to find a design that works and doesn't contradict the first person evidence. Am I sure that I've proven my case beyond a shadow of a doubt? Not by a long shot, but I can build a very strong circumstantial case and unfortuantely we sometimes have to settle for that until a more difinitive find is made.
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