Anthropology Experimental Archaeology
Alan Outram, Linda Hurcombe
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0271


Experimental archaeology is a multifaceted approach employed by a wide and rapidly expanding range of exponents including everybody from lab-based archaeological research scientists through to museum professionals and re-enactment groups. Scientific experiments are trials designed to test a hypothesis which will either be rejected (falsified) or validated. Validation does not imply truth, but demonstrates that the hypothesis is viable, though there may be equally viable alternatives. Experiments are the mainstay of almost all hypothetico-deductive science. Hence, one could define most archaeological science as being a form of experimental archaeology. However, most practitioners of experimental archaeology would view an attempt to replicate past activities and processes using authentic materials as an essential, defining aspect of the field. A laboratory scientist’s approach to experimentation is likely to minimize the variables being investigated at any one time while maximising control over conditions. Other experimental approaches, however, aim to see how processes work within life-like scenarios that involve authentic materials and variables. The term “actualistic” is often applied to such a mode of experimentation, alongside “reconstruction” and “replicative.” The best research often involves both controlled and actualistic experimentation to provide a sound understanding of individual variables and the interaction of many variables within realistic scenarios. These approaches are complementary and on a continuum. While some experimental archaeologists view their approach as an actualistic branch of hypothesis-based archaeological science, where the strict definitions of an experiment apply, others view the field as somewhat broader. Such practitioners value what can be learned from attempting to carry out activities, or even live, in conditions and with the materials that would be available in a particular time or place. This type of activity is often not based upon the testing of particular hypotheses but on experiential learning. Exponents of this approach will gain insights into the potential challenges faced by past peoples that might not otherwise occur to us or be reflected in the ethnographic record. Groups of practitioners that fall into this category might variously identify as being “re-enactors,” exponents of “living history,” “primitive technologists” or even “survivalists.” Thus, experimental archaeology can range from strictly scientific and objective methods to more subjective, experiential approaches, while retaining the essential aim of undertaking experiments which usually include actualistic activities using authentic materials. An additional noteworthy attribute of experimental archaeology is that re-enactment and reconstruction activities lend themselves particularly well to engaging forms of public presentation and education. As such, open-air experimental archaeology museums are currently expanding in number and visitorship. This field is expanding exponentially in almost every branch of archaeology making an individual section on every possible topic impossible, thus our approach is indicative and organized by broad themes of inquiry.

General Overviews

Experiments have been used in archaeology as far back as the 1890s, but “experimental archaeology” was not really defined as a specific subfield until Ascher 1961 summarized such activity under that heading. The approach was more fully described and advocated by John Coles in the 1970s in a number of works, the most comprehensive of which is Coles 1979. The 1960s saw the establishment by Hans-Ole Hansen of the Lejre research and experiment center in Denmark and in the 1970s the establishment of Butser Ancient Farm, a famous site for the experimental investigation of Iron Age structures and farming practices. Its founder and chief scientist was Peter Reynolds who published an overview of his perceptions of experimental archaeology in Reynolds 1999. More recently, a number of works have provided general introductions to the subject including Hurcombe 2004, Mathieu 2002, Millson 2010, and Outram 2008. Many of these articles are introductions to edited volumes that are dedicated to experimental archaeology, some of which relate to schools of thought developed in particular geographical regions. For instance, Ferguson 2010 presents largely American and scientific perspectives, while Petersson 2011 presents a less strictly positivist view from Scandinavia, and Reeves Flores and Paardekooper 2014 gives broad overviews of European developments. All these works address varying definitions of experimental archaeology, discuss different types of experiment, and introduce examples. Kelterborn 2005 provides such an overview in the form of a very concise set of principles to guide successful applications of experimental research.

  • Ascher, Robert. 1961. Experimental archaeology. American Anthropologist 63.4: 793–816.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1961.63.4.02a00070

    An early paper considering the concept of experimental archaeology that provides a set of examples of formative work from the 1890s to 1950s.

  • Coles, John. 1979. Experimental archaeology. London: Academic Press.

    This influential volume was significant in advocating the use of experimental archaeology and takes a thematic approach to discussing the use of experiments within archaeological research.

  • Ferguson, Jeffery R., ed. 2010. In Designing experimental research in archaeology: Examining technology through production and use. Boulder: Univ. Press of Colorado.

    Edited volume with good introductory overview and an American flavor. It particularly focuses on different approaches to experimental design covering a range of artifact technologies and performance issues.

  • Hurcombe, Linda. 2004. Experimental archaeology. In Archaeology: The key concepts. Edited by Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, 110–115. London: Routledge.

    Brief overview of the meaning of experimental archaeology for academic research versus a broader common perception of the term.

  • Kelterborn, Peter. 2005. Principles of experimental research in archaeology. euroREA 2:119–120.

    By summarizing principles he developed in three earlier works, this very short article concisely outlines some guiding principles to the good conduct of experimental archaeology research.

  • Mathieu, James R. 2002. Introduction. In Experimental archaeology: Replicating past objects, behaviours and processes. Edited by James R. Mathieu, 1–4. Oxford: BAR Archaeopress.

    Valuable general summary of the field that discusses the essential components of an experimental approach at the start of an edited volume dedicated to the subject.

  • Millson, Dana C. E. 2010. Introduction. In Experimentation and interpretation: The use of experimental archaeology in the study of the past. Edited by Dana C. E. Millson, 1–6. Oxford: Oxbow.

    A short, balanced introduction to the subject that puts the field within its theoretical context. The rest of this edited volume is devoted to theoretical perspectives in experimental archaeology.

  • Outram, Alan K. 2008. Introduction to experimental archaeology. World Archaeology 40.1: 1–6.

    DOI: 10.1080/00438240801889456

    Introduction to a themed journal issue devoted to experimental archaeology which defines experimental archaeology primarily as sitting within positivist science, without denying benefits of other approaches the field.

  • Petersson, Bodil. 2011. Introduction. In Experimental archaeology: Between enlightenment and experience. Edited by Bodil Petersson and Lars E. Narmo, 9–26. Acta Archaeologica Lundensia Series 8, no. 62. Lund, Sweden: Lund Univ.

    An introduction to an edited volume on experimental archaeology within the current Scandinavian school of thought. It takes a less strictly scientific view of the field.

  • Reeves Flores, Jodi, and Roeland Paardekooper, eds. 2014. Experiments past: Histories of experimental archaeology. Leiden, The Netherlands: Sidestone.

    Provides useful overviews of developments in Europe and makes some of the literature on these accessible in English.

  • Reynolds, Peter J. 1999. The nature of experiment in archaeology. In Experiment and design: Archaeological studies in honour of John Coles. Edited by Anthony F. Harding, 156–162. Oxford: Oxbow.

    A very personal view of experimental archaeology by one of its most famous practitioners that maintains a very strict scientific view and provides a useful classification of experiments by type and aims.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.