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"Experimental Archaeology" has become a buzzword in recent years, and it can be found more and more often outside of academic work, especially in instructional books and in context of Living History and history demonstrations.

Be aware, though, that not everything that claims to be "experimental archaeology" lives up to its claim. Quite often the label is attached to demonstrations, or to things that would better be called "experiential archaeology" or, less confusingly close to the word "experiment": gaining experience. This includes making replicas and working with historical crafting methods and materials, either to gain experience with these methods and materials or to make items according to historical originals for use. In experiential archaeology, boundaries between demonstrating, teaching, trying out techniques and making things for use are fluid.

In contrast, archaeological experiments are very clearly defined. An archaeological experiment is always built around a specific question, and it is designed in a way to answer just this question. As with any other experiment, it rests on three pillars: reproducibility, objectivity and documentation. This means: if you are running an archaeological experiment, you have to document it so thoroughly, and design it in such a way, that somebody else (possibly on the other side of the globe) can reproduce your experiment and thus verify the results. When working with archaeological questions, there are many parameters that will introduce difficulties regarding objectivity and reproducibility: natural materials (wood, even from the same tree species, is not like wood) and the individual craft skills of the people involved are the two most frequent problematic parts. These built-in problems make it especially important to thoroughly plan and document the experiment, and keep these factors as small as possible.

It should be clear by now that an archaeological experiment is very different from demonstrating or trying out old crafts techniques. With almost no exception, experiments are not suitable for being run in public - especially not as a part of a Living History event, as the necessary technical stuff such as laptop, measuring equipment and camera will not fit into the picture at all. Even your experiment itself will probably contain parts that are not according to the historical tools or materials to ensure reproducibility and objectivity. If there is a need to run the experiment in public, the experimenting team will need at least one person who only works on explaining things to the public - and keeps the experimenters themselves free from being distracted by questions, as they have to concentrate only on running the experiment.

Planning and running an archaeological experiment requires a lot of time and work, not only for large-scale experiments. Planning, and especially sorting, analysing, interpreting and publishing the results can easily result in several hundred hours of work! Thus, if you run across something called "experimental archaeology" in the context of an event, it will usually be experiential archaeology.

There is an easy way to tell whether it is a proper archaeological experiment or not: is the experiment designed around a research question? (For instance: what is the influence of different metal kettle walls when dyeing? What is the influence of the cross-section shape of a longbow on its throwing properties when wood and bow strength are the same? Is it possible to reproduce characteristic microwear traces on flint tools through a specific kind of cutting or scraping technique on material X?) If there is a research question, the experiment has to be documented appropriately, including plan, materials and the actual run of the experiment, making it reproducible. If these requirements are not all met, it's not an experiment, but something else - trying out things, experiential archaeology, museum educational services, demonstrations, Living History, gaining experience.

All these things, from just trying out and playing around to demonstrating, are important parts of learning about history and archaeology. Gaining experience and getting familiar with tools and materials are usually absolutely necessary for planning, preparing, running and evaluating archaeological experiments as well - but they are not experiments themselves, and should not be called such.