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Thursday, 9 July 2015

Applied Bushcraft; Experimental Archaeology

This months instalment of the applied bushcraft series comes from guest blogger Dr Peter Groom an experienced experimental archaeologist and the course manager of Reaseheath Colleges ground breaking Archaeology and Bushcraft Course.

Coastal shell middens (rubbish tips), are a significant feature of the Mesolithic (11,500–6000 cal BP) archaeological record of western Scotland, the amount of shellfish and fish remains found in them suggests a maritime lifestyle based on fishing and shellfish. Yet despite evidence for the importance of fish and shellfish to diet, virtually nothing is known as to how they were caught or collected.
My research attempted to change this by using a combination of bushcraft/primitive skills and experimental archaeology.

Experimental archaeology has been used by researchers in Scottish Mesolithic contexts before, but has mainly concentrated on process and function trials. Examples include; using bevel-ended tools in an attempt to provide possibilities of use, harpoon construction, reconstruction and use of antler mattocks, experimental knapping, food processing and preservation, hazelnut roasting, and cooking trials with meat and shellfish.

Initially, my work focussed on the prehistoric environments of Scottish West Coast Mesolithic coastal sites, to establish what natural resources were available to Mesolithic coastal dwellers. I then looked at a range of archaeological/traditional fishing gear and food collection strategies to see what might have been used in the Mesolithic. These perspectives, together with the prehistoric environmental data, guided my construction and use of the fishing gear, which used only the resources and technologies available to the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of West Coast Scotland.

Gorge hooks made of Roe Deer metapodial with line made from willow bark.
My fieldwork and experiments were conducted at the Mesolithic coastal sites of; Ulva, Oban, Oronsay and Sand, together with South Uist and the Urr estuary on the Solway Firth.
The fishing gear that I built and used, using primitive technology and ‘bushcraft’ skills, reflected the current debates as to Mesolithic fishing strategies, as such, several archaeological theories were tested. The fishing gear also attempted to target the main fish and crab species found in the middens; coalfish, pollack, wrasse, green shore crab, harbour crab and edible crab.    

I spent much of the time scrubbing around on remote Scottish islands, testing whatever I could find to see if I could make fishing lines, hooks or basket traps. This involved travelling to some of the most beautiful parts of Scotland and sitting on the coast fishing with my hand made gear.

This fish trap was made with the natural re-growth of alder and willow and was, as were the gorge hooks above, made with nothing but stone and bone tools.
I made and tested a wide range of fishing gear and travelled thousands of miles over 4 years and started to feel like a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer; lugging fishing gear around the west coast of Scotland to remote sites, planning to maximise the use of tides, the health and safety when working alone in remote locations, the lousy weather that plagued my 2011 fieldwork. These experiences provided me with an insight into the world of the Mesolithic coastal hunter-gatherer, revealing the extent of logistical organisation and knowledge that hunter-gatherers must have had in order to fully utilise their environment. The planning needed to maximise returns, whether foraging, hunting or collecting resources. The knowledge required of the environment; the places to find the best materials for a particular task, knowledge of seasons and the seasonal movement of species, when and where to be at a particular place at a particular time. My experiments demonstrated how site-specific fishing technologies could have been created using naturally occurring local materials to catch fish, and how knowledge of tides was essential in the day to day gathering of food.

Another key part of my experiments was the involvement of students. I taught them the primitive skills and ancient technologies required to make their own basic fishing gear, then took them fishing.
All this experimental work can only benefit archaeologists if it is evaluated. Aspects of collection, manufacture, fishing, evidence of learning and understanding, together with social interactions, are all important in unravelling how hunter-gatherers might have lived. This is where experimental archaeology can fill in some of the gaps, the human facets that are missing from the archaeological record.

      Throughout the experiments and particularly when the students were involved, a clear distinction developed between the experiences gained through individual activities and group activities. The students collaborated in small groups throughout the manufacture of the portable traps, and, though working individually when making lines and hooks, sat together and were able to share their feelings and experiences. This meant that throughout both the manufacture of a range of gear and the fishing experiments themselves, the students gained a social interaction. This social interaction continued in the fishing; the portable trap experiments enabled groups to compete to see which trap performed best, and the handline experiments meant that individuals could compete directly with each other.

After 4 years of field work and thousands of miles travelled, I am convinced that for coastal Mesolithic hunter-gatherers who had a range of bushcraft/primitive skills, a combined knowledge of the actions of tides together with the behaviour of the target species and the effects of the seasons, would enable them to create and use a range of simple fishing gear from whatever they found, wherever they went. It is of course very difficult to understand the mind-set of someone who lived 8000 years ago, but by using those ancient hunter-gatherer skills together with experimental archaeology, we can move some way toward them.


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