Time Travel, Trebuchets, and Atlatls: Playing with the Past Through Experimental Archaeology

Science and Archaeology

By: James R. Mathieu

Originally Published in 2003

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Recently I had a chance to read Michael Crich­on’s Timeline, a book recommended to me because it combined my interests in archaeology and the medieval world with an adventure similar to the now-famous Jurassic Park. The book was indeed fun to read since it toyed with the concept of time travel and every archaeologist’s fanta­sy: to witness in person the ancient events and phenomena we study today through archaeological excavation.

Though Crichton’s book is a work of fiction, his brief discussion of ‘experimental history,’ the re-cre­ation of “parts of the past, to experience it firsthand and understand it better” alludes to the real academ­ic subfield of experimental archaeology.

During a recent stint of teaching at Washington and Lee University, in Lexington, Virginia, I was able to spread my enthusiasm for studying the past, using this hands-on approach. Teaching a course on experimental archae­ology, I introduced students to the opportunities available for understanding the past through the replication of ancient ob­jects, behaviors, and processes.

For example, through a stroke of good luck, Grigg Mullen, a civil engineer at the nearby Viriginia Military Institute, demon­strated the use of his half-size replica of a medieval trebuchet for our class.

Taking placed just after Hallow­een, we launched leftover pump­kins 100 yards through the air towards an imaginary castle wall — producing wonderful, hol­low-sounding detonations as they exploded on impact. Gasps of excitement and delight indicated the students were connecting with the past in a par­ticularly tangible and satisfying manner, gaining a better appre­ciation of the medieval world’s ingenuity, capability, and power. (See the NOVA video series, Secrets of Lost Empires: Medieval Siege, for an episode on the full-scale reconstruction and use of such siege engines.)

Another hands-on opportunity presented itself in the form of using an atlatl (spearthrower) to launch 7-foot darts at a tar­get 30 yards distant. Each student had multiple chances to wield the spearthrower and target the bull’s-eye. It took them a while to get used to the feel of the atlatl and its throwing motion, but after a little advice on compensating for the dart’s tendency to sail to the right, most students were able to score some direct hits, fully penetrating the target cardboard boxes.

Our class’s field day with these casual experiments paid unex­pected dividends in our understanding of the past. One stu­dent, Sarah Schmidt, a finalist for All-American honors in the javelin, was inspired to pursue independent research on the use­fulness of javelin techniques with atlatls. Interested in showing that the long, overarm, baseball pitch motion described in many academic studies of the atlatl was probably inaccurate, she tested what she thought might be a better, closer-to-the­-body, javelin hurling technique. To make her experiments more useful for understanding the past, she compared a range of test subjects including both men and women, young and old, and those skilled in the javelin and those not. Each subject launched darts for both accuracy and distance trials with the same atlatl.

Her results? As she suspected, experienced javelin throwers consistently scored higher marks in distance and accuracy, sug­gesting that javelin technique improves atlatl performance. Though this cannot prove that past people used atlatls with a javelin thrower’s technique, it does provide support to those who critique the appropriateness of, and the results obtained from, using a baseball throwing motion. Furthermore, she showed that differences in the throwers’experience, age, and sex interacted in interesting ways to influence the effectiveness of the atlatls. For example, among the javelin throwers, older, more experienced men did the best in distance trials, followed by young men, and then young women, whereas among the non-javelin throwers older men performed the worst. This suggests that experience may play a more important role in distance throw­ing than sexual differences. Alternatively, in the accuracy trials, though javelin throwers still did better as a group, the throwers’ experience, age, and sex made little difference. This probably indicates that javelin throwing experience does not necessarily affect atlatl accuracy as much as it does distance throwing.

Returning to Crichton’s novel, unfortunately time travel is not a possibility that archaeologists can pursue to understand the past. However, by using experimental archaeology, where parts of the past can be made to come alive, we can come into closer contact with past people, the lives they lived, the contexts they confronted, and the decisions they had to make. By put­ting ourselves into their shoes and ‘re-creating’ their world, we give ourselves a better chance of understanding them.

James R. Mathieu received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania.

For Further Reading

Hutchings, W. K., and L. W. Bruchert. “Spearthrower Performance: Ethnographic and Experimental Research.” Antiquity 71 (1997):890 – 897.

Mathieu, J.R., ed. Experimental Archaeology: Replicating Past Objects, Behaviors, and Processes. British Archaeo­logical Reports, International Series 1035. Oxford: BAR, 2002.

Cite This Article

Mathieu, James R.. "Time Travel, Trebuchets, and Atlatls: Playing with the Past Through Experimental Archaeology." Expedition Magazine 45, no. 3 (November, 2003): -. Accessed February 28, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/time-travel-trebuchets-and-atlatls-playing-with-the-past-through-experimental-archaeology/

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