FinallyFriday Episode# 9: Same Questions, Different Places
Hello and welcome to #FinallyFriday. This chat session is run by EXARC, the society for archaeological open-air museums, experimental archaeology, ancient technology, and interpretation. My name is Matilda Siebrecht and today I am joined by two specialists from our EXARC community, focusing on international approaches to experimental archaeology.
Professor Shanti Papou is a specialist in prehistory and interfaces with paleo-environments, ethno-archaeology, and public archaeology based in Chennai, India. She, along with Dr. Kumar Akhilesh, runs the Sharma Centre for Heritage Education, which conducts research in Indian archaeology and communicates the same through outreach in the form of experimental archaeology, including workshops and courses for university students, schoolchildren and local communities. Dr. João Carlos Moreno de Sousa is a specialist in lithic technology based in the Laboratory for Human Evolutionary Studies at the University of São Paulo, Brazil, focussing predominantly on using experimental archaeology to investigate technologies from Paleo-American and Paleo-Indian cultures. He is the founder of Arqueologia e Pré-História, which is a collection of online resources, aiming to communicate archaeological research and information, and especially to promote the local archaeology and Palaeontology of Brazil to non-specialists and academics alike. So welcome to both of you. So I have a quick question to start you off. How did you both become introduced to experimental archaeology? Shanti, perhaps you could start.
SP: So thank you very much for having me here. And I'm really excited to talk to everyone and to participate in this program. Well, it's quite an interesting story. When we first began our research way back in ‘99 and Akhilesh and I started excavating sites and investigating them, we realized right from the beginning that there were two things lacking in the Indian context.
Most of our data in prehistory comes in the form of stone tools. We have very few fossils or anything else and making and using stone tools, as you know, in India is not any more living tradition. So we really felt that there was a need to know, and to learn how these tools were actually made. So way back, I attended a workshop in France organized by professors Texier and Pelegrin which was absolutely amazing, except that I was rotten knapper.
I just couldn't make tools. And then years later, Akhilesh went to the same workshop and he turned out to be absolutely brilliant. So from there, when he came back to India, he started experimenting with our local raw materials and then he never stopped. And it
became a key aspect of our research to interpret the Palaeolithic sites that we are working on to sort of understand the technologies at these sites and this project is still continuing. And the second thing, which we realized that in India, because we have such wonderful monuments and other aspects of heritage, there was not really a great awareness about prehistory at all. So when we, in ‘99, we began a tiny little children's museum in a school here, and then from then on, we have been growing and developing and we felt that experimental archaeology should be key in any public outreach workshop for children, teachers, or anyone. So we started teaching children, Akhilesh especially, how to knap flakes, use the flakes to scrape food or do something, get a feel of lithic technology. And then we moved on to pottery and making bricks and rock art modules and so many... lost wax, so many traditional crafts which are also part of our archaeological record. So, this is what we did. And then we moved on to
teaching university students in courses. So from there we've been running these courses in our centre in Chennai and also traveling in India, across the country and to other countries, to Sri Lanka as well. So that's our story. So it's a combination of experimental archaeology for research to address research questions and for public outreach, sort of weaving it all together into interfaces and networks which go together. MS: Did you have a similar experience, João, in that you kind of went elsewhere... because I understand you were also a flint knapper, so that you went elsewhere to learn the sort of techniques or did you know about it before? JM: First of all, thank you for inviting me. It's an honour to be here and to be
part of EXARC. My first experience actually was during my undergrad somewhere between 2009, 2010. I can’t remember exactly. There was this optional course on experimental archaeology. It was not a usual course. So the program, the professor didn't even have experience in the approach,
was more like an excuse for her and the students to have first experience on knapping, cutting flakes and using pottery. It was great to have this first experience, even though it was not systematic at all, because many students start to look to the materials with new eyes after that. Through this, I got even more interested on lithics and we kept trying to make stone tools by self-teaching until we met Professor Bruce Bradley from the University of Exeter in 2016, it was, this was during my PhD. I participated as a student in the course on Method and techniques of flint knapping, that was carried out in Brazil by him. And after that, I got a scholarship for a part of my PhD in the University of Exeter with him.
And there's where I finally got really involved with experimental archaeology and learned how to really do cool stuff with lithics, complex stuff. And being on this track since then. And now I'm teaching a little bit of flint knapping to students here in Brazil, even as a professor on this courses of methods and techniques. MS: So it sounds like for both of you at least, the whole concept of experimental archaeology was something that you introduced to your universities or your regions, would you say that's true? SP: Not for me, not in India. People had been knapping before us as well. There are many people who were doing that, but in our own Institute,
yes, we founded the Centre and we have brought experimental archaeology in as a major element here. Actually, it's quite interesting that the first experimental studies were done way back in the 1960s and even earlier, in the colonial period also, people experimented in lithic knapping a bit. In India, there are many people who do knap, but in our case, we took it on as a major project, for our own research, as well as for teaching, especially for children, for university graduates and others. So that's become now a major part of our Institute. JM: In Brazil, we did have some past works on experimental archaeology, including flint knapping. But it was like what we used to call ‘first time experimenters’, actually ‘one time experimenters’, people would make something in flint knapping, but never worked on that before. So this is not experimental archaeology, not an established part of archaeological research, in Brazil yet. The laboratory that I worked for, the Laboratory
for Human Evolutionary Studies is one of the few in Brazil and in South America in general, that have been applying the experimental approach. And it is actually very recent since 2018. There was some of these experimental research since the seventies, but it's like, there are very few people have done, but no researchers that are actually specialized on the subject. Currently we only have two other institutions in Brazil doing experiments, which is, the Federal University of Minas Gerais that have some researchers, although they’re not yet specialists. They're starting to do some stuff on both lithics and pottery and with the Federal University of Santa Maria in Southern Brazil, with people there working just in pottery. But in general, all these researchers, including most of us in our Laboratory, are still beginners. No Brazilian archaeologist has ever been in an experimental
archaeological centre before. Even myself, I just did part of my PhD research on the team. And now our idea in our Laboratory is to get more involved with researchers and institutions abroad that have been working with experimental archaeology and develop it as a research line in our institution. SP: I think the story in India is quite similar in the sense that people have been experimenting, but very sporadic and not as a major activity as such. So that's, I think in many ways,
similar to what he was talking about. MS: And do you find, because you mentioned already, especially Shanti, there are still a lot of other more traditional crafting techniques that are still kind of a part of everyday life for a lot of communities, a lot of people. Is there much collaboration between, for example, kind of academic experimental archaeologists doing research into that topic and local craftspeople or regional craftspeople who have more experience in those techniques, maybe not knapping necessarily, but other technologies? SP: Yes, absolutely. Whether you talk of pottery or bead making or bangle, craft, textiles, glass, shell craft, sculpture, lost wax method and so many other traditions, even making grinding stones, you know, traditional millers and other grinding stones. These are all living traditions.
In fact, we have a grinding stone in our house and we use pottery and these are very much in use. So there have been a lot of studies done by archaeologists, both Indian and foreign. We've done some great work interacting with traditional craftspeople. So this fantastic legacy has been drawn in both in experimental archaeology and of course with experimental archaeology to investigate questions related to the past. As regards stone tool manufacture, this is very sporadic
and it's only confined to experimental studies by trained flint knappers and archaeologists working together in India and abroad as well. So, that's the thing about India, we have this great living tradition, which is a huge potential to study for experimental archaeology. MS: Is it similar in Brazil or...? JM: It's similar in the point of view of the lithics there's nothing traditional for knapping or something like that. But if we talk about pottery there are many indigenous groups still making pottery and traditional people doing many types of pottery and there are academics that are learning with them. But if we talk
outside of indigenous people, people who [...] craft things, no, there's no collaboration at all. In Brazil, few craftspeople actually have any interest in archaeological themes. Most of the craftspeople in Brazil are white men, followers of military ideals and survivor on the wild, like those shows on tv. There was one time my girlfriend and I were both invited for a festival in bushcraft to talk about her work in experimental archaeology, but it was not a really good experience, especially for her, a woman in an openly sexist environment. So it's really, really hard to get this collaboration with these guys; many of these craftsmen carry out and disseminate very wrong ideas of what are native American traditional technologies.
But the few ones that are really interested to learn have been in contact with us. And one of them is a biologist that is now considering a master degree with experimental archaeology. So that's, that's a good thing. MS: Fantastic. So there's potential for the future. SP: I just agree with what
he says and I think there's huge scope. And in fact, we do have traditional craftspeople come into our Institute for it, especially related to pottery, to teach children or to have demonstrations. So there's a huge scope for the research and studies as well. MS: I actually am curious because I mean, Shanti, you said you've been doing this since sort of 1999, I think you said. And João you said that it's been relatively recent for you guys,
more since sort of 2018. What kind of advice would you both give to someone who, for example, might also be living in a country that is not so focussed on experimental archaeology or who have different focuses for their archaeological research, but who wants to start their own kind of research or their own community project in this topic? SP: Yeah, actually there's a huge potential. It's a great thing to do because we firmly believe that you, at least for prehistory, you cannot understand lithics just from theory or just by measuring or analyzing the tools, you have to experiment. You have to knap. You have to have structured programmes to understand this. So I guess it's essential whether it's lithics or pottery or whatever you're talking about, as regards the past. So I think in countries like India, it should be a part of the mainstream syllabus in a very practical way, not merely on only theory but it should be a proper course introduced into most universities to work with as a beginning. And if any new groups want to
come up, that would be fantastic. And I think we've had very good experiences and I think it is a must, it is the future to do this. And without that, you are stuck at some level. JM: Yeah, I totally agree on having an experience of producing the artifacts that you're studying and replicating them because you have a new point of view on everything that you're doing. When you look at something, just look for example to an arrowhead made on stone. You see the negatives of the flint knapping and everything, but you will just understand that completely if you try to make one yourself. For people that live in countries like ours,
where we don't have these institutions that are focussing on experimental archaeology, like Brazil, I can say that: please contact researchers that are working in the subject to have some orientation. I'm sure it's true that you can ask for supervision and to spend some time abroad learning. That's exactly what I did and other close colleagues in Brazil are doing now. Of course, self-teaching is always an option. Anyone considering working with experimental archaeology will do have to do
some self-teaching at some point, since we cannot always depend on someone to teach us everything in practice, what you're practicing. MS: Yes, I think that's a good point, learning from other people, but also not being afraid to try things yourself, I suppose. SP: Absolutely. You have to work with the materials you have in hand and at a certain point it's a lot of self-learning also. Akhilesh has been experimenting with different raw materials
and different questions in his mind and what he said was absolutely right for us as well in India. MS: I'm curious as well, because I mean, obviously at the moment with the whole international pandemic going on, there is less travel. And you both mentioned that both of you have kind of travelled to learn the different techniques more specifically, and also then enhance these techniques at home. But you also do both focus very much on your local prehistory of course, because of where you're based. And do you think that archaeology now is often considered a very international discipline? For example, for me, I am Scottish based in the Netherlands and studying material from the Canadian Arctic. It's quite easy to go sort of all over the place and to focus on a region that's not necessarily your local one or where you're based. But do you think that
sort of focusing more on local prehistory, do you think this is something that should be prioritized? Or why do you think that local focus is such an important part of archaeology, but also experimental archaeology? JM: I think, yeah, we should prioritize local focus. It is a shame that when we talk about prehistory most of what the public has access to is about European prehistory, I don't know about India, but that's the case in Brazil. Most of the commentaries, podcasts, [...] similar other types of media do not talk about other places except Europe. The good news is that it is time to change in this decade.
Until recently, if you’re going back to the books on prehistory and human evolution, when we get to talk about homo sapiens, they're only things written on the European Upper Palaeolithic, although modern humans were in every continent by 40,000 years ago, including Brazil. When I was in my undergrad I only learned about the history of Brazil and the Americas and Europe. I never heard about the prehistory of India for example, until I was finishing my masters, when a foreign professor offered the first history of Asian continent, and I really doubt that students from other continents learn about the archaeological culture of Brazil, that we are studying here now. Even though there are many publications on the [thing] in English, even the Brazilian public does not know much of the native history of Brazil, because most of the content they see immediately is related to pre-Columbian civilizations, Egypt, Rome, Greece, Viking, et cetera. So how can we say that local focus is important if we do not even consider to disseminate this knowledge? MS: Shanti, do you have anything to add? SP: Yeah, actually in India, the first Palaeolithic stone artefact was discovered in the area where Akhilesh and I are currently working, way back in 1863, so not very long after the major discoveries in Europe. So we have a really long
tradition of local studies of the archaeology of India. India, as you know such a huge area, huge region, different geomorphology, different environments and fantastic to history. And in fact, the sites we are working at go back from 1 million to around 1.5, 1.7 million years. So it's a marvellous heritage in our own backyard. And it's been really well-studied
for the past century, by numerous universities and scholars in India and abroad and everywhere. So when we began our research, there was never any question about going anywhere else, but just going out to our own backyard. And go deeper into questions, which people have touched on all these years. So much using whatever new scientific techniques are available, new theoretical approaches to go deep into very local problems that have a global significance. So that has been a tradition in Indian archaeology. It's always been about the sub-continent. So I think we definitely love to compare our lithics and our material with the neighbouring countries and with Africa and Europe and elsewhere and we are working with collaborators to do that, but the research focus has always been very local and I think that’s something very important because as you correctly said the prehistory of India is possibly not very well-known anywhere in many places of the world. So this is what we are trying to bring it to global notice
in many ways. So by going deeper into problems and obviously with collaboration of scientists in India and abroad and a focus on what we have with us here right now, that's always been our focus. And of course, as he said to communicate this knowledge, because as I mentioned earlier, we have our focus always on big monuments. So abroad you'd have heard of the Taj,
but you would not have heard about the thousands, literally thousands of prehistoric sites we have all over the country. So that's the second aim to make the knowledge of our local prehistory available and accessible to not only the academic world, but also to the local stakeholders and to children, teachers, and local populations to know that they have such a wonderful heritage right next to them. So that's been our aim, always. MS: That's really interesting, that there’s such a difference between your two experiences. So in India, it's mainly focused on Indian heritage and India prehistory, but then in Brazil, it's a lot on Europe as well as Brazil. Do you find though, because João, you're teaching a lot more about Brazilian prehistory, for example, do you find that students or members of the public are then more interested if they hear about Brazilian rather than European? Is it sort of similar? How how's the reaction to that? JM: Most of the time when people come to study archaeology, to make an undergrad in archaeology, they come because they're really interested in these monumental things from the pre-Colombian, Egypt, Rome et cetera. But when they finally join the course and start seeing...,
discover a whole new world on what actually is Brazilian archaeology..., because most of the public doesn't know about what we have in Brazil. It's for as the academic people that know much of what we have in Brazil. But when all these students know they get so fascinated that we actually have, like also having some metal stuff, it's just not very disseminated, or it wasn't until two years ago. And when the general public learns about these things, they get also fascinated on what we have here, because, well, I'm not the best person to ask for it, but if you asked me, I would say that the Brazilian prehistory is really fantastic. So it's something that we fall in love for. MS: I guess as well for people if it's something local,
then it's always a lot more interesting anyway, because you can relate a lot more to it and it's something more familiar, perhaps, even if it's new to learn. You mentioned, Shanti, collaborating with other groups in different countries. How easy has it been for you to connect with sort of experimental archaeology groups in different parts of the world? SP: Actually after that training in France, I mean, I told you I was not good at all, but Akhilesh sort of had a knack for it. So definitely we have a lot of collaborations with archaeologists and other scientists, with people in different parts of the world.
But so far, apart from EXARC, we've not had really a tie-up as we’ve got our own lithic knapping programs. Although we have a lot of discussions with individual experts and sort of sharing ideas with a lot of people who are individually knapping, but not groups as such, though we'd love to tie up more. And in fact, I think it's great that EXARC is bringing us all together under some sort of umbrella. So that's fantastic. I'll be really keen to collaborate and to build new projects and explore new avenues within this field. So that's where we are right now. So that's it, I think there's huge scope and we're really excited about it and some more papers
and hopefully our book will be out regarding our own research. So let's see how it goes. MS: And following quickly up on that. Do you find that there's other places in India that are sort of starting up, trying to emulate the work you're doing? How much collaboration is there within India as well in this kind of thing? SP: Firstly, we are not a big centre. We are
quite small. There are a lot of other people also knapping and who have knapped before us. So we've learned from them and we learned from their experiences also, and in our courses, which we have taken to different universities across India, so we have two types of courses: one is in-house, which we run in our Institute and the other is very short duration traveling courses, maybe a few days or a week or something like that at different universities. So there we’ve had excellent interactions with different people and trained a number of batches of students, who are now doing experimental knapping themselves and are getting very good at it. So that's very satisfying for us, that what Akhilesh has been teaching, because he's the main knapper in this whole project. Those students are now coming up and running their own projects for their own research.
So this is really nice and I think we've had a lot of cooperation and help and we do discuss and interact with people who are interested knapping and microwear in India as well. So on the whole, it's been very positive so far. MS: And hopefully also a nice future, if it seems that the knowledge is spreading out gradually throughout everyone. SP: Yes, I think so. And we did two in Sri Lanka as well, those students are also doing knapping themselves now and are running their own projects I hope.
MS: Great. AndJoão, so you also, obviously you went to Exeter and you spent a lot of time there learning about knapping, but in terms of other parts of the world, non-European countries or other places in Europe, but also other South American countries, but also within Brazil, what are the difficulties or the eases, shall we say, of collaborations in that respect? JM: So when I started my PhD in 2015 it was really difficult to connect because I didn't know anyone with experience in the subject apart from Professor Bradley. It was only in 2017 when I was doing my studies in Exeter that I finally met more people and got involved and got to know many other institutions where people were working with experimental archaeology. I found out about EXARC for example. And so I have become a member of this great group,
hoping to see more Brazilians there soon as well. And after my girlfriend was working with also experimental archaeology but focused on bone tools. She is now also having contacts with other institutions that I wasn't aware that were doing other types of experimental archaeology, for example, in Paris and Ushuaia in the extreme South of Argentina where people are doing very, very great works on this subject. And we found out how easy it is to connect with people, especially on experimental archaeology, because they also are aware that there's few people in the world doing this, especially non-European people doing experimental archaeology. So they also want to be connected with us. And every time we make contact with these people, we basically have an automatic invitation to go there as soon as possible to collaborate with projects so this has been very, very nice, very cool.
MS: That sounds great. I'm very happy to hear that so many people are getting more involved in experimental archaeology in these different places. Moving to a slightly different topic... so both of you are also very much involved with, as you said, sort of public outreach and sort of demonstrations and that kind of thing. When you give examples of the different experimental archaeology projects, so either when you're demonstrating or when you're giving the courses, what would you say is the most popular kind of technology type or demonstration or example for the public? So for the locals who are watching? SP: That's a great question. Actually, it depends
on the age. So when we run these programs for small children that is from six years onwards, school children, then they are very excited just to see a simple flake being knocked off and when Akhilesh knocks off the flake, and then he uses it on leather or wood or something else they get very excited. And when you come to a slightly older age group, it's obviously the hand axe. So it's the bi-facial knapping, which everyone is fascinated with,
the symmetry, which takes shape in front of you as he knaps and transforms a piece of rock into a beautiful symmetrical hand axe. That's what people really love watching. And obviously it depends on the time, if there's not much time, we demonstrate bi-facial flaking in stages. And if there is time, then he makes a little hand axe for someone. And another thing which people really like to get their hands on is making blades. So when Akhilesh prepares a core and then individually helps people to knock off a blade. So that is something which is really popular with college groups.
In our longer courses and workshops, we take them right from knocking off flakes, through bi-facial level, wall blades, microliths and polished stone tools that is for university graduates. And I think everywhere there’s a sort of fascination for hand-axes and blades in our experience, generally the hand axe. Otherwise, it depends on how you teach them and how you excite interest in the whole thing. This is what our experience shows.
So we modify the demonstration or the interaction with people depending on the type of crowd available and the age group of course. It's really fascinating. We have to do that. MS: Do you also find, I'm just curious that there's a difference between, you mentioned the age groups, but is there also a difference between men versus women? SP: In terms of knapping skills maybe yes, to some extent in some of the groups, but in terms of interest, no, it's universal. I mean the simple act of detaching a flake and using it to cut a piece of leather or wood or something, generates equal fascination, whatever the age group for a novice, for someone who doesn't know anything about this. And once they are aware a little more of prehistory, it's the hand axes and the symmetry, which is achieved through clicking, which is really always popular. I think it's a mix of aesthetics and technology. Both. For a general audience. MS: The general public. Yeah, exactly. Do you have a similar experience or do you find, it's different with your crowds, João? JM: Making stone tools for a group of people is always the most liked thing. It’s mind-blowing
when we show them that we can break rocks with our hands and we can shape them the way we want and how we can predict the shape of every flake that gets out. What I'd like to do is getting a piece of chalk and drawing the form of the flake that I want to get off. And then we strike it and the flake comes exactly in the shape that the chalk is there. People just get “Oh my God...” MS: I wish I could do that! JM: In my lectures, people are regularly paying attention to what I say and oh... and etcetera. But when I say let's make a demonstration, dozens of cell phones pop up all around me. It was like, since like, this is the only thing they came for
actually sometimes. And of course they always love to have the opportunity to try and make the flakes themselves and using them as knives and arrowheads if we do some practice experiments, So, yeah, when we talk about stone tools, or anything experimental with stone tools is what people most get excited for. SP: Yes I think we have the same experience here. MS: A universal trait. Everyone just loves stone tools! Well, on which note,
I have one final question before we open this up to our listeners. So you've already sort of briefly mentioned a couple of ideas, but what are your kind of general plans for the future and how more specifically can the EXARC community who are listening today help to make a difference, do you think, in regards to the points that we've discussed today? Perhaps João, you could go first? JM: My plan for now is to finish my Postdoc research, to get a professor position in university, hopefully, and keep researching South American prehistory, even if I get a job somewhere else. Because again, I'm in love with Brazilian prehistory and it's important to know everywhere. Keep disseminating archaeology to the general public, as I'm doing now with the Arqueologia e Pré-História network of science communication and to make any efforts to develop experimental archaeology in Brazil. EXARC is already helping me with some of these aspects,
not just by being here in the show today but by making experimenters more closer to each other, allowing us to learn and teach and make great discussions and plans for the future. MS: Okay. Glad we could help. Shanti? SP: Yes, I think we have actually three main aims for the immediate future. I can't see what's going to happen later, but the first is to develop our own experimental programmes in terms of research and network with more people who, if they're interested, can join us in this and to structure more systematic modules, to address questions related to prehistory and develop our microwear centre as well. So that's, as far as research is concerned, so that involves a lot of networking and in that EXARC also plays a very important role. And the second is regarding children and outreach through our interpretation centres. So we have already been developing these modules in different, not only lithics, but also other aspects of experimental archaeology and we have now plans to expand that and that's going on right now.
And the third is regarding our teaching programs. So every module which we design, when we've had these short term courses, we try to improve on that and add something new every time. Our aim is to improve these further and to continue, once this pandemic is over of course, until then online and then later on offline again.
We developed better courses, in terms of experimental lithic knapping, and prehistory. [...] So these three aims are there and that's what we have been working at and I hope we can do it. And EXARC of course forms a very important part in this, in all aspects, actually, not only the research, but also the public outreach. We're quite excited about speaking about our work in this conference, and I'm hoping we can get feedback and new ideas and collaborations.