Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton

ARCH2039 Experimental Archaeology: the social prehistory of technology

Module Overview

This module will engage you with prehistoric societies and their available economic options through the active reconstruction and evaluation of their technologies. Knapped stone is the oldest-known surviving technology, and persisted until the 1950s, when Norfolk flintknappers were still making gunflints for export. Ground/polished stone technology is intermittently present from 40,000 years ago. We have evidence for the working of wood from about 400,000 years ago, while the earliest sculpted bone/antler tools are some 100,000 years old. Ceramic technology can be traced back to 40,000 years ago (the earliest pottery vessels are 20,000 years old). Textiles and worked plant fibres can be traced back some 30,000 years. The use of metals can be seen from perhaps 7000 years ago in some places. This module investigates how and why artefacts in these materials might have been made: the social, economic and symbolic contexts for their production, and how to distinguish their various functions. To answer these questions, the basic concepts and current classificatory schemes will be introduced and examined through practical, in-depth, analysis of objects, assemblages and reconstructive techniques. You will be able to compare results from archaeological assemblages with your experience of reconstructing responses to materials used in prehistory, using experimental production and use, and the ethnographic literature. You will be encouraged to think carefully about how prehistoric technologies can be created, learnt and used through the writing of a project proposal as one of your assignments. This project will allow you to combine practical knowledge of prehistoric artefact manufacture, function and social context with communication of key findings to an interested non- specialist audience, which will culminate in a written project report. You will be able to explore how prehistoric technologies reflect the cognitive, behavioural, economic and technological contexts of the societies that produced them. The “public engagement” aspects of your experimental research will give you important experience of how to communicate often complex processes to non-specialist audiences, which is assuming an increasing academic importance (for grant-awarding bodies, publication of scientific papers, and for the introduction of prehistory to the National Curriculum).

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

• investigate how and why prehistoric stone, wood, bone/antler, ceramic and textile artefacts were made: the social, economic and symbolic contexts for their production and how to distinguish their various functions. • apply and evaluate basic concepts and classificatory schemes, through practical, in-depth, analysis of assemblages. • Compare results from archaeological assemblages to patterning derived from experimental applications (manufacture and use) and the ethnographic literature.

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • Current methods of analysis and classification schemes for prehistoric technologies and artefacts.
  • Basic identification analysis using comparison techniques and simple tests.
  • How prehistoric objects were made and used, using information from experimental production and utilisation.
  • How to synthesise and analyse experimentally-produced assemblages, and to see how such information relates to the broader picture of archaeology and ethnography.
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Think critically and self-reflectively.
  • Critically interpret readings, artefacts and manufacturing processes.
  • Prepare technical reports.
  • Devise ways of communicating key aims, results and conclusions to a non-specialist audience.
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Engage better with self-directed and group-based learning
  • Research and discover sources
  • Improve your report writing and know how to structure an argument
  • Manage your time to meet assignment deadlines
  • Identification, assessment and management of risks.
Subject Specific Practical Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Work closely in groups to achieve a coherent and consistent pattern of investigation and recording through teamwork.
  • Observation and visual discrimination of materials and techniques of production.
  • Collect, organise, classify and describe data according to established methodologies in archaeology.


The basic concepts and classificatory schemes used for the study of prehistoric technology will be introduced and examined, through practical, in-depth, analysis of archaeological and experimentally-produced assemblages. Results from archaeological assemblages will be compared to patterning derived from experimental applications (production and use) and the ethnographic literature, and reflexive thought will be encouraged through the writing of a project proposal followed by a report (including consideration of public communication of key results). Data collected and analysed will be considered in social and behavioural terms, allowing consideration of how prehistoric objects reflect the cognitive, behavioural, economic and technological contexts of the societies that produced them. Initial parts of the module will cover the theoretical models useful to experimental and archaeological analyses, together with consideration of key raw material types (typically including stone, bone/antler, wood, textiles, ceramics and metals). Your proposal (assignment 1) will allow you to consider previous research when constructing your research proposal for experimentation (assignment 1). The experimental work will be conducted in three weekly sessions within the module, in three-hour (rather than the normal two-hour) blocks. The remainder of the module’s sessions are designed to help you analyse and present your results and conclusions for the report (assignment 2).

Special Features

You will improve your skills in the creation and communication (to different audiences) of extended practical experiments. Guidance will be given to students with special needs to develop suitable and rewarding projects.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include • practicals • lectures • experimental archaeological activities • consideration of public engagement aspects of research Learning activities include • practicals • devising and executing an experimental project • on-line quizzes • back-ground reading

Preparation for scheduled sessions10
Practical classes and workshops16
Completion of assessment task60
Wider reading or practice30
Follow-up work22
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Ferguson, J.R. (ed.) (2010). Designing Experimental Research in Archaeology: Examining technology through production and use. 

Whittaker, J. C (1994). Flintknapping. Making and Understanding Stone Tools. 

Miller, H.M.L. (2007). Archaeological Approaches to Technology. 

Hodges, H. (1989). Artefacts: Introduction to Early Materials and Technology. 

Inizan, M.-L., Reduron-Ballinger, M., Roche, H. & J. Tixier (1999). Technology and Terminology of Knapped Stone. 

Andrefsky, W. (1998). Lithics. Macroscopic Approaches to Analysis. 

Dobres, M.-A (2000). Technology and Social Agency. 

Semenov, S.A. (1964). Prehistoric Technology: an experimental study of the oldest tools and artefacts from traces of manufacture and wear [translated by M.W. Thompson]. 



Online test


MethodPercentage contribution
Project proposal  (1500 words) 40%
Project report  (2500 words) 60%


MethodPercentage contribution
Coursework 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

Share this module Share this on Facebook Share this on Twitter Share this on Weibo

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you continue without changing your settings, we will assume that you are happy to receive cookies on the University of Southampton website.