Experimental archaeology of observing

RASC—Eyes on the Universe for 150 Years


Viewing the Moon Across Time


Experimental archaeology

What is experimental archaeology?

"Experimental archaeology is the reconstruction of the processes, man-made and natural, which culminate in the artifact in one of several states: a pristine original state, a present decayed state, or some intermediate state. An experiment may be focused not on the total artifact but on only one aspect of it―for instance, marks of wear on a single surface, or the performance of a part under a particular condition. An experiment may be concerned with how an artifact may have been produced, [or concentrate on how it was used,] and an experiment may be part of an array of such experiments"; R.A. Rosenfeld, "Performance Practice, Experimental Archaeology, and the Problem of the Respectability of Results", in  Improvisation in the Arts of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. T.J. McGee (pp. 71-97). (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute Publications 2003), pp. 71-97, at 73.

For purposes of Viewing the Moon Across Time, the artifacts are lunar observations of 1868, and the (“man-made”) processes to be reconstructed are the techniques of lunar observation and record of 1868.

Experimental archaeology has been mostly applied to researching the material culture of prehistory and antiquity, such as lithic technologies, ceramics, agriculture, martime technologies, architecture, and landscapes (the mix of classic and more recent studies cited here is deliberate). It has also been used to investigate the material culture of later periods, and questions beyond the purely material.

Experiments have been designed, and trials run, to various levels of rigour, as is evident from evaluating the examples cited above. General protocols for designing and conducting experiments can be found in guides to experimental archaeology, such as John Coles classic works (1973, and 1979), or numerous more recent texts (Saraydar 2008; Ferguson 2010). Rosenfeld & Beckett et al. (2013, 30) present a fairly rigorous general protocol for designing an experiment in the archaeology of observing:

  1. The equipment used should be that available to the original observers, or its equivalent;
  2. Techniques should be those of the time, place, and activity under investigation;
  3. Modern technicians should not be incompetent, inexperienced, or inexpert in their handling of 1 and 2 above;
  4. Modern technicians must be fully informed of the goals of the experiment, and be sympathetic to its aims, unless the experimental design requires them to be uninformed;
  5. In regard to 1 and 2 above, modern materials and technologies should play as little a role as possible in the crucial elements of the experiment, unless they form part of the experimental design. Where they are necessary, their use should be controlled, and recorded;
  6. Parameters, qualifications, and limits to an experiment should be clearly formulated and stated;
  7. Experiments in sequence should be consistent, unless the experimental design dictates otherwise;
  8. Experiments should be developed and run with reference to previous trials (if any);
  9. All possible ways documented from relevant historical sources that something may have been done should be considered for investigation where practicable;
  10. The experiment should be reproducible if at all possible, should the opportunity for similar experiments present themselves;
  11. Results must be stated as accurately as possible, with all necessary qualifications, chief among which is that a successful experiment provides only one possible way something may have been done;
  12. The experiment should be scrupulously recorded (including any failures of technique, equipment, or observers), using the most appropriate modern technologies;
  13. The experiment must be published as fully, transparently, and rigorously as possible.

This protocol is chiefly geared to meet the standards of peer-reviewed research. There is certianly no necessity to follow it to the letter when participating in Viewing the Moon Across Time—you are, after all, the architect of your own experiment in observing with earlier methods, and materials. For instance, you may want the experience of 19th-century casual observing, using a pair of 1890s opera glasses acquired at a flea market and with Serviss’ Astronomy with an Opera Glass (1890) as a guide. You might feel that a formal approach of planned experimentation, recording, and analysis would be contrary to the spirit of casual observing, then and now. That choice would be as valid as any other. The style and structure of observing depends on your goals. It is important, however, to be honest about any limitaitons of the approach adopted, and to be realistic about  what can be achieved (there are certainly salutary examples of experiments for which much greater rigour was claimed than the experiments warranted).

There are several examples of experimental archaeology applied to the historical period in astronomy which can provide exemplars, and ideas for constructing your own approach to Viewing the Moon Across Time. Planetary scientist Alan Binder has experimented with reconstructions of a medium focal length 17th-century singlet O.G. refractors to replicate aspects of the experience of 17th-century planetary, double-star, and nebulae observers, and evaluate the performance of the instruments (Binder 2010a; Binder 2010b). Klaus Staubermann and Christiaan Sterken have have used a reconstructed Zöllner photometer to determine the accuracy of data harvested in the nineteenth century, and the experience of using nineteenth-century apparatus today (Sterken & Staubermann 2000; Staubermann 2013). Various levels of rigour are applied to the design and conduct of the experiments reported.

It is crucially important to realize the limits to what experimental archaeology can accomplish, whether your participation in Viewing the Moon Across Time is casual, or more scientific (see Expectations, and limitations of method at the end of the page on cognitive archaeology below).

The full range of possibilities are available: you can use the "star-party" refractor (3 to 5-inch aperture achromat, ED, or apochromat) or reflector (6 to 10-iches) you already own, with Plössl, Kellner, or Huygens eyepieces which just happen to be around, and free online 19th-century lunar maps, images, and observing guides, to replicate a single observation or a series of observations, with whatever level of rigor in execution, formality of structure, and reporting you desire; or you can plan to replicate a critical, difficult, or contested observation using surviving 19th-century equipment, or accurate reproductions, applying acquired expertise in Victorian observing techniques described in guides, and the utmost discipline in execution with full documenation of the experiment; or any approach in between.

Even more interesting possibilites for exploring the archaeology of observing are possible through combining experimental archaeology with cognitive archaeology.

(turn to the next page Cognitive archaeology for further information)

Last modified: 
Monday, April 10, 2023 - 1:42am