Experimental Archaeology: Hides and Leather in Bronze Age


The term experimental archaeology is a way of describing the collection of facts and theories that have been assembled through a careful reconstruction and function of ancient remains.
This topic attempts to provide a brief description of the example to show the advantages and disadvantages of various approaches to this varied subject. Let us take the example of hide and leather from the Bronze Age and interpret the application of experimental archaeology in it.
Paleolithic cave paintings depict figures wearing skins and furs, and excavations at these sites have revealed an active leather industry. Flint instruments, including knives, scrapers, and awls used for removing flesh, have been found in addition to wooden poles and beams used for beating and draping hides.

Later Neolithic and Bronze Age sites have yielded leather dagger sheaths, scabbards, shields, etc that indicates that leather manufacture was mastered early in human history. Those leather manufacturing underwent various step by step procedures, that has been mentioned and explained in the next section.

Hide and Leather- Methodology
The experiments on hide and leather have been made, as ancient methods of preparing and tanning hides appear to be well understood. Analysis of surviving materials has also contributed to this. A recent experiment on leather-working involved the production of a shield comparable in appearance to a surviving Irish specimen. The shield presented special problems, because it had to be ribbed, hardened and made waterproof. After a cold soak to soften the leather, it was scrubbed to remove any excess tannin, and then beaten into a wooden mould. The drying process took three days, with regular hammering to prevent shrinkage. After this the shield was functional, but would soften under damp conditions. In Ireland, and Scotland, it would without doubt be necessary to make some precaution against the damp, so that the shield would not collapse. Various methods of hardening and waterproofing were attempted, and the most practical were the use of boiling water either poured on to the shield or employed as a dip, and immersion of the shield in hot wax or beeswax could be used for approximately 30 seconds, to allow penetration of the wax through the leather.

Bronze Age Yetholm type copper alloy shield (c.1300-975BC)

Both methods were successful in producing stiffened shields capable of withstanding prolonged damp conditions, particularly the wax-impregnation method. The experiment continued with the production of a metal shield of comparable thinness and hardness to the Late Bronze Age shields from Aberdeenshire, Yetholm etc. This and one of the leather shields were selected for the final experiment to test their capabilities in standing up to blows and thrusts of sword and spear. The metal shield was cut and slashed to pieces by the first blows. The leather shield withstood repeated heavy blows of a copy of a Bronze Age sword specially sharpened for the occasion.

Bronze Age swords and shields.


Actually the metal shields were not suitable for actual physical conflict, but the leather shields could have served a useful function in battle. It is the aim of archaeology to obtain more information and new sources of information to add to the foundations of knowledge upon which our culture is based.

Experimental archaeology, when employed scientifically and with an awareness of its limitations, can add materially to our sources of knowledge about the past, and may be considered as an important way in which archaeology can come to grips with the mental processes, plans and activities of prehistoric man.

Therefore, in a nutshell it can be said that the purpose of experimental archaeology in recreating hide and leather shields of the Bronze Age is to understand the ancient methods that underwent in making of those shields in the pre historic period, so that the essence of those ancient methods could be understood.

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