Reconstruction ArchaeologyExperimental archaeology based on reconstructions has a long history, and it has included some notable achievements in relation to Roman military equipment. In the 19th and 20th century French and Prussian officers were reconstructing artillery. In 1969 Russell Robinson reconstructed the lorica segmentata found at Corbridge. During the 1970’s he assisted the “Ermine Street Guard”, one of the first Roman re-enactment groups, to equip themselves accurately. Peter Connolly was the technical illustrator of Robinsons’ book, The Armour of Imperial Rome, 1975. Connolly’s own books have brought Roman artefacts to life for another generation of students.
This interest in Roman military equipment has lead to the development of a profusion of Roman re-enactment groups reconstructing the first and second centuries. The best groups bring excellently researched equipment to the notice of the general public, who have a vast appetite for heritage. But the very best groups help shed new light on the use of their equipment, which can add to the information gleaned by traditional historians and archaeologists. In so doing the not always helpful differentiation between academics and enthusiasts becomes blurred. The later Roman period had received little attention until Comitatus was founded in 2002.
Experimental archaeology has many definitions, often based on how the artefact was reconstructed. Were accurate period tools used to make a truly accurate copy? Or were modern tools used to make a less faithful reproduction? But ultimately these finer points count for little. This may be heretical to some, but any reconstruction can never be a true 100% reproduction. The materials used may differ slightly, and the modern artisan will have a different artistic appreciation than his Roman forebear.
However the study and reproduction of an artefact can be useful in it’s own right. The research needed to produce a reproduction can enlighten and inform. For example, recreating the splendid broad military belts of the period can lead to research, which leads to a greater understanding of the distribution and dating of their metal fittings. An excellent reproduction of an archaeological find can help the public better understand the period and fire the imagination. But it needs to be an accurate copy.
Often when ordering things I’m asked how I want the finished product to look. All I have to say is like a specific original. Give details of the find, measurements etc. It’s easy, and you can’t go wrong. I suspect we all occasionally use words such as “in the style of” to describe a sword hilt, bow, arrows or shields. There are degrees of damnation here, and truly inaccurate helmets especially are beneath contempt.
The major interest lies not so much in the reconstructed artefact itself, but how it is used and how it functioned. So to give some examples, our reconstructed plumbata are visually interesting, but the major interest must lie in how far they can be thrown and how they are used. How does armour function? What is the performance of the spicula? How does riding style differ on a steppe saddle compared to the four-horned Romano-Celtic saddle? To use some reconstructions to their fullest degree, we may need to practice. We can never be real 4th century legionaries, but we can learn how to use each weapon, how to ride, or how to wear our kit in the correct fashion by testing it on marches.
The very best Roman e-enactment groups may have a good deal of information to offer. But they have contributed relatively little in terms of published research or written evidence. Such groups raise funds by holding public shows as part of the heritage industry. Few truly engage in reconstruction archaeology, and to my knowledge Comitatus is the only group to have sponsored an archaeological conference. In the field of reconstruction, Peter Connolly’s work on the Romano-Celtic saddle stands out as the premier example of what can be achieved. Using surviving leather saddle covers and contemporary sculpture, he was able to reconstruct a working saddle. His work was published and widely publicised. However new light has been shed on these saddles and Connolly’s initial design has been to a degree superseded. Knowledge doesn’t stand still.
We need to acknowledge that a reconstruction cannot ever be said to be truly accurate. We can never say, “this is how it was”.
And some reconstructions are better than others. Modern Roman artillery uses modern rope springs. Actually Roman sinew rope would give at least twice the power and range. Reconstructions of Roman bows are perhaps even further from reality. Truly accurate sword reconstructions are rare. Armour even more so, although the new accurate mail shirts will rectify this in time.
But it is important that we publish our findings. The internet and www.comitatus.net allows us to put our findings before a wider audience.
The dog tents, the aiming stick for the ballista, the methods of carrying plumbata, the weight and range of weapons, the whole cavalry experiment, are all worthy projects that should be put before a wider audience.
Such published results would add to our credibility and cement our position as the premier late Roman group, and help us grow in the future.