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Exeter Dialogue With Science Roadshow: Exeter Participation in the Mesolithic Living Project

Monday, 27 July, 2015 to Sunday, 6 September, 2015
Dr. Linda Hurcombe
Number of Participants / Visitors / Audience: 
4 participants from the University of Exeter participants, AOZA staff and voluteers and over 8,000 visitors)

Exeter Participation in the Mesolithic Living Project:

Birch tar extraction experiments:

Rush use:

Hide processing and bone tool use wear:


Hide and Wicker:
Jake's Logboat:

Making a Mesolithic Bow: Emily Fawcett, MA Student Experimental Archaeology

During my 10 day stint at the Living Mesolithic Project at Albersdorf I had the chance to
experience first-hand the day-to-day life-ways of an inhabitant of an early hunter-gatherer “village”. The authenticity of daily chores needing to be done: gathering wood and water, cleaning the Ertebolle style pots, lighting the fire, boiling eggs and roasting hazelnuts, was felt viscerally. My back ached from stooping, my feet hardened and I became more tolerant of the cold, though I dreaded the possibility of getting my only change of buckskin clothes wet in the rain. I learnt that on rainy days the best thing a buckskin-clad hunter-gatherer could do was to craft! Despite the daily routines, there was time for making. I scored and ground a bone awl, I learnt to remove the hooves of deer to make a rattle, I worked hides, I wove baskets, a rain cape and a toy fish for a youngster that kept her entertained for three days, and in spare moments, here and there, I began work on a bow.

I had the good fortune to be in the company of Werner Pfeifer, a master craftsman, and esteemed bow-making teacher. Werner sent me off to the forest to find a stave as tall as me and as thick as my forearm. Because I was learning the process and technique, rather than attempting a professional end product, green hazel was an acceptable timber and metal not stone tools were used for the construction process. Ash would be ideal, but would need seasoning for at least 6 months: a future project. Leaving the central section intact for the ‘handle’, I used charcoal from the cooking fire to draw a midline down the back, and two sidelines tapering towards the back, then began shaping: first with an axe and then a knife, always following the grain, testing the bend periodically for flat spots and thinning these. At this point the handle could be reduced to a comfortable shape. The ends were tapered to a finger-width at the tips, and I carved notches. It’s important never to carve into the back of the bow, and in making the notches I did make this mistake. I compensated by binding below the notch with rawhide and pitch to prevent splitting. The next step was to sand the bow with a coarse stone. The bow was strung with temporary cordage. I continually tested for areas that didn’t bend, marking them with charcoal, and then thinned these areas using the edge of a flint blade at 90 degrees to scrape towards the bow ends.

Werner carved a Y-shaped tiller stick to hold the bow, with notches for pulling the bowstring down in increasing increments as we continued to test it for even bend. The arc of each side needed to flow aesthetically, flat spots indicated areas that were too thick and would weaken the bow; too thin and the bend would be too great, so poundage (fire-power) would be lost - especially in the case of hazel, which easily retains the shape it is pulled (string-follow). Both sides also needed to bend equally. This involved many repetitions: stringing, pulling several times to ease the bow into its new shape, tillering, marking flat spots, un-stringing, scraping away fractions of millimetres, re-stringing…

Finally the bow was ready to be strung, with many strands of artificial sinew twined together and spliced to form a loop. With this fixed over the lower tip, Werner guided me in the proper way to step through the bow with my left leg, resting the handle on my thigh, pulling in the tip with my left hand so that I could secure the string with my right with 2 round turns and 2 half hitches. At last, just before dark on the eve of my early-morning departure, the bow was ready to be tested. One arrow…fired straight and true…and was lost amid the celebration and the dusk and the long grass. It was a small price to pay for a beautiful, functional bow and an authentic mentoring experience within a Mesolithic cultural setting.

Weaponry experiments within the Mesolithic Living Project: PhD student Alice La Porta

Weaponry experiments were undertaken during the Mesolithic Living Project at the Stone Age Park Dithmarschen in Albersdorf, during summer 2015 (fig. 1). The experiments were performed as a collaboration between all the participants and the authors, and were divided in two phases of activities. The first set was conceptualized as a “preparation phase” for sourcing raw materials, skill acquisition and logistic preparation of the experiments (fig.2). This phase took place from the beginning of the project (27th July) until 5th of August. The second set, were carried out from the 22nd of August to the 7th of September, and were devoted to the practical realization of different weaponry experiments.

It was important to preform weaponry experiments during a “living” project due to the necessity of understanding hunting practise and strategy in prehistory. Taking it into account, the experiments were designed to be as realistic as possible and they involved spear throwing and archery. The implementation of strong teamwork between the project group members allowed the achievements of significant experimental results.

Throwing experiments with hand-made spears and arrows took place on the 4th of September and they lasted throughout the day (fig.3a and 3b). The throwers were participants of the “Mesolithic Living” project while the author was in charge of the recording, documentation and photographic materials with the assistance of Dr Linda Hurcombe and PhD student Theresa Emmerich Kamper of Exeter University.


Figure 1. Alice with other members of...
Figure 2. Preparation phase (photo Alice La...
Figure 3a. Weaponry experiment day. (All...
Figure 3b. Weaponry experiment day. (All...