Cranfield University

Experimental Archaeology: Bones, Stones, and spears

Cleaning bones


Today is getting close to three weeks since a recent experiment using some hammerstones on bones, and I’m trying to see how they’re cleaning up. Lots of the sciences use experimental research (sometimes it’s called actualistic research in archaeology) to try and understand the world around us. Archaeology is no exception, and we’ve been doing these kinds of projects for decades. Sometimes these projects are more along the lines of reconstructing past ways of life but there are lots, myself included, who take a more scientific approach to trying to understand what our human ancestors were doing.

I’m in my first year of a PhD at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology (, and I’m interested in the earliest known weapons in the archaeological record, which are simple wooden spears: how did they fly (did they?), how well do they work as hunting weapons, and what were our human ancestors doing with these weapons? A big part of my research is involving capturing data on to answer these questions, using state of the art equipment at the ballistics facilities at Cranfield University, located in the Defence Academy of the UK. It’s a lot of fun, and among other things I’ve also been brushing up on my basic physics so I will really understand the instrumentation and results. But this last experiment involved bashing bones with stones – something lots of archaeologists and anthropologists have done before me to answer slightly different questions about what earliest hominins through to Neanderthals were doing to maximize the meat on animals and especially marrow and fat inside bones. Essentially we’re interested in whether some kinds of damage on bones you see in the archaeological record could be caused in multiple different ways – just another way that archaeology is so confusing but so interesting!

My bones are finally getting pretty clean, which is a relief. I’m much more comfortable with stones, or fossilized bones. This particular experiment has really forced me to engage with animals in a way that hominins would have had to on a daily basis. (Well, they probably were not soaking them in detergent for a few weeks, but certainly in handling them.) We’re so distanced now from getting and processing meat – especially in the Western world. This project really highlighted to me, on a personal level, how much work our ancestors would have invested on a daily basis to eat, and how unpleasant some of it must have been!

Annemieke Milks