10 Experiments That Solved Archaeological Mysteries

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Archaeology can be a frustrating pursuit. Getting objects out of the ground is only the first step. Understanding what they are, how they were made, and how they were used can be baffling. Sometimes, the only way to work things out is to try them for ourselves. This is called experimental archaeology, and here are 10 of the most amazing examples of it.

10. The Trireme Olympias

Ancient Greek triremes were the ultimate sea weapon of the Mediterranean. Fast and agile, they could travel long distances under sail or deploy oars and fight at close quarters. Images of the ships abound in carved reliefs and descriptions of naval battles. But there was long debate over exactly how the triremes’ most distinctive features, the three banks of oars for which it is named, were deployed. The conditions were definitely cramped for the rowers (Aristophanes the comic poet describes the scene of the rowers packed in—“Fart(ing) in the face of their rowing mate“), so just how did they work the oars together?

To settle the matter, experimental archaeologists built a full-size trireme. Crewed by enthusiasts. the ship was put through its paces over several years. Given just a small-time of training, they achieved speeds of 9 knots and rapid 180 degree turns. Given a properly trained crew, a fleet of such ships would have been truly formidable.

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