October 2012

Working with experimental archaeology has been a real eye-opening experience. When you see oil lamps in the movies, they’re simply pleasing prop pieces. However, building them in real life takes an unbelievable amount of trial and error to shape the lamp and form the wick, let alone cultivate the plants to provide the oil. When you make bread, you go to the store to buy a pound of flour. I never could have imagined how hard it is to make flour from grain. In theory, you bang it together between two rocks, but it takes a lot more effort than that, and you still only produce a tiny amount of finished flour. Baking bread goes from tasty kitchen project to back-breaking labor that requires, again, lots of trial and error.

One realization I had while working during the meal preparation competition was just how much our daily lives and priorities have changed. 6,000 years ago, daily life was built around survival- food, clothing, and shelter. One could spend a whole day hunting, the next day farming, and the third making pots and grinding grain. All of this effort would probably produce about enough food and utilities for the next three days, and so the cycle continues. “Labor saving devices” that we moderns have invented would in theory allow more time for leisure, and get the work done faster. However, though we do have more time for personal enjoyment rather than simple survival, humans have found other “necessities” to fill our days with work. With all the changes that have come over the past 6,000 years, we still can’t allow ourselves to step back and free ourselves from our work, even though the threats of death by starvation or exposure disappeared long ago.

–  John Timms

The activities that we have completed in this second session include lighting oil lamps, making bread and beer mash, carrying out Neolithic food preparation and creating paint for rock art; all these undertakings were very much enjoyable. For the oil lamps, our class made wicks by taking three long pieces of cotton thread and braiding them together. The wicks ended up to be roughly half the length of our hands. We poured a few tablespoons of olive oil into the lamps then put the wicks into the lamps, letting the cotton soak the oil. I left the end of the wick, about half of an inch, unsoaked because that is where I would ignite the fire that would burn the oil lamp. The dry end of the wick was barely peeking over the stout of the lamp when I lit it with a twenty-first century lighter. It was a success- the wick burned slowly as it was supposed to happen. The class had extra time to take on another project that we were supposed to do in the beginning of the semester- paint making for rock art. We were given cardinal and yellow color pigments in the form of powder and with a modern-day paint brush, we mixed the pigment with the leftover olive oil to make a sort of oil paint. The task was very simple and quick to complete. With the homemade paint, we decided to paint our oil lamps (after dumping out the oil and wicks from them) and the clay figurines we made in a previous class (since there was not enough time to go out and gather stones from around campus). The only issue about the paint is that it does not remain long: the following week after painting, the paint came off my oil lamp when I touched it.

This time around, I think I enjoyed making bread the most.  Bread is my favorite food, but I’d never made it from scratch before.  I didn’t realize just how easy it is.  Two cups flour, teaspoon of salt, one cup of warm water: mix, knead, cook upon upended wok.  I will definitely be using this skill in my everyday life from now on.  It seems perhaps ironic that fresh bread, a staple of human civilization, is a bit of a luxury in modern times.  Fresh flatbread didn’t take long to make, especially compared to the time it would take me to travel to a bakery and buy the equivalent.


Another enjoyable treat we made was mozzarella cheese.  That was also much simpler than I might have imagined, and the result was delicious.  I was the one in my group who did the stretching of the cheese, and it was very fun.  It felt odd but delightful in my grip.  This skill will also be incorporated into my life, because fresh mozzarella is too delicious and simple to be a one time event.  I will enjoy showing my friends and family how to make bread and cheese, and I look forward to being able to add a home brew to the tasty ensemble.


~Sam Cadwell

During the Neolithic Food Preparation, creating and obtaining the most calories was the goal of the day.  I never realized how much work people in ancient times had to put into their meals since they did not have the convenience of microwaves, stoves, refrigerators, etc.  The class was split up into many groups and each group was given a pumpkin, grain, and a raw leg of lamb.  With all of these items and a couple supporting tools (dangerously sharp obsidian, leather wrap, and whatever we could find), each group was supposed to prepare a meal up until the point of actually cooking it.  Oh yeah, other teams could come by and try to steal your food.

My group isolated ourselves in a cave-like area surrounded on three sides by a short wall but one side was completely open.  My initial job was to cut the pumpkin up into many different tiny pieces suitable for eating.  In the beginning I would get chunks of the pumpkin into medium size pieces but knew I had to get them smaller.  I was stuck and was not sure how I would do this since the pumpkin was very hard to break at that point.  I rummaged through the supplies area and found a very large piece of obsidian and thought to myself “hey, this could work.”  I wrapped half of the obsidian in leather wrap to avoid gashes to my hand and smashed the medium sized pieces of pumpkin until they split up into little chunks.  The rock exceeded my expectations.  

Eventually I wanted to make things interesting so I thought of some plans to steal calories from other groups.  Another teammate and I went over to the nearest group to ask them questions as a distraction while another teammate went in to steal some food.  The plan was flawless except he didn’t get his hands on the food and we came up empty handed.  If that worked I would have been really happy.  Regardless of that failure, the Neolithic Food Preparation was really awesome and I learned a lot about preparing ancient dishes.  Personally I am glad I was born in today’s modern era but now if I suddenly traveled back in time to the days of old I think I would be able to survive with everything I’ve learned in this class (hopefully).


– Alex Brauser

Light was essential in the ancient world. Light meant the difference between life and certain death. After the creation of a system to posses light for an extended period of time, human devolopment rapidly increased. Suddenly the working hours were extended past sunset. This was our class attempted to recreate in class last Tuesday.

We used the fired clay oil lamps we had created the class prior as a base for our oil lamps. I have to admit, mine was a little dis shapen. Neverthless, I accepted my work for what it was and moved onto the next step, which was providing, a little fuel for the fire. The fuel used for the flame was a generic vegetable oil. In order to make the wick, three strings were braided together, with some assistance of course. Now the three components had to come together to create something astonishing: a functioning oil lamp, capable of providing enough light to read an olden clay tablet to. the wick was place in the oil for a few minutes so as to soak up sufficient oil. And finally the lamp was lit! needless to say it was a glorious sight.

Minus a few over-exuberant pyros, the class went exceptionally well.


Steve Anderson

I’m quite confident the most popular topic for this series of Reflections will be October 9th’s “Neolithic Food Preparation” day. And fitting it should be. That class was a terrific exemplar of precisely why this class is so special. Nowhere else at this school could I be instructed to haul and dice an enormous sheepshank, grind grain, smash pumpkins, and leap about attempting to thieve the aforementioned from others.

My clan/family quickly established ourselves as a force to be reckoned with. We secured real estate and established our homestead within a bicycle-riddled topiary enclave, gaining us territory that was optimally defensible while also giving us maximal access to food supply, as well as granting us vital sight-lines to our rivals. Our eventual triumph was further secured when we chose to take advantage of the nebulous food-distribution instructions passed down by the gods, meaning we just took all the leftover pumpkins. Being a particularly progressive bunch of Neoliths, we were happy to eschew the traditional hunter/gatherer roles and instead individually focus our efforts where they could be maximally efficient. So for the most part, we had women building tools and carving meat (and making quick work of our over-frozen lamb leg, a real testament to the hardihood of our tribe’s womenfolk) while I set to work preparing our many pumpkins. Taking advantage of my own procerity and a cinderblock I had foraged, my MO was pretty much to throw pumpkin chunks at the ground, then tear them up until they were of workable size. This, of course, worked flawlessly.


I never thought about people what people in ancient times would do at night. When I’m camping and forget a flashlight, I know I usually go to bed by 9 because it’s so dark. If anyone in ancient times wanted to be productive after the sun went down, some type of personal light must be made. Hence the oil lamp. I had never even really known exactly what an oil lamp was, so it was interesting to learn about in the first place. When making the lamps, we were told to use olive oil sparingly because it would be very expensive. This is also something I didn’t think about, and it is interesting that something we take for granted, such as olive oil, was probably a prized resource.  It was cool to see how simple the oil lamps were, yet it was such a crucial part of people’s lives. The other thing I really enjoyed about the oil lamp day was making the paint and painting our ceramics. I didn’t realize paint could be made with a little oil or even egg and some pigment. In fact, I never even thought about how paint was made. It was cool to see the transformation of the dry pigment with a dot of oil to make paint that seemed just like paint from a bottle we would get today. It was also interesting that different people were using the same pigments but the paint would turn out different shades of a color. 

Overall, making the turning basic clay into oil lamps, lighting the lamps, and painting them answered many of my questions about the ancient world that I never even knew I had.

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