ARCH40850 Practical Experimental Archaeology

Academic Year 2023/2024

This 10-credit module will explore how people in the past made objects, forming dependencies between humans and things. This class will examine these concepts by making an early medieval Irish copper-alloy brooch, a common object of display and ornamentation at that time. This project will involve all aspects of the creation of this kind of brooch, including making metal, sourcing fuels, making ‘technical ceramics’ and the craft of smithing. Although this class will focus on a single project/object during this trimester, the essential principles and theoretical/practical issues are transferable to all artefacts.

This module will use readings, seminars and (principally) practical experimental archaeological sessions (both skills development and experiments), to build an understanding and appreciation for the skills, crafts and materiality required to produce any object. It will also enable students to design, implement and analyse experimental archaeology projects. There will be weekly seminars and practical sessions, combined with an intensive one week-long experimental archaeology field programme at the UCD Centre for Experimental Archaeology and Material Culture (CEAMC) in the Spring Fieldwork Period. Attendance for seminars and the field programme is obligatory. The module will be assessed by means of a portfolio exploring the chaine opératoire of an early medieval bronze brooch and a research project aimed at investigating the implications of understanding objects in this way.

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Curricular information is subject to change

Learning Outcomes:

On completion of this module, you will be able to

1. Critically consider the potential goals, benefits and limitations of experimental archaeology as a means of investigating past material cultures.
2. Appreciate and evaluate the scope, methods and outcomes of experimental archaeology projects.
3. Have an in-depth appreciation for the materials, effort, understanding, entanglement and technologies that are required to create any object.
4. Develop a detailed understanding for copper-alloy casting technologies over time as well as the archaeology of this craft.

Indicative Module Content:

During the early medieval period in Ireland (as well as other parts of the British Isles and continental Europe) identities (status, roles, gender, kinship, age, etc.) were, in part, expressed through personal objects of adornment. Indeed, there are a large range of sources for these types of objects, including archaeological finds (both direct and indirect) early texts and iconography/pictorial (summary in Doyle 2015).

Brooches of copper-alloy (Bronze, Brass, etc.) and silver (Youngs 1990) are by far the most common objects of this class. For the most part, these were made by melting non-ferrous (non-iron) metals in clay or stone vessels called ‘crucibles’ and pouring the resulting liquid into a mould. Nevertheless, this action only represents a tiny proportion of the work, knowledge and resources that it took to form these objects. Although brooches can be extremely well crafted, comprising many different pieces joined together (i.e. Tara Brooch) these are relatively rare. Instead, the majority of brooch finds (as well as other indirect indicators) point to simple, single metal items, similar to one found at Castlefarm 1, Co. Meath (O'Connell & Clark 2009: Plate 51, 52). In contemporary pictish (Scottish), Welsh and Anglo-Saxon sites (not to mentioned western Europe) it appears that people were expressing themselves in similar ways, using similar technologies.

But what did it mean to make these objects? Was it possible for anyone in society to make such items or was it restricted to only skilled craftspeople? How did people get the materials needed to make brooches? What are the other aspects of material culture that would have been needed to make them?

To begin to answer these questions, this class will seek to replicate a simple penannular brooch based on the Dooey Brooch Mould. This is one half (valve) of a two part clay brooch mould preserving the negative impression of a tiny brooch with barrel terminals and lozenge motif decoration. It is the best preserved mould of its kind from early medieval Ireland and as such is an important piece of evidence for how we reconstruct this process. Although this object will be our main source, this module will look to a range of evidence from early medieval excavations (in Ireland and abroad) to seek to identify links in the chain of production. This will include, making the metals, making appropriate fuel and making ‘technical ceramics’, such as crucibles and moulds. In the end, students in this module will have a detailed understanding for the technologies and materials needed to make cast objects, an advanced understanding for entanglement theory and the chaine opératoire, and will be able to apply this structured approach to their research more generally.

Student Effort Hours: 
Student Effort Type Hours
Specified Learning Activities


Autonomous Student Learning




Seminar (or Webinar)




Field Trip/External Visits




Approaches to Teaching and Learning:
The main teaching and learning approaches of this module are

- Active learning
- Experiential learning
- Class based lectures/seminars (student led)
- Practical materials engagement
Requirements, Exclusions and Recommendations

Not applicable to this module.

Module Requisites and Incompatibles
Not applicable to this module.
Assessment Strategy  
Description Timing Open Book Exam Component Scale Must Pass Component % of Final Grade In Module Component Repeat Offered
Presentation: Produce recorded PowerPoint presentation base on the current state of knowledge (5-7 mins) Week 4 n/a Graded No


Project: Research project title: ‘Understanding the technologies, skills and social structures needed to create a ‘Dooey’ style brooch using the chaine opératoire principle’ (4500 words) Week 12 n/a Graded No



Carry forward of passed components
Resit In Terminal Exam
Summer No
Please see Student Jargon Buster for more information about remediation types and timing. 
Feedback Strategy/Strategies

• Feedback individually to students, post-assessment

How will my Feedback be Delivered?

You will receive mandatory one-to-one feedback with the module coordinator after your first assessment. This will help guide you towards making improvements for your second assessment and will be targeted specifically at structure, formatting and writing style. Feedback for your second assessment is optional, but highly recommended, and will focus on project design, expression and content.

Name Role
Dr Brendan O'Neill Lecturer / Co-Lecturer