I don’t live in the past—I only visit—and so can you!

Experimental Archaeology

Just back from two weeks camping at what may be the most schizophrenic event in the world: Pennsic. It was the fortieth this year, and its attendees range from the most progressive and accurate reenactors to farbs wanting to get drunk and laid. It started as a Scadian event, and it is still governed to some degree by the Society for Creative Anachronism [SCA] but has long since become something more. I have taken to calling it Burning Man East (though they only burn a drakar model in the lake and would assuredly draw the line at a burning wicker man), although I discovered that a son of Doctor David Friedman—whose idea of accuracy is based in a continuous first-person impression while mine is based more on physical artifacts—tern it that some years before I did! It is a fun event, not merely for the obvious and martial activities—the Scadians call it a “war,” though it is much more, and I term it a “fair”—and I have for years not seen any combat activities.

People wanting any form of consistent accuracy are fools, and many of those who accept the SCA for what it is even think of it as another renn fair or farbfest. Probably so in both cases, but I look at it as a challenge. I have, for the past few years, set up my selling spot with wattle fences, a geteld and a dining fly (awning), so that except for my electrical connection—needed for light after dark—it looks very much like my Regia camp. I’ll forget for the moment about the person who came by this year and pronounced it “cute,” but if she meant “different than anything about it”—then I would question her vocabulary but not her intent. I have looked upon the two-week experience as experimental archaeology, and I get to try certain things that are impossible at a two-day event. Here are a few discoveries I made—both on purpose and inadvertently—this year:

• Hand washing clothes and draping them across the hurdles to dry worked great and, in fact, smelled better than washed clothes when I put them on.

• Driving stakes into dry ground that then gets wet from the rain is a futile gesture. A friend drove in stakes into pre-wettened holes that worked much better.

• Actually an Observation. Flies never fall down–their stakes sliding from the holes in dry earth that gets wet–never fall down when you’re looking at it. It waits until you take your eyes away 😦

• Wearing smooth-soled turnshoes on hilly ground worn smooth over two weeks makes standing up with short benches an achievement. But a little rain makes the traction much better!

• Living at the mercy of the weather makes you more aware of the weather, and you rely neither on fancy electronic devices or on the frantic warnings of those who do. Instead, you look at the sky, at the moon and feeling what the wether feels like. Sometimes, you’re wrong, but you’re usually right. After a while, I came to ignore the frantic warnings–”Gojira is coming,” many of us described it—and trust more in my own instincts and intuitions.

• It was far more comfortable wearing casual dress around the site—undertunic with no belt—and only getting dressed up in overtunics, belts, etc. when formally accepting company or going out on formal visits (though I will admit I didn’t dress up often because of the heat).

• Air conditioning is not imperative. I was comfortable in the heat, even wearing wool, as long as I avoided doing too much. The fact that I go the entire summer without a/c getting ready for the two weeks no doubt helps me.

• In a clear moon, strong external light is not needed.

• If our ancestors had sharp-edged stones everywhere, they would not have had thin-sole turnshoes!

• When you have no access to television, radio and other modern distractions, you find you don’t need them. You can enjoy live music (even if medieval music for the SCA is scarcely medieval; I was waiting for someone to sing “Johnson’s Motor Car” because it was Irish), playing games on real game boards, spinning yarns and just talking to friends you haven’t seen for a while. In that last sense, Pennsic was probably much like a market of the era.

• Our ancestors were much sturdier than we give them credit for. If I didn’t get off site every few days, was able to wear farby shoes when it was muddy or wet and buy cold beverages in the heat of the day, I’d have gone mad. They had no recourse! Vivat, ancestors of almost any era! We’ll try to make you proud!

And finally, an observation: After two weeks of living around campfire smoke, you just don’t smell it. But unpacking things…mmmmmmmmmmm.

For a few of my photos—not the usual ones of people in hockey gear swinging furniture legs and claiming it is medieval combat—see http://www.flickr.com/photos/folo/sets/72157627308566361/.

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