In my binocular view of the world, things are Organic or they’re Not Organic (mineral). They cannot be both. This simplistic concept works pretty well when considering what might be found at an archaeological site.
Organic objects, and in Archaeology or Anthropology we only care about those utilized by people, break down and disappear. They’re very difficult to recover and nearly impossible to detect, if they even still exist. It might be nothing more than a smudgy smear in the soil horizon, or an impression left after a cooking fire.
With the chemical disintegration of organic bits from the archaeological record, we learn to look at an assemblage of artifacts and see the holes of all the things that are not there: fabrics, cordage, skins, hair, paper, wood… Think of your life, now, and remove everything that is made of an organic material. That leaves the hinges on the chicken coop, your guitar strings, the heddles in the loom.
Anyway, the point of all this ramble is that there’s simply a lot that we can never, ever know by direct observation.
So an Experimental Archaeologist will try to reconstruct these tasks and fill in the missing bits with materials that have been shown to be available to the people during the time period in question, trying to do the same task with the materials available.
The fellow who made these items here-these are all current materials–was posed with a question of trying to figure out the use of an odd tool that was only found at one site.
Observation: Why was this tool only thus far ever found here at this site? What was it used for? Also found at this site was a shell midden of mussels. No oysters.
Hypothesis: The hypothesis going into this research project was that the tool was used to open mussels and would be too weak to open oysters.
Materials and Methods: He has gotten deer legs from local hunters, skinned and cleaned the bones. Dried and saved the sinew, beat it with an antler hammer to make something resembling thread. He chipped stone knives from the type of stone found at the site. He made glue from pine rosin. He carved and cut his own Oddball Tool, noting the troubles and number of errors, how long it took, what issues he ran into. He had to do this a few times.
After making his tool, he acquired both mussels and oysters. He broke his tool in the oysters every time, and was mostly successful at opening the mussels.
Conclusion: By trying this out himself, filling in the gaps of the assemblage with modern-acquired materials available to the time of the site, he was able to demonstrate that the tool may have been used for opening mussels.
Viola! And that’s Experimental Archaeology. We see this often now, in the attempt to recreate ancient Greek music from instruments made from materials and drawings on Greek pottery, in beers recreated from ancient sediments in the bottom of beer jugs, in the boats being built from materials and methods available at the time of the original boat builder.