What is the research about?
Archaeology is faced with an intrinsic problem: it has to rely on and generate its knowledge from voiceless artifacts. To interpret their findings, archaeologists collect all available information: input from anthropologists, field experiments and experiments with replicas for example.
In the case of pre-historic salt mining in Hallstatt, they are dealing with up to 3000-year-old artifacts. During the Bronze Age, this mine supplied rock salt to the bigger half of Europe. The researchers are trying to understand how many people were necessary for this achievement (including the supply of the settlement), what techniques were employed and what tools were used.
How does simulations help?
Often, as in this case, it is not plausible to conduct full-scale experiments with certain assumptions. It would be too expensive to have several hundreds of test persons live and work under prehistoric conditions. Thus archaeologists rely on a different approach.
They use experiments with replicas of the tools found to understand their characteristics (e.g., time of wear off, people necessary to use them, output generated, calories necessary for handling, etc.). Then this knowledge is fed into computer models, which are then used to scale things up and to test the scientists’ theories.
Simulation does not make it possible to say “things must have been done this way”, but it can prove impossible theories wrong.
What is the outcome?
The present model is one of many that were created for the Hallstatt archaeologists. Based on information gathered in year-long excavations and live experiments, it simulates the harvesting of wood (the primary raw material in mining) with prehistoric equipment and methods.
Along with other supporting simulations, this one makes it possible to calculate how many people were needed for harvesting wood. In addition, the energy consumption of the lumberjacks (and other workers) makes it possible to calculate how much food had to be produced to sustain them – and calculate how many people were necessary for this.
Overall, the simulation models helped refute several of the archaeologists’ current theories. It also gave valuable insights that helped build new theories on what prehistoric salt mining in Hallstatt might have looked like.