Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Experimental archaeologist Richard Schweitzer playing the bukkehorn
Richard Schweitzer plays the bukkehorn, an ancient Scandinavian instrument, at L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site in Newfoundland, the only confirmed Norse site in North America. Photo by Shanna Baker

Coastal Job: Experimental Archaeologist

Richard Schweitzer contributes to the field of archaeology by re-creating and testing artifacts in the real world.

Authored by

As told to Shanna Baker

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

Richard Schweitzer, aka Rig Erlandsson, is a full-time history, art, and music teacher in southern Ontario, and an amateur experimental archaeologist with the Dark Ages Re-Creation Company focused on Norse culture.

Even though I don’t have any Norse heritage, I’ve always been interested in Scandinavia. I did a tour of the northern countries almost 20 years ago and just really enjoyed the culture and the artifacts. I have no interest in Vikings per se—the raiding part of that history doesn’t interest me—it’s more the material culture behind it. I began to explore Norse culture and then branched out into experimental archaeology.

Experimental archaeology involves coming up with questions that archaeologists don’t have the answers to and then figuring out a series of experiments that can answer those questions. While some of the old guard archaeologists still make fun of it, more and more are finding that experimental archaeology does have a place in their field. We do dress up in funny clothes and get our hands dirty, but we’re also doing a lot of serious scientific experiments.

Many artifacts from Norse culture have been discovered, but until you actually use them and re-create the process of making them in the first place, there’s a lot you don’t know about them. I’ve made my own clothes, shoes, and instruments—music is my primary interest—and built an iron smelter at my house last fall; I did almost everything wrong with the first smelter experiment, but we still got iron, and that was really exciting.

Richard Schweitzer demonstrates a few Norse instruments at a replica Viking encampment in L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. Video by Shanna Baker

Sometimes the findings of our work are practical. When my son was born 10 years ago, we learned that you can’t breastfeed in the clothing everyone thought Norse women wore—so it couldn’t be right.

I’m not involved in live-action role-playing; I understand the fun of it, but I like to keep my play based in reality, in history. When we’re not doing Norse stuff, my wife and I pursue medieval and Renaissance research, including reconstructing a 15th-century dance manuscript to make those dances danceable.

I helped make iron at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland for the first time in 1,000 years, and worked for museums in Rhode Island, Michigan, and across Ontario, but my strangest experience came when I was interviewed by an ethnomusicologist from Carleton University [in Ottawa, Ontario]. The interview became part of a video game called First Encounters with little video clips of me talking about Norse music. Having driven six hours to the interview, I arrived to find I had the wrong sea chest and had to wear my wife’s clothing. Luckily, Norse clothing for men and women is almost the same, so I rolled up the sleeves and no one could tell they only reached halfway.