Britain at war with Europeans over the future of a continent-sized polity? No, not the slow-motion car-crash of Brexit – but a Napoleonic re-enactment at Whittington Castle at the weekend. British and French armies met below the battlements, giving firing demonstrations, showing off their kit and uniforms, doing parade drills and – to wrap the whole thing up – re-enacting part of the siege of Almeida. It was a spectacular display: big enough to make the volley fire really echo around the village, but with groups small enough so that you could walk around and talk to everyone who was taking part.
Re-enactments like this are part of the whole idea that history can be “brought to life” – that past lifeways and behaviours can be reconstructed in the present. Archaeology is often a lot more interested in the material remains themselves than this phenomenological engagement, but the process of archaeological interpretation now owes a fair amount to such ideas. Experimental archaeology validated the logic of re-enactment by demonstrating that archaeological features and artefacts are understood differently when the life-histories of structures or items of daily use are replicated and studied. Construction, use, re-use, discard and deposition take on new meanings when observed first-hand.
Watching history “come to life” – whether a Napoleonic siege or a neolithic flint-knapper – is part and parcel of public interaction with “the past”. Most non-archaeologists engage with the past much more readily when seen as a series of lived moments and used objects. Allowing artefacts, features, sites and monuments to tell their stories by making their life-histories visible is key to successful engagement with public and non-specialist audiences. Even when those narrative life-histories are incomplete or compromised, they importantly still communicate the past as real and lived – more present and more relevant.