As an archaeologist, I see the automobiles and motorcycles in Rolling Sculpture as artifacts. Not very ancient ones, but artifacts nonetheless. Several of them caught my attention because I could relate to them on an archaeological level. The Aérolithe, the stunning crème de menthe car in the “Yesterday’s Car of the Future" section at the end of the exhibition, is one of them. Yes, it’s a re-creation, but in my little world, we call this experimental archaeology.
Experimental archaeology is all about testing hypotheses, interpretations, and assumptions about ancient cultures, trying to figure out how or why the ancients did this or that. Sometimes the only way to figure something out is to try it ourselves using methods and materials closest to the original as possible.
Among famous examples of experimental archaeology (and in keeping with the transportation theme), there is Building Pharaoh’s Chariotthat aired on NOVA. However, most projects are a little more mundane, like the experiment I particpated in on a dig in Sudan regarding the content of offering molds excavated near the Amun Temple at Dangeil.
When phytolith (plant particles) analysis indicated that the so-called bread molds did not contain wheat but a sorghum-based offering, we investigated what type of offerings could have been used by the Kushites in Amun temples in the southern part of the Kingdom of Meroe.
When the Guild of Automotive Restorers of Bradford, Ontario, was commissioned to re-create the now-lost Bugatti Type 57S Aérolithe, they did more than just build a fabulous car using 1930s materials and technologies. In the process they refuted some assumptions and answered questions. Perhaps the most important of these questions was whether the Aérolithe was supercharged. Did it have an air compressor increasing the pressure or density of air supplied to its engine, making it more powerful? The answer is no…even though it was the prototype for the production car named Atlantic, which was supercharged, the Aérolithe wasn’t. It had a naturally aspirated inline-8 engine.
Such investigative experiments can be challenging. With the Aérolithe, the most trying task was shaping the elektron panels to create the vehicle’s spectacular body. Even the company that provided the Guild with the magnesium-aluminum alloy panels (the same company from whom Jean Bugatti got his panels back in the day) said they had no idea how to manipulate the panels to achieve this. Special tools and techniques were employed specifically to handle and form the elektron: magnesium is flammable at a certain temperature, and, if that wasn’t challenging enough, the period-correct alloy is more difficult to work with than modern mixes. Elektron has a phenomenal memory, and the team working on the re-creation would find finished pieces returning to their original shape the next day. (However, elektron will snap if forced too hard.) This kind of project gives one a whole new appreciation for the efforts and skills that went into the production of the original.
The Guild of Automotive Restorers did a phenomenal job: to great acclaim they brought back to life the famed and long-lost Bugatti Aérolithe—because they used period-correct techniques and materials, and followed the original design as closely as possible. That’s experimental archaeology.
I would like to thank Thomas Douglas, general manager at the Guild, for taking the time to chat with me, sharing his time and knowledge as well as the numerous photos that allowed us to create for the exhibition a slideshow of the re-creation of the Aérolithe. Additional thanks go to Julie Anderson, co-director of the Dangeil excavations, for giving me permission to mention our little experiment in this blog post.
Caroline M. Rocheleau is curator of ancient art at the NCMA.