Toward a Sensory Archaeology
What exactly is “sensory archaeology”? In brief, it is an umbrella term for ways of understanding the past by investigating the effects of places and things on people’s senses. It considers the potential roles that textures, smells, sounds, tastes, and other less tangible visual qualities, like shimmer, played in informing the choices people made in past societies. Were structures built with acoustics in mind as much as visual appearance? Were certain stones selected for tool-making because of the feel, or even sound, of the material? Was the bodily performance of creating a pot or rock art as important as the finished product? These are just some of the issues that archaeologies of the senses have explored, with intriguing results.
The development of sensory archaeology can be linked to a recent trend within sociology and cultural studies that focuses on exploring the roles of the senses in society (e.g., Classen 2005; Feld and Basso 1996; Howes 2005;). Our senses are the medium of our interaction with the world around us, and a sensory understanding of this world is not simply a physiological matter, but is culturally determined and reflected in material culture. The five senses recognized in the modern Western sensorium (taste, touch, smell, sight, hearing) are not the only possible ways of engaging with the world. Different societies have been shown to recognize varying numbers of senses and to have different sensory hierarchies (Classen 1993; Houston and Taube 2000). However, Descartes’s dualistic division into a rational world of the mind and an irrational world of the body/senses contributed in no small measure to the rise of sight as the main sensory apparatus of Western culture (although such primacy of vision can be traced back as far as Aristotle). Archaeologists therefore have become accustomed to recording and interpreting sites and artifacts at a very visual level: we draw plans and sections, take photographs, and read and write reports. There are ceramic, lithic, and architectural specialists, who produce descriptions, identify typologies, and suggest interpretations. Yet buildings were constructed to be experienced, not just described; artifacts were meant to be handled, to be touched, to be used to make sounds, to produce and to facilitate the consumption of food and drink. These experiential aspects of past lives are the goals of sensory archaeology.
Over the last decade or so, a number of journal articles and chapters in edited volumes have presented the results of sensory approaches to artifacts, monuments, and the past in general (see select bibliography). Other scholars have underlined the need to re-embody and re-sensualize the past (e.g., Joyce 2005; Meskell 1996). The launch of two new journals dedicated to sensory studies and cognitive explorations of archaeology and anthropology (Senses and Society and Time and Mind) reflects a growing realization that such approaches can provide valuable insights about both material culture and societies themselves in the past. But such a field is still in its infancy, and the CAI 2010 Visiting Scholar Conference will be the first meeting to provide a forum for archaeologists to further investigate the potential of these sensory archaeologies.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that archaeologists cannot dig up smells or tastes. So what form has this sensory archaeology taken thus far? A forerunner of this approach can be identified in the application of phenomenology to the past, embraced by British prehistorians in particular. Following the ideas of Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger, it heralded a new way of thinking about monuments, the landscape, and the people therein, yet it tended to prioritize vision above other senses, focusing on concepts of intervisibility and lines of sight, for example. Recognition that every experience of material culture is multisensory has led others to go beyond the visual, and explorations of past soundscapes, or archaeoacoustics, are perhaps the most well-known of attempts to reanimate the past (Scarre and Lawson 2006). Experimental archaeology has always captured the imagination of academia and the public alike, and re-creating the sound of Bronze Age trumpets, as performed at World Archaeological Congress WAC 2008 in Dublin, can certainly help to reanimate a silent past. Moving from sound-making devices to exploring the effects of sounds within structures has yielded a number of interesting studies suggesting that places were meant to be heard as well as seen (Devereux and Jahn 1996; Watson and Keating 1999). Natural places have also been exploited for their aural effects, including noise distortion, amplification, or echoes (e.g., Holmberg 2005; Loose 2008). The role of sound in rituals is almost universal--bells, drums, voices, and rattles have all been essential elements across diverse societies--and warfare too has vivid aural accompaniments (e.g., the whistling draco standards of the Dacians). Finally, it is important also to remember that many of these auditory experiences would have had other measurable physiological effects on the body (reverberations, or the speeding up or slowing down of pulses, heartbeats, or breathing), and so can further stimulate other senses.
Other past sensory experiences have been investigated too, although less often than acoustics. Hapticity (sense of touch) has the potential to add a new dimension to our understanding of buildings and artifacts. Were materials selected for how they felt as much as for how they looked or for technological reasons? MacGregor’s analysis of carved stone balls considers these artifacts from a haptic perspective (MacGregor 1999), while Ouzman (2001), Cummings (2002) and Dawson et al.(2007) also focus on the importance of feeling the world. In a similar vein, it is essential to consider not just the sensory impact of the finished artifact or structure, but how this would have affected the performative aspects of creation: Were materials chosen for specific tactile qualities that demanded a certain kind of bodily engagement (Lazzari 2005:142)?
Olfactory stimulation and perceptions of smell in past societies are perhaps the most difficult to access. However, olfaction can be a fundamental way of knowing the world (Classen 1993). Houston and Taube (2000) have demonstrated the importance of smell in ancient Mesoamerica, and many societies, past and present, communicate with divinities, spirits, or other worlds with aromatic aids (Howes 1991). There have also been calls to consider the olfactory dimensions of buildings and spaces. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of smell is its close association with experiences and their accompanying emotions (Classen, Howes, and Synnott 1994:2). Odor, memory, and meaning are closely linked, and it has been suggested that somatic memories of communal events were essential in the creation and maintenance of power dynamics (Hamilakis 2002).
Somatic memories also apply to taste, to the acts of eating and drinking, to intoxication, and to the environments within which these embodied acts occurred: As humans, we remember through incorporation (Stoller 1997:59; also Sutton 2001). The social and political significance of food and feasting is a well-documented phenomenon. Archaeology has moved on from its traditional concerns with subsistence to recognizing the presence and importance of commensal events in the past, reflected in a surge in publications and conferences on this topic. However, there is a need for a new focus now on the multisensory aspects of consumption and on the role of the substances themselves, not just in gastropolitics, but also in everyday life.
The issue of deeper cultural resonances behind visual appearance has also been explored; for example, the study of color as a meaningful attribute of material culture has produced very interesting results (Jones and MacGregor 2002). Hosler (1994) has shown that achieving gold and silver colors in metalwork was a way of re-creating the sacred in West Mexico. Qualities of raw materials apart from technological advantages must be considered: The “brilliance” of quartz was a tangible and meaningful attribute leading to its selection for tools in diverse societies (Taçon 1991). Obsidian in Mesoamerica has been discussed by Saunders (2001) for its similar glittering properties. Building on this appreciation of the powers of color and other innate qualities of material and artifacts, it is possible to consider a synesthetic effect, where something seen by the eye conveys sensations to the nose, ear, or mouth, as explored for Mesoamerican society by Houston and Taube (2000), while Day (2006) has published on the synesthetic effects of certain Minoan ceramic vessels.
There are some inherent difficulties encountered within sensory archaeology. We live in a twenty-first-century sensorium that (unconsciously) influences the ways we can understand the past. It has been suggested that to appreciate the sensory worlds of others we need to unlearn our sensory education with its prejudice toward vision (Gosden 2001:166). But can we ever leave it behind? Interpreting the past will always be subjective, and we will never know exactly what a Mayan temple smelled like or how wine tasted to a Roman emperor. Such personal experiences are not the goal of sensory archaeology however; rather the aim is to incorporate a consideration of embodied practices and sensory ontologies into our investigations to enhance our interpretations. This approach cannot provide definite answers about how buildings or artifacts were used in the past, but it does encourage recognition and discussion of the complex relationships between people and the world around them and as such is a valuable addition to archaeology. Perhaps the ultimate challenge of sensory archaeology is to communicate research in an accessible format that breaks away from the “tyranny of the gaze” and relies less on printed texts. Is the traditional monograph the best way to present results that are so heavily dependent on other ways of knowing? And what about museums: How might sensuous pasts best be presented to the general public? At this juncture, it remains unclear how such a goal could best be achieved (and, of course, this conference will produce an edited volume!), but such challenges will underlie the discussion at the conference, and it is hoped that stimulating and rewarding debate, if not answers, will be forthcoming.
1993 Worlds of Sense. Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures. Routledge, London and New York./li>
Classen, C. (editor)
2005 The Book of Touch. Berg, Oxford and New York.
Classen, C., D. Howes, and A. Synnott
1994 Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. Routledge, London and New York.
Edwards, E., C. Gosden, and R. Phillips (editors)
2006 Sensible Objects. Colonialism, Museums, and Material Culture. Berg, Oxford and New York.
Feld, S., and K. Basso (editors)
1996 Senses of Place. School of American Research Publications, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
2005 Empire of the Senses. The Sensual Culture Reader. Berg, Oxford and New York.
Howes, D. (editor)
1991 The Varieties of Sensory Experience. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.
1997 Sensuous Scholarship. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.
2001 Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. Berg, Oxford and New York.
2002 Experiencing Texture and Transformation in the British Neolithic. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 21(3):249-261.
Dawson, P., R. Levy, D. Gardner, and M. Walls
2007 Simulating the Behaviour of Light Inside Arctic Dwellings: Implications for Assessing the Role of Vision in Task Performance. World Archaeology 39(1):17-35.
2006 Making ‘Scents’ of Flowery Pots. Minoan Ceramic Vessels with Botanical Relief. In SOMA 2004. Symposium on Mediterranean Archaeology, edited by J. Day, C. Greenlaw, H. Hall, A. Kelly, L. Matassa, K. McAleese, E. Saunders, and D. Stritch, pp. 33-37. Archaeopress, Oxford.
Devereux, P., and R. Jahn
1996 Preliminary Investigations and Cognitive Considerations of the Acoustical Resonances of Selected Archaeological Sites. Antiquity 70:665-666.
2001 Making Sense: Archaeology and Aesthetics. World Archaeology 33:163-167.
2002 The Past as Oral History: Towards an Archaeology of the Senses. In Thinking Through the Body. Archaeologies of Corporeality, edited by Y. Hamilakis, M. Pluciennik, and S. Tarlow,pp. 121-136. Kluwer Academic/Plenum, New York.
2005 The Voices of Stone: Unthinkable Materiality in the Volcanic Context of Western Panama. In Archaeologies of Materiality, edited by L. Meskell, pp. 190-211. Blackwell, Oxford.
1994 The Sounds and Color of Power: The Sacred Metallurgical Technology of Ancient West Mexico. MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Houston, S., and K. Taube
2000 An Archaeology of the Senses: Perception and Cultural Expression in Ancient Mesoamerica. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10(2):261-294.
Jones, A., and G. MacGregor (editors)
2002 Colouring the Past. The Significance of Colour in Archaeological Research. Berg, Oxford and New York.
2005 Archaeology of the Body. Annual Review of Anthropology 34:139-158.
2005 The Texture of Things, Objects, People and Landscape in Northwestern Argentina (First Millennium AD). In Archaeologies of Materiality, edited by L. Meskell, pp. 126-161. Blackwell, Oxford.
2008 Tse’Biinaholts’a Yalti (Curved Rock That Speaks). Time and Mind 1(1):31-50.
1999 Making Sense of the Past: A Sensory Analysis of Carved Stone Balls. World Archaeology 31:258-271.
1996 The Somatization of Archaeology: Institutions, Discourses, Corporeality. Norwegian Archaeological Review 29(1):1-16.
2001 Seeing Is Deceiving: Rock Art and the Non-Visual. World Archaeology 33(2):237-256.
2001 A Dark Light: Reflections on Obsidian in Mesoamerica. World Archaeology 33(2):220-236.
Scarre, C., and G. Lawson (editors)
2006 Archaeoacoustics. MacDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge, United Kingdom.
1991 The Power of Stone: Symbolic Aspects of Stone Use and Tool Development in Western Arnhem Land, Australia. Antiquity 65:192-207.
Watson, A., and D. Keating
1999 Architecture and Sound: An Acoustic Analysis of Megalithic Monuments in Prehistoric Britain. Antiquity 73:325-336.