Quantifying the subjective? Recent developments within sensory archaeology

Room:    Auditorium 2
Time:      13:45–17:30
Format: Standard paper session
Organisers: Marta Lorenzon (University of Helsinki) – Marja Ahola (University of Helsinki)

This session focuses on the topical theme of sensory archaeology, exploring the ways in which senses impact our understanding of materiality and our interaction with past societies. Archaeology is essentially a visual discipline, but material culture was often created for a multiscalar sensory experience that included all the senses, rather than just visual stimulation.

We aim at expanding this understanding and exploring alternative ways to interpret past materiality that incorporate multiple senses to achieve a holistic analysis of past material culture.

Additionally, anthropological and archaeological studies have highlighted those multisensory experiences of both architecture and everyday objects acquire different meanings in diverse geographical and historical contexts, stressing that even sensory perception can be influenced by societal cultural paradigms.

In this session, we welcome papers presenting innovative and interdisciplinary approaches to the study of artefacts and architecture through sensory archaeology, focusing on the aspects of connectivity and materiality that combine archaeological analysis with other fields deeply involved in sensory studies. We are also particularly keen on contributions that assess sensory archaeology from a quantitative perspective and explore how to verify these often rather subjective observations. In this sense, we welcome a broad range of papers from scientific archaeology to cultural approaches.

1. Shadows from the past? In search of the sensory experience of Mesolithic storytelling

Author(s): Marja Ahola and Katri Lassila

In this presentation, we explore the material and sensorial aspects of Mesolithic storytelling practices. As a case study, we present an ambiguous zoomorphic wild reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) antler artefact from southern Finland that resembles several animals or combinations of different animals. Although the item has been given a functional interpretation as a snow beater – an item used to clear snow off garments – by taking the ambiguous, zoomorphic shape of the artefact it has also been suggested that the item might have been used in storytelling, as a means to visualize the storyline.

If we imagine a time and place during which storytelling often takes place – during the evening and by the fireplace – the idea of rotating an item in the flickering light to tell a story takes on a new dimension. Since the ambiguous form of the item portrays several animals, the artefact should be able to cast shadowy forms of these animals when rotated against a light source. Although speculative, the interplay between light and darkness has played a pivotal role in prior and coexisting rock art tradition, and accordingly, the power of light to move and transform images could have been a well-known and widely used practice in all forms of storytelling.

By utilizing multidisciplinary methods arising from the traditions of experimental archaeology, 3D-technologies, and artistic research, we explored this hypothesis by producing a three-dimensional copy of the antler artefact and casted shadows with the object by using different natural light sources and materials that would have been available to the Mesolithic people. As a result, we were able to document the shadowy forms of several different animals and it was thus eminently clear that the item contained abundant performative attributes. Accordingly, by exploring the Mesolithic antler artefact from the perspective of sensory experience we suggest that Mesolithic storytelling might have been accompanied by performances that resemble traditional shadow theatre.

2. The theoretical background in “the things we do” or understanding human behaviour.

Author(s): Heide Wrobel Nørgaard

We can define at least three levels of experiments in archaeology. Firstly, those who aim to reconstruct the prehistoric working processes based on original conditions. Secondly, the ones that aim to understand techniques, tools and prehistoric craft in general. They are often executed under modern conditions. And thirdly, experiments that aim to expand the researcher’s knowledge and who are guided by prehistoric evidence. However, we have a fourth category, often used unknowingly of its experimental character and importance, which aims at understanding the consequences of our actions. This category could be called exclusion-experiments. One major issue with the last category is the lack of publications, as many of these experiments lead to negative answers or the disapproval of specific ideas.

This presentation aims to present the theoretical background against which the various experimental actions contribute to the understanding of prehistoric crafts. It will show how “the things we do”, the implicit knowledge and our habitus, can help to illuminate the actions of prehistoric craftspeople. This presentation will further discuss the importance of our research questions in integrating experimental archaeology. Is it theory that leads us in craft experiments, or are the actions themselves the food for our theoretical methodology?

3. Touching distance: Finder-collector relationships with and experiences of archaeological objects

Author(s): Suzie Thomas and Anna Wessman

Avocational metal-detectorists can be defined as finder-collectors. Many of them curate objects which they legally own. Some finder-collectors have private collections or even home museums consisting of thousands of objects, varying in age from under 100 years to over 500 years or even more.

In this paper we discuss the results of object interviews, an ethnographic method where the finder-collectors talk about a set of specifically chosen objects while engaging with them during the interview. Many finder-collectors touch and caress their objects while talking about them. It’s clear that the physical act of handling the objects is an emotional process for them.

The embodied senses within material culture is an intriguing field within archaeology and heritage studies. According to our findings most collected objects have a story, and to the finder-collectors the objects often possess an emotional and mnemonic character – they become storytelling mementoes. Hence, certain objects can awaken memories from the time when they were found by their present owners, they can relate to a specific find site with connected memories of smells and other sensory experiences. And when these objects are being curated or displayed these senses come into motion again.

The objects in these collections might also possess imaginative stories from a more distant and mythical past, created by their present owners. In addition, the stories of the objects move beyond their archaeological informational value since the current stewards add additional layers and stories to the object’s ‘life’.

4. Impact of (low) natural light in choice and perception of Roman house decoration

Author(s): Lucia Michielin

The first adjective that comes to mind to describe the home décor of Roman Imperial Houses is ‘overwhelming’.

The intricacy and complexity of wall paintings, the colourful mosaic patterns, the presence of marble and metal decorations and objects appear somehow excessive for private abodes. This flamboyant perception is skewed by the modern perception of these installations. We are used to looking at these materials in very well lit museum showcases and/or in only partially preserved sites. However, if one observes the actual level of natural light available in the different areas of the house, the experience of this décor is substantially mutated. The evolution of 3D rendering engines allows us to fully simulate the level of natural light reaching the different areas of the house and how the light interacts with the different materials.

If one visualises a half-dimmed room, lit narrowly and patchily by lamp-light, the overall perception of the decoration is very different. It would have been almost impossible to see the decoration as a whole, meaning, for example, that the different areas of the frescoes would be seen separately. Furthermore, a particular light principle needs to be taken into consideration. The Purkinje effect states that the perception of the spectrum is influenced by the level of light. For example, the red colour would appear brighter in full light but much duller on a dim light and vice versa for the tones of blue.  

At the same time, the high recurrence of reflective decorations and materials (such as marble, metal, and even water basins) could have been not only a style choice but also a deliberate effort to maximise the illumination of the house. The importance of this “reflected light” in the regulation of Roman buildings is also attested in the body of law (D.

5. Fort Bij Uithoorn: a mixed quantitative and qualitative research approach to public sensory archaeology

Author(s): Pamela Jordan and Sara Mura

Any built environment creates a full sensory environment; architecture represents a three-dimensional construct created with certain intentions that is manipulated by inhabitants, encoding their full sensory experiences through time. When the original users leave no direct accounts of their presence, as happens in many archaeological settings, architectural remains provide an essential entry-point for understanding everyday forms of historic place, meaning, and knowledge creation. Sensory-based investigatory practices are essential to investigate this archaeological layer.

Built heritage without surviving authored narratives are is not limited to the distant past, however. Sensory archaeology can be applied to any silenced historical structures/ built environments. This presentation discusses the application of combined qualitative and quantitative sensory investigatory strategies at the Fort bij Uithoorn, NL, an early 20th C. military fort and part of the UNESCO defensive military line for Amsterdam. The detailed history of the forts is effectively silent, often obscured behind military confidentiality. Critically for the sensory investigations, the material remains have been maintained without alteration or significant conservation and are completely accessible. In contrast, many of the forts in the line have come under recent revitalization efforts, preserving the material composition but often significantly changing the experiential layer. The Fort bij Uithoorn research serves to expand future fort redevelopment dialogues beyond mere material evidence while developing a flexible research strategy applicable in other built settings as well. 

A customized sensory walk and survey were developed to ascertain the sensory layer’s composition. The survey incorporated both quantitative and qualitative components to analyze subject-based experiences of the site and its potential connection to its historical use. The discussion will focus on the construction of the public sensory walk plus the results and feedback it generated. The multidisciplinary potential for this kind of approach to sensory archaeological investigations will be highlighted, particularly its reliance on public input.

6. Amazed: a sensory approach to North European stone and turf labyrinths

Author(s): Antti Lahelma

Labyrinths built of stone and turf are a prominent feature of the archaeological heritage of the northern Baltic Sea region, with several hundred sites occurring along the coasts of Sweden and Finland. A number of sites are known also from the northernmost reaches of Fennoscandia, from Arctic Norway, Sweden and the Kola Peninsula. Their dating is somewhat uncertain, but is generally thought to be relatively recent, mainly from the Medieval period. They form a multifaceted, mysterious phenomenon that has eluded interpretation, even if there are clues from both Classical sources and northern ethnography that associate them with the Underworld and its creatures, with maritime landscapes and magic, as well as dance and sexuality. At its core, the labyrinth represents ritual architecture that is intended to bewilder and disorient the participant. This paper considers the northern stone and turf labyrinths from a sensory perspective: the moves, gestures and sensations involved in walking a labyrinth, how these are orchestrated to induce meditative or altered states of consciousness, and how these factors may relate to the kinds of places where labyrinths were constructed in the landscape.”

7. Tell me how it feels and i will tell you what is worth. Measuring sensory experiences in early modern artefacts

Author(s): Tânia  Casimiro and Joel Santos

The purpose of this paper is to develop a new way of looking at how certain types of material culture used on a daily basis stimulate different senses such as smell, taste, sight, touch and even hearing, leading to multiple sensory experiences. Combining quantification methods of material culture, questioning the importance of these objects within households of different geographies, and defining a method to measure how many senses any given object can stimulate, we aim to establish a ranking of how sensory an artefact can be and if that embodies it with more or less symbolic and economic importance. Based on our background we are going to use as case studies different types of pottery produced in Portugal and exported to several parts of the world, including Scandinavia, in the Early Modern Age. Archaeological and documental evidence reveal that these artefacts stimulated strong reactions in people with direct references to their smell, touch, colour, decoration, taste and less frequently sound, which still survive hundreds of years later and stimulate not the consumer anymore but the archaeologists’ senses permitting to briefly sense, and maybe reconstruct, what 17th and 18th century people experienced with these objects (an involvement we want to share with the audience).

8. Neuroarchitecture: senses, mudbricks and the Iron Age built environment

Author(s): Marta Lorenzon

This contribution explores the use of neuroarchitecture in the perception of earthen building materials and earthen built environment. First, we focus on discussing sensory experience regarding mudbrick manufacturing, which pertains to tactile and olfactive perception. Second, we look archaeological earthen remains to assess what the sensory perception of earthen architecture was in Western Asia during the Neo-Assyrian period (Iron Age), specifically in urban centers such as Nineveh and Calah. In this latter endeavor we concentrate on how people were living and experiencing the built environment in their daily-life. While archaeology is quite visual, we argue that material culture, specifically earthen architecture, produced a multiscalar sensory experience that included all the  senses, rather than just visual stimulation.