Senses at the Classical Association Conference, Edinburgh, 6-9 April 2016

The Twitter highlight of the recent CA conference was the pair of panels on Ancient Botany in Text and Practice, organised by Miriam Bay, Jo Day and Laurence Totelin. I missed a lot of the papers as I was chairing elsewhere, but there was a strong olfactory theme in both the papers and discussion. Please tell us more! Jo’s paper, and the subsequent discussion, reminded me how complex studies of smell need to be. For instance, the harvesting of flowers is dependent on the time of day and weather conditions. These factors also have an impact on the strength and affectiveness of odours (keeping to the floral theme, where I was staying on campus, I noticed the heady fragrance of blossom being at its strongest in the early evening twilight).

Sensational Sanctuaries explored the sensory experiences of people making a journey to a sanctuary. Each presenter spoke about some of the different physiological and emotional sensations which may have been experienced by individuals and groups participating in festivals and acts of pilgrimage. The emphasis was on journeys: the movement between everyday and ritual places and practices.

Matteo Olivieri began the morning with a multisensory study of the festival of Apollo on Delos, concluding that the festival created ‘concord through diversity’. The participants in the festival spoke and sang in different dialectics, the sounds they made accentuating their differences but also creating unity in that diversity. Many people travelled far, and Matteo considered the kinaesthetic experience of travelling across the sea to Delos, showing how that movement is reflected in the visual language of the Homeric Hymns, through words such as ‘visibility’, ‘clarity’ and ‘luminosity’.

Next, was Patty Baker’s interdisciplinary study of Greek sanctuaries and salubrious landscapes. Her emphasis was on the restorative properties of ‘natural’ landscapes: in particular, the importance of water quality, natural vistas and colours in healing. I particularly liked her use of Vincent Scully’s vivid descriptions of his visits to Greek sanctuaries to consider the possibilities and limitations of taking a phenomenological approach to sacred landscapes. The senses shape someone’s experience of a place, but a factor in this is that both places and objects have agency, as Patty made clear when she considered the reciprocal relationship between materials, landscapes and the human subject, and how each affects the other.

My paper picked up on several of Patty’s theories and themes, but took the audience to Picenum (Central Adriatic Italy). Underpinned by Ruth Whitehouse’s definition of ‘abnormal’ water, Edward Hall’s proxemics and Henri Lefebvre’s nine sensations, I took a phenomenological approach in order to understand how particular types of water affected the contact senses of smell, taste and touch. My case study was the Lucus Pisaurensis, a mineralised river near Pesaro, the waters of which were used in the Iron Age and Hellenistic periods as an antiseptic, to heal foot complaints in livestock, and mastitis in women. The precise physiological effects on the human body varied according to the physical properties of the (abnormal) water with which that body came into contact, and the experience of that interrelationship created and defined the place as special, or sacred.

Emma-Jayne Graham began with the premise that bodily knowledge creates religion via ritual, in actions such as walking, kneeling or dancing. She focused on anatomical votives of human feet, often found in Italic sanctuaries such as Ponte di Nona and Fregellae. In a theoretically informed paper, she explored the potential multiplicity of functions and symbolism of these votives. The highlight for me was her consideration of the kinaesthetic experiences of the journey to a sanctuary for those seeking healing for painful mobility impairments. Her argument was that different bodies experienced the journey to a sanctuary in different ways, so we cannot think of ancient healing sanctuaries in terms of a universal experience.

The panel showed that there are many ways in which phenomenologies of landscape can nuance our understanding of the experience of ancient sacred places, a theme which came up again at the Seventh Conference of Italian Archaeology the following week! Kinaesthesia was also the topic of the second CA session I organised, Power Ranging: Processional Routes from Republican Rome to Napoleonic Paris.

Each of the three papers in this session explored the triumphal aspects of processions and the elite appropriation of movement through urban space, with a secondary focus on sensory experiences of the procession from the perspectives of both participants and spectators. Lewis Webb explored the relationship between gender, movement and status in the introduction of the cult of Magna Mater to Rome. He presented possible routes for the journey from Ostia and the procession within Rome, which highlighted the challenges faced when attempting to reconstruct such routes. A phenomenological study perhaps provides a future direction for his research.

Catherine Hoggarth wove together some complex ideas about the temporality, liminality and connectivity of Rome’s bridges. The bridges had a practical function in separating and connecting not only city and suburb, but city and empire. At the same time, their liminality contributed to their symbolic role: they were sacred spaces where rituals were performed, and repositories for collective memory and myth-history. The particular sensory experiences of crossing the bridges helped define them as liminal and ritual spaces, and as distinct places.

The final paper, by Diana Rowell, took us beyond Rome and looked at Napoleon’s appropriation of Roman triumphal processions in his transformation of Paris into an imperial metropolis. Diana showed us how Napoleon expressed his power and authority in the city, through monuments and representations in art. The highlight for me was discovering that a temporary model of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile was constructed in wood and painted cloth, to mark the public entrance into Paris of Napoleon and his new wife, Marie-Louise, in 1810. There seem to be some interesting parallels between this and the spectacle created by temporary theatres in Republican Rome.

Processions were kinaesthetic experiences for the participants, but they were also multisensory spectacles, replete with sounds, smells and visual effects which transformed the city from the everyday to the extraordinary. What a rich topic for multisensory research!





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