Moving Bodies: Multisensory Approaches to the Ancient Mediterranean

The session Moving Bodies: Multisensory Approaches to the Ancient Mediterranean was part of the Seventh Conference of Italian Archaeology, which was held at the National University of Ireland, Galway on 16-19 April 2016.

The aim of the session was to use specific case studies to prompt discussion on how we might develop methodologies for sensory archaeologies, with a particular focus on movement through ritualised landscapes and experience of space/place. Each of the papers considered the extent to which the senses played a central role within distinctive cultural, social, political and economic activities, from the Neolithic to Iron Age periods. The emphasis was very much on practical phenomenology, influenced by the archaeological fieldwork methods of Chris Tilley, Sue Hamilton and Ruth Whitehouse. The session concluded with a response from Robin Skeates, and discussion of the value of applying multisensory approaches to the archaeology of Mediterranean landscapes and locales within them.

Each of the five papers took as its starting point the multisensory body as the locus of human identity, experience and memory, and considered how the body in motion gave meaning to ancient space and place.

Sue Hamilton presented a phenomenological study of a walk from the Pedegargano to the Grotta Scaloria, in the Tavoliere, on behalf of herself and Ruth Whitehouse. Their study was underpinned by phenomenological methods originating with Chris Tilley (his walking the Dorset cursus) and, more recently, the fieldwork methods developed in the Tavoliere-Gargano Prehistory Project. Sue emphasised the need to focus on points on a route, rather than on the places of intense ritual (such as the cave itself), if we are to fully understand the connections between the lived-world and the supernatural world. She argued that there is no firm line between the two, and that the route itself was marked by transitions, or points of liminality and crossing. The theoretical work of Victor Turner (1969) and Charlotte Damm were key to this argument.

A question raised from this paper is the problem of studying ancient sites in a modern landscape; specifically, the validity of describing and evaluating the experience of walking in a modern environment as a method by which to understand an ancient landscape.

Reuben Grima focused on two sites in Late Neolithic Malta, Xenxija and the Hal Safieni Hypogeum, in order to investigate the significance of geological structures on the body in motion, and what this can tell us about how these two places were perceived and experienced in the past. Basing his interpretation on Lewis-William’s concept of ‘permeable walls’, Reuben demonstrated how natural fault-planes were intentionally incorporated into the architecture of the hypogeum and used to monumentalise the transition between the lived-world and otherworld. His second case study showed that the tombs of Xenxija were marked out by a shallow hill, visible from all compass points, and had a relationship with the taskscapes of everyday life. He concluded that the two sites, whilst structurally very different, were both visually conspicuous and physically remote; they were inseparable from movement, performance and the taskscapes of everyday life; and the topography and geology of the natural landscape were imbued with cosmological significance.

Claudia Lambrugo considered the ‘porous border’ between the human and divine worlds from a different perspective, that of aroma. She argued that the extensive use of perfume in the sanctuary of Predio Sola (Gela, Sicily) marked the transition of girls from adolescence to marriageable status. She argued that this rite of passage involved the maidens processing across the landscape with perfume jars (and, perhaps, other offerings). On reaching the sanctuary they were given lamps in which to burn the perfume, to mark their transition to a new status, and meaning that Predio Sola had a strong signature smell, permeating beyond the limits of the open air sanctuary.

Susanna Harris’ ‘Etruscan cloak experiment’ combined experimental archaeology with phenomenology. She and her team made two cloaks, informed by a range of evidence for 9th-6th century BC Etruscan textiles, although they were not exact replicas. The premise of the study was to explore the extent to which Etruscan dress acted as a means of non-verbal communication. Through an observation experiment at different distances (90m-1m), Susanna collected data on the effect of distance and movement on the visibility of the colour and texture of the cloaks. The results of this experiment enabled her to distinguish seeing, perception, recognition and subjective interpretation of the cloaks across the group of participants. For example, colour perception at 90m was subjective (some saw red, others brown, etc). Movement affected the ability to see borders and fabric thickness at further distances, whilst imperfections in the weave structure were visible only at close range. Participants who commented on the imperfections made a value judgement about the quality of the textiles. Such studies can better inform our understanding of Etruscan culture and society.

The focus of my paper was a phenomenological study of bronze votive figurines found at the peak sanctuary of Monte Primo (Marche Italy), underpinned in part by Edward Hall’s proxemics and Henri Lefebvre’s definition of ‘sensations’. I invited the audience to imagine these warrior and worshipper figurines as representations of live human bodies, and to think about the sensations implied by their posture: the kinaesthetic movement of the warrior frozen in the act of stepping forward with his spear, and the stillness of the female figurine in her relaxed gesture of offering, weight evenly balanced. The figurines in their static poses, frozen in time in a longer and more complex movement or activity, reflected the function of the sanctuary as a place to pause on an important route between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennines. The relationship of the sanctuary to its wider landscape was a significant aspect of its definition and its role in Picene society, and once again we see an interplay of everyday and ritual places and practice.

Liminality was a recurring theme across all the papers: within and between places and spaces, the lived-world and otherworld, between life stages. These thresholds helped past people make sense of their lives and the environments in which those took place, with the result that we should see the everyday and ritual spheres as interrelated rather than separate.

The papers also emphasised that theory and methods need to be used together, and that fieldwork and interpretation are best practised in tandem, each one of these informing the others.

In his response, Robin Skeates noted that the papers had not really explored the ‘politics of the senses’, i.e. that the senses could be controlled (accentuated or denied) in certain situations, and by particular people. He also noted the need to present a sense of time depth and transformation when interpreting the sensory aspects of a culture. He emphasised the benefit of thick description as a method by which to access the richness of detail present in archaeological landscapes, to move us towards a better understanding of the past (something he practises in his own work).

The themes he brought out from the papers were:

Senses of place: phenomenological studies enable the identification of ‘distinct sensory domains’ which people moved within and between. Ritual monuments were established on the margins of the everyday landscape. The significance of transition/thresholds/liminality/rites of passage.

Ritual: experiencing special places was (and is) a kinaesthetic experience. Overwhelming the senses to achieve ‘religious’ experience was a significant aspect of special places.

Materiality: the affective properties of objects, whether inherent or designed.

The general discussion turned to methods, a broader issue which it would be useful for us all to discuss further on this blog! Sue noted that there is not, and should not be, a single method for phenomenological fieldwork, as the method depends on the nature of the fieldwork and on the questions being asked. So, it’s important that we are all clear about the methods we are using. We also need to ensure that we continue to develop robust fieldwork recording forms, without bias (i.e. avoiding leading recorders towards a particular answer). So, we need to share good practice. We also need to share data.

There is the problem of doing phenomenological fieldwork in modern landscapes, especially urban ones, since this colours our perception of the ancient. Similarly, there are pitfalls in the reconstruction of objects. How do we reconcile the impossibility of performing sensory studies of completely authentic objects and places, or are we creating an unnecessary hurdle for ourselves with that question?

How do we best represent phenomenological data? We discussed the limitations of word and image, inherent in publications, PowerPoint presentations, 2D maps and plans. As Sue put it, phenomenology is ‘experience at a human scale’, and this is difficult to represent except through being in the space.

This discussion, and Robin’s response, left us with methodological questions and scope to take each of our case studies in further directions. It was a stimulating session, and I enjoyed it very much. Thank you to everyone who participated!


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