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Sensory Decay Symposium

2 and 3 November 2023, online

Sensing decay in a constructed environment is a multisensory experience. The stages of decay can be transitory and ever-changing. The sensory complexity of decay may be added to or confused by concurrent processes of remaking, rebuilding, and renewal. The symposium aims to consider how we can isolate and record the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of decay within the continuum of deterioration. In tandem, we seek to recognize how particular sensory aspects of decay may prompt cultural responses and actions – this could include the aestheticization of architectural ruins, for instance. Our senses also provide tools to analyse the presence of decay and its temporal stages, for example, in material heritage conservation. A particular methodological challenge is how we, as sensory analysts across disciplines, can record our own often numerous but fast decaying experiences as avenues to questioning and interpreting the past, such as in experimental archaeology.


  • Day 1, session I - Individual Experience and Sensory Decay

    Session chair: Jane Lawrence, Durham University, UK


    16.00 Introduction

    16.20 Nathen Fair (Ghent University) 
    Sensing and Bodies: Ephemeral and individual experiences or not?

    16.45 Louise Steel (University of Wales: Trinity Saint David)
    Household Praxis and Sensorial Engagements with Pottery in Late Bronze Age Cyprus

    17.10 Yonca Atabay (Tillburg University)
    Exploring Implementation and Acceptance of Haptic Gloves in Mixed Reality for Artefacts in Archaeological Museum Exhibitions

    17.35 Group Discussion

    Sensory experience is fleeting and decays very rapidly. As in modern life, our ancestors experienced sensations in all aspects of everyday living. These include whilst making items such as pots or textiles, using tools and equipment, walking in the streets or the more open spaces of the landscape and in more intimate settings such as sanctuaries and the home. However, the ephemeral and individual nature of these sensations raises challenges for researchers. What methods can we use to evoke such experiences? How might we elicit and report experiences in ways which are meaningful? In experimental settings, how do we best help others to describe their sensory experiences? Are there benefits to the researcher being immersed in sensory data gathering opportunities or is maintaining a more distanced, objective stance more productive? Which methods can we use to report findings which allow others to connect with the sensory experiences of the past?

    This session seeks contributions from researchers at all levels which consider practical and applied approaches to these and similar challenges, including those at early and exploratory stages of development.

  • Day 1, session II - Engaging the Senses in Evolving Cultural Landscapes

    Session chair: Gretchen Hilyard Boyce, Groundwork Planning and Preservation
    Session respondent: Caitlin DeSilvey, University of Exeter


    18:15 Hee Sook Lee-Niinioja (Independent scholar)
    Perceptual-Temporal Sensory Decay-Living Experiences in Reality and Virtuality at the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)

    18:40 Joel Santos (University of Leicester), João Sequeira (University of Minho – IHC – CSIS NOVA), Tânia Manuel Casimiro (HTC-CFE NOVA | University of Lisbon)
    From cod to decay: Feeling the factory

    19:05 Comments by Caitlin DeSilvey (University of Exeter) and Group Discussion

    Since its inception, the heritage conservation and historic preservation fields have placed high value on the preservation of historic fabric – often seeking to freeze historic places to their periods of significance. This outdated approach fails to recognize the inevitable change and decay that occurs as historic properties age and evolve. The interdisciplinary study of cultural landscapes offers a more expansive understanding of historic places as complex living systems whose components by their very nature grow, change, and die. The cultural landscape approach examines historic places as products of history and culture - valuing both the tangible physical fabric (i.e. buildings, circulation, vegetation, natural systems) and the intangible characteristics (i.e. sensory experiences, cultural traditions, land use) that combine to form a sense of place across generations.

    As we move towards a more holistic understanding of historic places as complex cultural landscapes, practitioners are aligning with curators, community historians, artists, neuroscientists, and adjacent fields to develop new approaches to adapt and interpret historic places. Many of these approaches prioritize multi-sensory experiences as vehicles for building deeper connections between people and place.

  • Day 2, session III - Sniffing out Decay

    Session chair: Sue Hamilton, UCL Institute of Archaeology, UK


    15:00 Introduction

    15:20 Rose Malik (Durham University, UK)
    Scenting the past: finding ancient smell in archaeological material remains

    15:45 Cecilia Bebibre & Georgios Alexopoulos (UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage)
    Exploring malodours: the smell of decay as an opportunity for heritage interpretation 

    16:10 Robert Kirkbride (Parsons School of Design + PreservationWorks)
    The Scent of Kirkbride Plan Asylums and the Decay of American Mental Health Infrastructures

    16:35 Robyn Price (Brown University)
    Life Scents and Mummification in Ancient Egypt

    17:00 Group Discussion

    The odours of decay are under-explored in archaeology and heritage. This session invites papers on the smells associated with decomposition; variously regarded as malodorous, distinctive, or acceptable/positive. Amongst the array of malodours, the worst is often ascribed to the reek of decaying and dead things. Other odours associated with decay include smell-stages in decomposition, decay that triggers olfactory boundaries, and aromas that are culturally used to overlay or disguise the smells of decay. The experiential locales could be sites and landscapes where the smell of decay is 'in the air' or intense smells at strategically located places associated with decay such as open burial sites and processes, refuse pits, and production practices involving rotting materials. Smell can also be a practical 'tool' of excavation in locating and identifying features associated with specific decayed material. Likewise, registering odour emissions can have a practical role in heritage conservation and management, for example its use in classifying the degree of deterioration of modern polymeric museum artefacts.

    This session seeks contributions from researchers at all levels who consider practical and applied approaches to these and similar challenges, including those at early and exploratory stages of development.

  • Day 2, session IV: Open Session

    Session chairs: Pamela Jordan, University of Amsterdam, and Sara Mura, Kiel University


    17:40 Neha Khetrapal, Jindal Institute of Behavioural Science, O.P. Jindal Global University, India 
    The Visible Outer and Resurrected Sensations within Ancient Hindu Temples

    18:05 Maria Lord (University of Wales Trinity St David)
    The Problem of Shifting Baseline Syndrome in Capturing the Sensory Experiences of Past Environments

    18:30 Melissa Grey & David Morneau (The New School, Composer-producers)
    Sounding the Asylum

    18:55 Discussion

    19:15 Final discussion 


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