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Sensing the past

A workshop in applied sensory archaeology and heritage assessment

'Sensing the past' is an international workshop that offers a forum for exchange between established scholars and early-stage researchers (including (R)MA and PhD students) who apply sensory approaches to their heritage and archaeology research. The workshop is organised by Pamela Jordan (UvA), Sara Mura (UvA) and Prof. Dr. Gert-Jan Burgers (VU) with the support of Prof. Dr. Gert-Jan Burgers (VU) and the VU Research Institute CLUE+, ARCHON National Research School of Archaeology, the Amsterdam School for Heritage, Memory and Material Culture, the Amsterdam Centre for Ancient Studies and Archaeology, and the VU Research Institute CLUE+.

An increasing number of interdisciplinary approaches to sensory research in humanities has proven productive in decentralizing ocular-centric models of experience towards holistic comprehension of historic remains. These innovative perspectives have led to a growing field of inquiry and dispersed collection of investigatory methods to approach senses individually or through their interrelationships (e.g. synesthesia). In so doing, more avenues are widening for identifying undervalued forms of historic communication, quotidian forms of place-making, and carriers of meaning in ancient and historical places that are not visibly accessible in the physical remains. 

The workshop 'Sensing the past' was divided in two parts. The first part consisted of online zoom-sessions (held on 7 and 8 October, 2021). During these sessions participants were  introduced to the state-of-the-field debates in experiential archaeology and heritage work. You can watch the recordings of these sessions below. 
The second part of the workshop (held on 9 October, 2021) gave participants experiential fieldwork experience by taking part in a sensory walk at the Fort bij Uithoorn, a site built as part of the Amsterdam defense line system and inscribed in the Stelling van Amsterdam UNESCO world heritage designation. Research was contextualised with a lecture by a local military history expert. Many of the forts in the Stelling have come under recent revitalisation efforts, which preserve the material composition of the fort but often significantly change the experiential layer. Fieldwork equiped participants to analyse historic sensory contributions to such historic spaces and to contribute to redevelopment dialogues beyond mere material evidence. 

DAY 1 – (7th October 2021)

Session I – Senses of Places

The first session focused on the application of synesthetic approaches to refine our understanding of past spatial designs, either in built environments or altered natural environments.

  • Dr. Monika Baumanova – Synaesthetic analyses of urban sensory heritage on the East African coast
  • Aliaa el-Dardiry – BACK TO THE ROOTS: Digital documentation and reconstruction of the tangible and intangible heritage of Sabīl Ismaʽil al-Maġlāwi
  • Dr. Margarita Díaz-Andreu & Dr. Neemias Santos da Rosa – Sensing images and places: the archeoacoustic study of rock art sites and landscapes

Complementary Lecture 

A talk by Dr. Van Dyke originally given to the archaeology department at Durham University in February 2021 about her research on the Chaco Canyon sensory landscape (with thanks to Dr. Rob Witcher)

Session II – Motion & Synesthesia

The second session explored the application of various sensory approaches to the study of what one could call ‘political spaces’: places that have played a politically, socially, and/or culturally relevant role in the history of different communities. In particular, senses were approached through the lens of movement and how motion can trigger or enhance more than one sense simultaneously. 

  • Dr. Matthew Leonard – Hidden battlefields: Making sense of the Subterranean Western Front
  • Desiree Valadares – Polysensory Encounters at Pacific War Sites: Preserving Second World War Confinement Landscapes in the U.S. and Canada

DAY 2 – (8th October 2021)

Session III – Approaching the Object

The third session examined the bodily relationship of a person to an object or space in time, with a special focus on smell.

  • Dr. Caro Verbeek - Knowing by Smelling - Scent as Art and Heritage
  • Dr. Neha Khetrapal - Sniffing at Ancient Gods: Establishing Olfactory Relationships

Complementary Lecture 

Methodological aspects of sensory research and new ways to approach the concept of ephemerality.

  • Pam Jordan and Sara Mura – Valuing ephemerality in the dataset

Session IV – Senses & Cognition

The fourth session focused on cognition and the bodily relationship of a person to space, investigating how a human understands and positions oneself in past ritual spaces, in modern abandoned places, in archaeological sites, and sites designated for touristic consumption.

  • Sarah Bell – Attending to Absence: Sensing the Past at Rocky Point Amusement Park
  • Brian Kelly – Sensing Tourism
  • Antonio LoPiano – Sensing What Can’t be Seen: A case study in how remote sensing and GIS applications can augment modern experiential impressions of archaeological landscapes

Keynote Address

The keynote lecture by Dr. Hamilton wove themes and questions raised throughout the two days with decades of her own experience applying sensory approaches to archaeology.