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'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+.

Event details of Sensing the past
Start date 7 October 2021
End date 9 October 2021

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. 

Part 1: Online sessions via Zoom

Part 1, held online on 7 and 8 October, will introduce participants to the state-of-the-field debates in experiential archaeology and heritage work. A series of lectures and discussion sessions will be anchored by a keynote address by Prof. Dr. Sue Hamilton (UCL) on 8 October.

Changing visibility of the Fort Bij Uithoorn through time (Map images courtesy of Kadaster)
Changing visibility of the Fort Bij Uithoorn through time (Map images courtesy of Kadaster)

Part 2: Sensory fieldwork at Fort bij Uithoorn

The second part of the workshop, on 9 October, will give 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 will be 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 will equip participants to analyse historic sensory contributions to such historic spaces and to contribute to redevelopment dialogues beyond mere material evidence. Safety measures in place due to Covid-19 will be applied.

Keynote speaker

Prof. Dr. Sue Hamilton (University College London)

Invited speakers include

Monika Baumanova (University of West Bohemia)
Emma-Jayne Graham (The Open University)
Matthew Leonard (Cultural Heritage Institute, Swindon)
Jacqueline K. Ortoleva (University of Birmingham)
René G.A. Ros (Knowledgecentre Dutch Water Defence Lines & Documentationcentre Defence Line of Amsterdam)
Ruth Van Dyke (Birmingham University, SUNY)
Caro Verbeek (Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam)


A new social sensory archaeology and heritage (keynote)

Dr. Sue Hamilton, UCL Institute of Archaeology, UK

Sensory considerations within archaeology and heritage assessments are often confined to ‘desktop’ embellishments of a partially-preserved past from which ephemeral components are missing. Suggesting what past places would have smelled, looked and sounded like, offers a more ‘real’ multi-dimensional reconstruction. However, interpreting the deployment and impact of sensory awareness on the parameters of past human behaviour is in its infancy. To date in situ sensory/phenomenological archaeological fieldwork has concentrated on identifying heightened ritual experiences associated with vision and re-enacting ceremonial sound performances. By contrast, I focus on recent work on the social and sensory spaces of domestic sites at different scales of analysis – home, community, territory — and establish new field methods of sensory analysis. The importance of sensory juxtapositions is considered: for example, what might have been seen but not heard between coeval sites and locales? These sensory-based methods of field study are subject-centred, not subjective, and undertaken by teams; both qualitative and quantitative, they can be as rigorous and ‘testable’ as any other archaeological recording. Sensory-based field analysis is not a ‘stand alone’ but an ‘alongside’ set of methods in the archaeological and heritage tool-kit and uniquely enriches understandings of how past societies functioned and can be represented in the present.

Synaesthetic analyses of urban sensory heritage on the East African coast

Monika Baumanova, The University of West Bohemia, CZ

The archaeological heritage on the East African coast is renowned for the remains of precolonial Islamic towns that engaged in long-distance trade along the Indian Ocean rim throughout the last millennium. Many excavations took place early on in the colonial era and focused mainly on monumental stone buildings. Today, this often limits the availability scope of archaeological data accessible through excavation. The preserved architectural heritage and the detailed study of space and survey of standing buildings is hence a crucial part in research on social aspects of past urban life.

Sensory analysis, which has only very recently entered African archaeology, can aid in uncovering the intangible aspects of urban heritage. Beyond understanding the properties of the built environment acting on individual senses, this paper explores how multi-sensory analyses can provide novel perspectives for interpreting the implications of past spatial configurations. The focus is mainly on vision and hearing in combination with movement as part of haptic perception. Considered in context with local ethnographic and historical data it may bring context-relevant insights and in case of living historical towns, synaesthetic sensory analyses may inform us about specific aspects of social sustainability.

Rethinking lived experiences of religious monumentality in Roman Italy: a sensory/disability studies approach

Dr. Emma-Jayne Graham, The Open University, UK

Although sensory archaeologies and ancient disability studies have much in common, only rarely have they been brought together to explore the complexities of being an embodied human in the ancient world. Sensorial-driven investigations of antiquity all too frequently presume a somatic norm in which everyone could see, hear, and move in more or less equal ways, whereas studies which identify the varied ways in which the people of antiquity might encounter disabled bodies continue to privilege the socially and legally disabling implications of these circumstances over the ways in which they were felt and lived. This paper will present an argument for the closer integration of ancient disability studies with sensory archaeologies, demonstrating through a case study concerning ritualised movement at the first century BCE sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia at Praeneste (Palestrina) how this can provide us with new ways of understanding monumental sensescapes. At the same time, it will become clear that foregrounding a diversity of potential lived experiences of the physical material world can encourage more inclusive ways of approaching long-standing areas of scholarship concerning ancient cultural forms and practices, such as religious experience and architecture.

Hidden Battlefields: Making sense of the Subterranean Western Front

Dr. Matt Leonard, The Cultural Heritage Institute, UK

During the First World War in France and Belgium life on the Western Front was predominantly lived below the surface. The proliferation of hitherto unimaginably powerful weaponry rendered surface existence untenable. This retreat into the earth necessitated a complete revision of soldiers’ somatic engagement with their immediate environment. The human senses adapted accordingly and through them the subterranean Western Front was brought into existence. In this dark and claustrophobic landscape, a reliance on sight was replaced by a trust in touch, and the importance of sound became amplified as the cacophony of the surface battlefield was replaced by the intense silence of the fighting tunnels.

Over a century later bringing these hidden landscapes to the public’s attention is no easy task. Their inherent danger means they are not accessible without extensive engineering work and added safety features. Where this has been done, such as at the Grange Subway tunnel beneath Vimy Ridge, authenticity is necessarily sacrificed for public safety, creating a sanitised version of a wartime landscape that offers little of the experience of occupying these spaces. This paper will explore how an interdisciplinary methodology can produce a better understanding of how these landscapes were created utilised, in turn providing a more nuanced heritage experience, and thereby demonstrating how heritage studies, archaeology and anthropology can work together in the increasingly interdisciplinary field of modern conflict studies.

Sensing sound: Cognition and the Etruscan funerary space

Jacqueline Ortoleva, Doctoral Researcher, University of Birmingham, UK

In recent years, archaeological science has increasingly drawn on evolving fields such as experimental psychology and neuroscience to further understand the material record. While utilized in fields such as Prehistory, Pre-Roman scholarship has been slow to adopt approaches involving human cognition. This is especially clear when considering painted tombs in Etruria which continue to be understood in iconographic and/or epigraphic terms. The Etruscan tomb space was not only seen by funerary participants but cognized across a wide range of sensory precepts. This paper draws on cognitive science to explore how sonic and kinaesthetic cues structured conditions of action inside the Etruscan painted tomb space. Data from recent fieldwork in the Necropoli dei Monterozzi at Tarquinia is presented to discuss the aural nature of architectural structures and their implication with respect to the funerary event. By reconnecting the physicality of the tomb space with sensory data, the painted tomb re-emerges as a space rich with physical and cognitive interaction.

Knowing by Smelling - Scent as Art and Heritage

Dr. Caro Verbeek, Vrije Universiteit, NL

Since the sensory turn an increasing amount of scholars have contributed to the field of olfactory history. They have helped to establish that smell was an essential part of knowledge formation and of art and heritage. Yet they rarely address their own or their audience's (odience's?) noses, but rather stick to text and images. The current pandemic has rendered the world even more inodorate, since we cannot digitize scents (easily).

In this workshop art historian Caro Verbeek will discuss her work as an olfactory curator and scholar. She will guide a remote sniffing session by asking participants to empty their kitchen cabinets. Please bring

  • peanut butter
  • a pencil (of cedarwood) and pencil sharpener
  • nail polish remover.