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Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Emotions and Archaeology

Affective Cartography: A Reflective Essay on Emotions and Archaeology.

Just as emotions drive many aspects of the world around us today, so it is true that emotions have been influential (and influenced) by the history that has shaped the past. For historians, classicists, art historians and archaeologists, and others too, investigation into emotions can greatly enrich our understandings of the past. That said, interpreting emotion from cultures, times and places that are very different to our own can be complex and problematic. My own discipline of archaeology has been cautious and had relatively little to say about emotions. For that reason I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on the relationship of emotion and archaeology, and both the challenges and potential benefits that may hold for the future.   

Emotion and Research
Emotions underpin so many of our interactions in the world today, yet in academic discourse the modern Western tendency has largely been to attempt to downplay the role of emotions, or perhaps even to remove them from at least the stated aims and methodologies of academic research. Since the Enlightenment, there has been an assumption that learning and scholarship must be driven by rational objectivity and empiricism; detached from more subjective emotion.[1] For researchers there is inevitably emotions at play in behind the object of their inquiry. Whether the research examines in detail the specific intricacies of a single event in history, or takes a broad discursive view of deep historical factors over centuries – emotion is always there.[2] Emotion is always both affect and effect.   There is also inevitably an emotional investment by the individual conducting the research. The objects of the research, the research itself and the journey experienced in conducting that research all result from and further generate emotional experiences. Human beings are not automata, emotionless machines, yet intellectual rigour requires, nay demands, a certain amount of emotional detachment and objectivity. All of this contributes to a tension that has built up over centuries between two seemingly juxtaposed positions rationality and emotions.

This polarisation between rationality and emotion can be seen between different approaches between different fields, but also even within a single discipline.  The general modern Western interpretation is that emotions are experienced internally to our individual consciousness, with individuals emotional responses and expressions varying widely from experience to experience and even varying significantly between people going through the same or similar emotional experiences.[3] The sciences have tended to view emotions as being biological and/or neurological reactions to stimuli hardwired universally across humankind with the reaction or expression of emotions varying between occurrences, people and cultures as dictated by circumstance or expectation.[4] From this perspective emotions are objective phenomena, even if that is an electrical impulse through a pathway of neurons, but the experience and expression of emotions is highly subjective and variable and therefore contrary to the rationality, empiricism, and objectivity that is the foundation for the scientific method. On the other hand, the humanities and social sciences have often viewed emotions and the expression of emotions as social constructions, being culturally relative, the result more of nurture than nature.[5] More recently, perhaps due to greater interdisciplinary cooperation there is increasing acknowledgement of both sides and more acceptance of intermediary positions between these extremes.[6]

Archaeology and Emotion[7]
As I stated earlier, as a discipline, archaeology has had surprisingly little to say (at least in print) about the relationship of emotions in archaeological discourse. At first this may appear surprising, as other similar and sometimes overlapping disciplines like history and anthropology have been more inclined to embrace theories of emotion and apply new interpretations of affect and emotion to better understand people living in different times, places and cultures. I suspect this caution about dealing with emotions has something to do with the nature of archaeology as a discipline in and of itself. In the popular imagination archaeology is represented by adventurous treasure hunters like Indiana Jones, Tomb Raider, or a little more realistically by popular British television series like Time Team and Meet the Ancestors. By interpreting and analysing finds of artefacts, architecture, human remains, technological processes of production, sites, and texts, particularly anything found in situ (found in the original context in which objects were left when deposited), archaeologists can rediscover and analyse various aspects of life in the past. Archaeology is generally regarded as a humanities discipline, however depending on the country and academic institution, archaeology can be placed as a social science or even a science taught alongside geology. In my experience, I have found that archaeology exists in something of a luminal zone between the worlds of humanities and social sciences on the one hand and the traditional sciences on the other.  In conducting their research, archaeologists are often aided or need scientific cooperation and so a working understanding of radiocarbon dating, soil and organic chemistry, geology, animal and human anatomy, botany, chemical residue analysis and various other forms of scientific analysis can be invaluable for interpreting data and understanding the processes at work on a site or upon artefacts. On the other hand, this data is meaningless without the cultural understanding and analysis gained through humanities research. Therefore archaeology is probably best considered among the humanities, but one that can often draw important contributions from the sciences.

[1]  AHR 2012. Extensive discussion on the history of academic approaches to emotions.
[2]  Stearns 1993.
[3]  Different connotations to the use of emotion, including as a “scientific term” available in Dixon 2012.
[4]  Gammerll 2012.
[5]  Plamper 2010 passim.
[6]  Plamper 2010 passim.
[7]  One of the few, but very comprehensive studies can be found in Tarlow 2000.

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