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Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Emotions and Archaeology Part 2

The Challenges of Writing Emotion into the Past[1]
It therefore only makes sense that emotions should form part of the life cycle of the production/shaping, use, deposition, abandonment, rediscovery, excavation and eventual study of material culture from the past. So why has archaeology had so little to say about emotions? One concern could very well be, what do we mean by emotions and how do we define emotions? This could be a complex task and different scholars are likely to have widely varying approaches. With that said, perhaps archaeology could draw on definitions and approaches to the study of emotions found in other fields like history, literary analysis etc.

What evidence is there for the expression emotions in the archaeological record? For some societies we can look to the emotional language used in texts or inscriptions and visual representations reflecting people experiencing emotions as represented in sculpture, paintings and iconography. However in archaeology, the historical written or visual record can be fragmentary – sometimes quite literally comprised of reconstructed fragments. In other cases, a language or script may be undeciphered and for prehistoric societies there is (by definition) no written record at all. In such cases, this does not preclude archaeological investigation, it merely hinders cross referencing finds with the additional cultural context provided by written records, especially say mythological texts which can sharply hone our understanding and interpretation of piece better than speaking in more general terms. What a lack of texts, and where we have them, a lack of sufficient surviving bodies of literature might do is prove a barrier to studying emotion in the distant past. That said, I see no reason why the study of emotions in the ancient past could not be attempted from what has survived, and competing arguments could be weighed and contested from there.

How emotions are expressed and represented, not to mention what constitutes an emotion can vary immensely from culture to culture.[2] Furthermore emotions can change or even become obsolete over time.[3] It is often said metaphorically that the past is a different country. If this is true, then archaeology, especially of ancient societies is confronted by not only the challenge of understanding emotions in very different cultures to our own. Often this is not only literally from a distant country, but across a vast ocean of time when we look at societies separated by centuries if not millennia from our own . So quite easily, what constitutes some emotions for us may not constitute the same emotions or even count as an emotion for them at all. Conversely we may have trouble recognising, interpreting and understanding some ancient emotions if they differ vastly from our own. In such cases we would have to translate emotions into concepts we can better understand.[4] Nonetheless there is no easy answer to this. Introducing the study of emotions to archaeology rather than the traditional more descriptive approach raises many as yet unresolved questions and issues.

I think the other concern archaeologists may have is the ‘unexplored anxiety that writing emotion into the past necessarily involves empathy,’ and I would add; self-reflexivity.[5] Archaeology can be a very descriptive discipline, as I have said above.  It is one thing to describe artefacts and sites, but another to try and discuss emotions. There is always the risk of projecting views onto the past either consciously, which is a risk reduced by accountability and peer review, or unconsciously,  which doubtless historiography will note the views that will one day be seen as symptomatic of our own time and place in history. Discussing emotions as a discourse within archaeology, especially the emotions of the archaeologists, could be seen as running the risk of blurring the line between raising ideas in debate and projecting conscious or unconscious ideas and norms of emotions onto the past. Perhaps the hesitancy has more to do with an unvoiced fear of appearing unprofessional or unacademic in admitting a passion for one’s chosen topic of research and not mere intellectual problem solving. Speak with any expert in their field about their research and that same passion as drive and motivation becomes readily apparent. Indeed it is probably vital for sustaining long  term projects over years of  research and refinement. Clearly, in reality interest and enthusiasm is not mutually exclusive with academic rigour, rather it is conducive to sustaining it.

[1] See also Robinson 2010 and Matt 2011.

[2]  Frevert 2011. See also Lutz 1988.

[3]  Loseing emotions from culture over time, based on Medieval examples. Frevert 2011, pp. 19-86.

[4]  For instance the concept of modern romantic love is completely absent from Mesopotamian literature, does this mean that they did not experience or did not express romantic love? Kramer 1979, pp.  74-75.

[5]  Tarlow 2000, p. 720.

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