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Archaeology and the Senses: Human Experience, Memory, and Affect

Archaeology and the Senses: Human Experience, Memory, and Affect

By Yannis Hamilakis. Pp. xiv + 255, figs. 26. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2014. $99. ISBN 978-0-521-83728-6 (cloth).

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This book is a manifesto—prepare to be roused and challenged. Hamilakis claims that the discipline of archaeology must undergo radical changes and tackle head-on the difficult task of exploring the sensorial and affective dimensions of human experience. According to the author, a sensorial archaeology, one that aims to evoke, rather than to represent, sensorial, affective, and mnemonic experiences will be able to avoid a series of seemingly self-evident binary oppositions (e.g., subject vs. object or theory vs. practice) that have constrained inquiry into what it means (and what it has meant) to be in the world. Hamilakis sets out to expose the prejudices and shortcomings of traditional modernist archaeology and then attempts to develop what he terms an anti-Cartesian theory of sensoriality that attends to flows. Instead of taking matter as the prime object of the archaeologist’s attention, Hamilakis proposes to study material, emotional, and mnemonic interactions within “sensorial assemblages” (126–27). Those assemblages may include everything “from humans to stones and monuments, to weather conditions, and sound waves to mnemonic recollections” (197) or “bones, things, food, drink, psychoactive substances, memories of the dead and of previous [funerary] ceremonies” (136). The diversity of the separate components is less dizzying when grounded in concrete examples. Not surprisingly, given that Hamilakis was trained as a zooarchaeologist and that he has conducted most of his fieldwork in Greece, his arguments are most compelling when he is discussing sensorial and affective flows as exemplified by ingestion, intoxication, and commensality in the prehistoric Mediterranean (chs. 5, 6).

For anyone familiar with recent scholarship on the social and cultural histories of the senses, Hamilakis’ book will seem like the innovative contribution of an archaeologist to debates that have largely been conducted by historians, anthropologists, and sociologists working in more recent periods (for a notable exception, see S. Houston, D. Stuart, and K. Taube, The Memory of Bones: Body, Being and Experience Among the Classic Maya [Austin 2006]). Conversely, for those archaeologists who are new to the field of sensory studies, Hamilakis’ relentless assault on traditional modernist archaeology and his call for a “paradigmatic shift” (203) may come as a surprise. Little is left unscathed. Building on the work of diverse specialists on the senses, Hamilakis reproaches archaeology’s insistence on the discrete temporality of objects, its confidence in the possibility of neatly disconnecting the human body from the world around it, and its privileging not only of the sense of sight over other modalities of experience but also of the entire fivefold sensorium that many of us take for granted. As the author himself realizes, these criticisms will appear more novel to classical archaeologists—many of whom remain proudly allergic to debates and advances outside their field—than to specialists working in other traditions. But more widely influential scholars than your garden-variety classicist are also the objects of Hamilakis’ criticism. While drawing inspiration from thing theorists and proponents of entanglement, he rebukes the former for their efforts to put “thing” on the pedestal that “man” had once occupied, and he finds fault with thinkers such as Tim Ingold and Ian Hodder for their programmatic negligence of the sensorial and affective dimensions of human experience.

Hamilakis’ critique of the limitations and biases of archaeology as generally practiced today (esp. in the Mediterranean) is nuanced and stimulating. In fact, the book offers a critical survey of various important theoretical trends in the recent history of the discipline (chs. 1–3). While the archaeology of the senses may seem like an abstruse endeavor to some, for Hamilakis it demands nothing short of a complete reappraisal of the limits of archaeology itself (ch. 4, esp. 128). But how exactly archaeologists are to proceed if they wish to undertake the paradigmatic shift that the author calls for is less clear. Alas, Hamilakis has not written a how-to manual. However, his more empirical chapters (chs. 5, 6), dealing with mortuary and feasting practices in Bronze Age Crete, offer a glimpse of exciting possibilities. Treating contexts and landscapes that the author knows expertly well, these chapters are the beating heart of his ambitious project and pump life into much of the jargon that pervades the book. His rich description of the sensorial and affective dimensions of funerary ceremonies in Crete, for example, and his analyses of how increasing material elaboration and conspicuous consumption transformed sensorial and mnemonic experiences in the Neopalatial period reward careful attention, even on the part of those not interested in the Bronze Age Mediterranean.

The book itself is competently produced and edited. However, for a project that is primarily concerned with sensorial and affective experience, and one that is effectively calling for a disciplinary revolution, it is a remarkably unprepossessing thing. Its 26 black-and-white figures are drab (in keeping with the generally unattractive standards of other books about archaeology published by Cambridge University Press). Perhaps they reflect Hamilakis’ own attempt to resist the tyranny of the eyes. The author does allow himself one minor formal concession: long, italicized stretches of prose signal “genealogical” or “autobiographical vignettes” (10–11) that are thus separated typographically from the strictly academic argument. These vignettes are unobtrusive yet stylistically distinct: a reader would detect them even without the italics. This reviewer, for one, would have liked if the author of this exciting and original book had taken more risks and provoked his readers not just through his prose but also through the experience of interacting with an object. Proper academic books in other fields have set admirable precedents: the typographical fearlessness of Ronell’s Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln, Nebr. 1991) or the synesthetic pleasures of Tufte’s Envisioning Information (Cheshire, Conn. 1990) come to mind.

But this is quibbling. Anyone interested in the limits of archaeological interpretation and in what we can inquire about the sensorial and affective dimensions of human experience should read this book. It is thought-provoking throughout. Prepare to be haunted: “things will not rest until they get their sensorial dues” (56).

Felipe Rojas
Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World
Department of Egyptology and Assyriology
Brown University

Book Review of Archaeology and the Senses: Human Experience, Memory, and Affect, by Yannis Hamilakis

Reviewed by Felipe Rojas

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 4 (October 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1194.Rojas

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