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Archaeology of the Night: Life After Dark in the Ancient World

April 2020 (124.2)

Book Review

Archaeology of the Night: Life After Dark in the Ancient World

edited by Nancy Gonlin and April Nowell. Boulder: University Press of Colorado 2018. Pp. xxx + 412. $75. ISBN 978-1-60732-677-9 (cloth).

Reviewed by

It is surprising that such a common event as nighttime and darkness enters so infrequently into the archaeological reconstruction of human societies. The same is not true of historical research on periods where there is an abundant literature on the recursive relationship of societies, nighttime, and illumination, as, for example, the early modern period. Gonlin and Nowell, the editors of Archaeology of the Night, seek to rectify the shortcoming within their own discipline by gathering contributions from nearly two dozen scholars and about 15 ancient and modern cultures to explore what such an archaeology might entail. These efforts can best be understood within the context of recent calls for an archaeology of the human experience, or what one might label an archaeology of the imagination. The challenge of this undertaking is apparent throughout the volume and is most clearly positioned in the uncertainty of identifying the correlates of a material world with specific nocturnal (or diurnal) activities.

Gonlin and Nowell (ch. 1) recognize the obstacles but contend that it is possible to identify nocturnal activities through household archaeology in combination with theories of practice and agency. They reason that an emphasis on phenomenology, sensescapes, and timescapes will increase and enrich our interpretations of past societies’ lifeways. The discovery of that more robust story is an important goal of this volume, whose 17 case studies are arranged into five topical sections: “Nightscapes,” ”The Night Sky,” “Nocturnal Ritual and Ideology,” “Illuminating the Night,” and “Nighttime Practices.”

A preface by Jerry Moore and an introduction (ch. 1) by the editors nicely capture the commonalities underlying the diverse approaches in Archaeology of the Night. One shared assumption is a recognition of what might be described as the phenomenological microenvironment of night. Nighttime produces cooler temperatures, different sounds, sights, and smells, and differential periods of darkening that result in changes in human physiology (e.g., circadian rhythms, hearing, and sight). The contributors labor to correlate the impact of these phenomenological universals with the archaeological evidence, given the existence of the culturally variant filters (i.e., affordances as discussed by Kathryn Kamp and John Whittaker, ch. 4) that serve to mitigate human interpretations of the biological and environmental variables. It is at this point that the interpretive value of the material evidence generally falls short.

With four case studies, the first section, “Nightscapes,” covers societies ranging from the European Upper Paleolithic to the 19th-century American Southwest. Nowell (ch. 2) examines the role of music during Upper Paleolithic times through an imaginative use of a hunter-gatherer analogy and an assumed normative continuity in responses to physiological stimulations. Kamp and Whittaker (ch. 4) hypothesize the role of spatial perspectives among the Pueblo peoples within the context of their built environment while, at the same time, introducing the important concept of environmental affordances (the ongoing process of human assessment of the potential of an environment). The conclusions of both chapters rely primarily on archaeological evidence interpreted through assumptions of a commonality in human physiology and normative cultural analogues. The two remaining chapters in this section approach the topic of nightscapes from a very different angle. Minette Church’s (ch. 5) recounting of nightlife in 19th-century Colorado is entirely built on written records, with archaeological materials simply serving as illustrative examples. The examination of the Classic Maya night by Gonlin and Christine Dixon (ch. 3), on the other hand, is a richly told story whose foundations lie in the existence of a complex of iconography, epigraphy, symbolically imbued architecture and artifacts, ethnography, ethnohistory, and archeoastronomy. The chapters in this section are illustrative of the potential and the pitfalls present in the following chapters.

The relative success of the subsequent case studies hinges on the availability of multiple lines of evidence. The most effective contributions draw on extensive archival records, modern ethnographic and ethnohistoric studies, and an interpretable symbolic iconography. Consequently, those examining the Polynesian (Cynthia Van Gilder, ch. 8), Mapuche (Tom Dillehay, ch. 9), Classic Maya (Jeremy Coltman, ch. 10), Cahokian (Susan Alt, ch. 11), Egyptian (Meghan Strong, ch. 12), Roman (Glenn Storey, ch. 15), or enslaved Bahamian (Jane Baxter, ch. 18) societies weave a fascinating tale of the intertwining of the social and the nocturnal. These efforts rival those of modern historical scholarship and justify the claim that, in certain circumstances, archaeological data can support and enhance our understanding of the societal entanglement with darkness and the night.

The interpretive possibilities for researchers who do not have such a wide array of evidence to draw upon are more restricted, but can still contribute in various ways to broadening our perceptions of the past. Alexei Vranich and Scott Smith (ch. 6) reveal the role of the night sky in organizing and aligning society and monumental constructions at Pre-Columbian Tiwanaku. The complex spatial and social organization of Mohenjo-Daro and other Indus sites serves as the basis for Rita Wright and Zenobie Garrett’s (ch. 14) imaginative reconstruction of the role of night workers in the maintenance of the vast sewer and water systems. Smiti Nathan (ch. 16) and Shadreck Chirikure and Abigail Moffett (ch. 17) explore the correlation of quotidian and ritual activities with night in Africa and the Near East, while Anthony Aveni (ch. 7) draws our attention to the darkness of eclipses. Erin McGuire (ch. 13) details experimental research on the illuminating effects of Viking oil lamps and the implications for household behavior.

Archaeology of the Night is designed to question our preconceptions. The editors and contributors challenge us to think outside the realm of daylight and vision—to explore the darkness and expand our sensory encounter with the past. They accomplish these objectives. The range of analyses employed and the variation in the results make it clear that this is no simple task, and there is no single theoretical or methodological road to attaining these goals. These case studies make it apparent that only when material remains are embedded within supporting networks of ethnographic and ethnohistoric evidence can the full intermingling of society and the night be explored.

Thomas E. Emerson
Illinois State Archaeological Survey
University of Illinois

Book review of Archaeology of the Night: Life After Dark in the Ancient World, edited by Nancy Gonlin and April Nowell
Reviewed by Thomas E. Emerson
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 124, No. 2 (April 2020)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1242.Emerson

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