La editorial JAS Arqueología presentó a finales de 2015 el libro Arqueología y los sentidos. Experiencia, memoria y afecto, de Yannis Hamilakis, profesor de arqueología de la Universidad de Southampton. Tomando como caso de estudio la Creta de la Edad del Bronce, el autor nos enseña cómo la memoria sensorial puede ayudarnos a repensar cuestiones que van desde la producción ancestral de patrimonio, hasta el cambio social a gran escala y la significación cultural de los monumentos. Hamilakis marca el camino para constituir la arqueología como una práctica multitemporal, sensorial y afectiva, que ofrece al mismo tiempo un marco nuevo para la interacción entre los sentidos corporales, las cosas y sus contextos y que, además, puede ser relevante para académicos de otros campos. Mediterráneo Antiguo ha querido acercarse a su propuesta a través de esta entrevista, que os ofrecemos a continuación (en inglés).

Question – You explain how human beings are suffering cultural anesthesia. Could you explain us what does this term mean and talk about its causes?

Answer – I using this term, I wanted to talk about a specific condition in late modernity in the west whereby our perception and experience of the world is highly regulated by a distinctive sensorial and bodily regime which prioritises certain sensorial modalities, such as autonomous vision, at the expense of others; which recognizes only the western sensorium of the five senses, with its implicit hierarchy of high (vision, hearing) and low senses (taste, touch, smell) and its separation and compartmentalization of sensorial modalities; which mediates and directs sensorial attention and experience according to certain rules, most commonly individualism, and financial profit and exploitation; and which defines sensorial experience primarily as a matter of biology and of bodily organs, breaking thus the link between sensoriality and affectivity, between sensing and feeling. Anaesthesia thus is sensing without feeling, sensing without synaesthesia (the co-mingling of all senses).

Cultural anaesthesia is the outcome of distinctive social and historical conditions such as the rise of capitalist, colonial and nationalist modernity in the west, in the past few centuries. It is also to do with the continuing impact of Cartesian thinking with its separation between mind and body and between inside and outside, and even between perception and experience, and with the authoritative discourse of biologism and scientism. But we have to be careful here: there were and are many challenges to this regime of cultural anaesthesia, and have been many subaltern, alternative sensorial regimes not only in non-western contexts, but even within the west.

Yannis Hamilakis

Question – We usually talk about the lineal time, but you propose to talk about a social and sensorial time. Could you explain briefly what does it mean?

Answer – Yes, one of the central theses of the book is that we need to engage with an experiential and mnemonic understanding of time, not one which is linear, abstract, and chronometric. More specifically, I propose that a fundamental dimension of materiality is its ability to last, to endure, and by so doing it enacts multiple times at once: the time of its initial creation or production, the various moments in which that material engaged with humans and participated in various interactions with them, and the moment of our archaeological engagement with it. I propose that all these temporal moments are inherently present in these materials and objects, making them thus multi-temporal things. In archaeology, we tend to prioritize the moment of the initial genesis of these material entities when dating them; but such dating is arbitrary, since it excludes all other moments in the life of these things. Nevertheless, often other distinctive times beyond the initial genesis and constitution of artefacts are foregrounded for specific ideological reasons, and to justify certain identity discourses; for example, we know that places of worship in much of Southern Europe and the Mediterranean are palimpsests, having been in their lives ancient classical temples, churches, mosques, performance settings, organized archaeological sites. Nevertheless, often nationalist discourses and heritage regimes tend to “forget” that multi-temporal life, and foreground instead a distinctive moment, to suit a national narrative or a dominant religious identity.

Question – If we don’t base our scientific arguments in the material evidence, we are not destroying the scientific method?

Answer – My book is not anti-science, but there is no singular and monolithic understanding of science. Within science, there are heated debates and different views, and this is very healthy. And many scientists now accept that they need to situate their understanding and research within specific historical and discursive contexts. Many of the arguments in my book, such as the close link between senses and memory, or the key role of kinaesthesia (the sensing of the moving body) are also proven through research in neuroscience, although my approach is more anthropological and philosophical than neuro-scientific. Many scientists are also open to anthropological studies from non-western contexts which have identified sensorial modalities not recognized by the western sensorium of the five senses.

In short, yes, I am in favour of an open science, always subject to critique and revision, combined with anthropological and philosophical research which should be equally subject to historical analysis and empirical validation, and to constant critique. In other words, the “Archaeology and the Senses” is not anti-scientific, but against a very narrow, objectivist view of science, the science of a singular view, and the science which treats a limited understanding of biology as the absolute truth, as the new religion.

Question – Could you talk us about a practice case of application of the sensorial archaeology and its results?

Answer – In my book, I have two long chapters where I reinterpret key aspects of the archaeology of Bronze Age Crete (the so-called “Minoan” period), taking sensorial archaeology as my main angle. More specifically, I reexamine the funerary record of the Early Bronze Age, especially the communal tombs, and show how they were an arena where people were able to produce historical/mnemonic depth, based on the sensorial interaction with corpses, bones, objects and artefacts. I call these domains, chrono-topic maps structured by sensorial memory, and the interplay between remembering and forgetting. In the subsequent chapter, I re-examine one of the most perplexing questions in Mediterranean prehistory: the reasons for the establishment of palatial centres and the erection of palatial buildings in Bronze Age Crete. I show that these centres were in fact the material celebration of long term, sensorial and mnemonic history: I suggest that these locales were not only associated with long term occupation and ancestral heritage, but they also had a long history of sensorially rich ceremonies and interactions (such as feasting and communal drinking events) which produced distinctive sensorial modalities: the sense of place, and the sense of embodied commensality, for example, with all its associations of trans-corporeal flows of substances, of intense affectivity, and of communal intoxication. These deep histories of sensoriality were celebrated with the establishment of palatial centres. At the same time, these palaces were also regulating sensorial experience for people, inviting, for example, specific bodily movements such as processions, while at the same time including some people in certain sensorial interactions and excluding others. In that chapter, I also show that phenomena such as frescoes, which we often consider as works of visual culture, and works of art almost in the modernist sense, were in fact props for sensorially rich ceremonies, and they participated in intense, synaesthetic and kinaesthetic processes of inter-animation with humans, which would have included regulated bodily movement, music, possibly dance, and commensal events.

In addition to these main case studies, there are several examples from prehistory to the present (including museum cases, such as the New Acropolis Museum, in Athens) which show that a sensorially inspired archaeology can, not only effectively critique the sensorial regimes of contemporary archaeology, but also point to a more open and rich sensorial experience for archaeology as well as for contemporary social life more broadly.

Question – What do you think about the application of the sensorial archaeology in fields as divulgation or musealization rather than in investigation?

Answer – Sensorial archaeology is particularly applicable when we attempt to communicate our results to broader audiences, since we have the chance to use a variety of media and not such text: photography, film, museum displays, computing animation, art installations, theatre, and other bodily performances. In fact, in sensorial archaeology and anthropology there are already several such attempts. For example, increasingly archaeologists use photo-essays, both in scholarly communication and research and in popular publications; documentary film is also increasingly becoming a common medium for the dissemination of results but also for reflecting on the practices and processes of archaeology. But of course, not every photo-essay and not every documentary film can advance multi-sensoriality, and can communicate the results of sensorial archaeology. Photography can be distancing and objectifying, can operate as a device of the autonomous gaze or alternatively can engage multiple senses and can engender affectivity; the photographer himself/herself thus will need to engage with multi-sensorial understanding. Or the take theatre: in our archaeological-ethnographic project of Koutroulou Magoula in central Greece, we run a project of theatre-archaeology; it involves the writing of a play every season (inspired by the archaeological and ethnographic finds) which is then staged next to the open trenches, at the end of the season. The whole performance ends with a feast, as well as with music and dance and is attended by a large number of people from the various local communities (see:

In this way, we communicate the results of our research through a truly multi-sensorial event, and one which produces strong memories on the bodies of all participants.

But more importantly (and here I respond to your part of the question which relates to museums), sensorial archaeology means a much more open attitude towards the public, allowing them to engage multi-sensorially with finds and archaeological sites, allowing them to touch and feel objects (at least the ones that will suffer little or no damage as  a result), and opening up archaeological sites for multi-sensorial performances and art installations. Museums will need to get rid of their glass cases, and design their exhibitions based on a fully embodied interaction with the exhibits. Multi-sensoriality is not only for children or visually impaired people; it is rather an essential, even life transforming experience for all visitors.


Mario Agudo Villanueva

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