Archaeology of the Night

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 81st Annual Meeting, Orlando, FL (2016)

As twilight settled in the ancient world, a host of activities ensued, some of which were significantly different from what people did during the daytime. Some artifacts, features, and buildings associated with these activities were particular to the dark, while other material culture was transformed in meaning as the sun set. Night offers refuge from the heat and demands of the day but can also bring with it nightmares, night raids, and other dark doings. Sleep, sex, socializing, stargazing, storytelling, ceremony, work, play—so much of our economic, social, and ritual lives take place at night—yet relatively little archaeological research focuses specifically on nightly quotidian practices. This symposium examines the archaeology, mythology, iconography, and epigraphy of nocturnal doings, and in the process will challenge our familiar reconstructions of ancient life. Topics include the liminal periods of dusk and dawn, the cultural diversity of sleep patterns, the practical and psychological effects of artificial light, and the origins of the ‘nightshift.’ Contributors explore the concept of the nighttime within a comparative anthropological framework in order to provide the broadest possible interpretation of individual case studies drawn from a wide range of ancient and prehistoric cultures from diverse areas of the globe.

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  • Documents (13)

  • An Archaeology of the Night (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only April Nowell. Nan Gonlin.

    Archaeologists have been in the dark on the topic of the night for far too long. Like any other aspect of human behavior, the nighttime has firmly planted itself in the archaeological record, ready for us to uncover it, if only we seek it out. Relying upon the material trails that humans leave behind, it is not only possible but productive to pursue an archaeology of the night to enlighten and broaden our knowledge of the human past. Artifacts, features, structures, and sites provide clues to...

  • Engineering Feats and Consequences in the Indus: Workers in the Night (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Rita Wright.

    Water tanks, sump pits, street drains, toilets, sewage drains, shaft wells, bathing platforms and other waste management amenities are among the visible landmarks of the cities of the Indus civilization. While they did provide conveniences for city dwellers, there were certain inequities in the types of amenities associated with individual households, but it was in the interest of all to keep the system in working order. There is no direct evidence for the complex network and infrastructural...

  • Fluid Spaces and Fluid Objects: Nocturnal Material Culture in Sub-Saharan Africa with Special Reference to southern Africa (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Shadreck Chirikure. Abigial Joy Moffett.

    The transition of time from day into night is a fundamental pivot through which human existence revolves. And yet, as if ‘afraid of the dark’, few archaeological reconstructions have attempted to explore nightly practices. In the anthropology of southern Africa, particularly amongst groups such as the Shona, the dawn of the night opened the door to a host of nocturnal activities, which included learning, reproduction, relaxation, and ritual. For example, witches used mundane winnowing baskets as...

  • The Freedom that Nighttime Brings: Privacy and Cultural Persistence among Enslaved Peoples at Bahamian Plantations (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Jane Baxter.

    When Bahamian scholar and educator Arlene Nash Ferguson wrote about the history of the famous Bahamian festival of Junkanoo, she began her story with enslaved people taking action under cover of darkness. Freed from labor for the two day Christmas holiday, the enslaved went into “the bush” at night time, adorned their bodies with decorations found in the natural world, and reenacted, recreated, and created dances, songs, and traditions reflecting their African heritage. Nighttime afforded...

  • Illuminating the Path of Darkness: Transformative Aspects of Artificial Light in Dynastic Egypt (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Meghan Strong.

    When discussing light in Ancient Egypt, the vast majority of scholarly attention is placed on the sun, a physical constant of the landscape and the primary source of illumination. The development of ideas on the significance of natural light in Ancient Egyptian culture is abundant, particularly in religious sources. Studies on artificial light, however, stand in stark contrast to the number of academic publications on natural light. This emphasis forms a uni-dimensional view of lighting in...

  • Midnight at the Oasis: Past and Present Agricultural Activities in Oman (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Smiti Nathan.

    Since the Early Bronze Age in Oman (ca. 3100 BCE to 2000 BCE), oasis agricultural communities have held social and economic importance in Southern Arabia. Throughout the Arabian Peninsula there are varying microclimates. This paper focuses on northeastern Oman, where an arid landscape is a defining environmental characteristic. In order to successfully maintain an agrarian lifestyle in these environs, strategic decision-making was key. This paper brings together previous work on agricultural...

  • Midnight Madness in Mesoamerica: Dark Doings in the Ancient World (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Nan Gonlin. Christine Dixon.

    After the sun went down, the world of ancient Mesoamerica was transformed into a dark landscape. Some sought sleep while others came alive for nocturnal naughtiness. Ancient Mesoamericans simultaneously embraced and respected the dark. Are nightly practices destined to remain obscured from our view, or can we illuminate such dark doings by expanding our focus from daily practices to include those of the night? A fundamental question explored in this paper is the extent to which there is material...

  • Mother Earth, Father Sky, Figurative Art and Reproduction at Cahokia and in the Mississippian World (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Susan Alt.

    In the Cahokian world the sounds and sights of night would have brought stories: the moon, morning star and evening star; human origins. Origin stories generally abound with sex, (mother earth, father sky) but our analyses are oddly devoid of sex. Yet Mississippian figurative art plays with the seen and unseen of sex as it hints at how cosmic principles, sex, and gender were entangled and tied to night and reproduction. By focusing on reproductive themes, but not sex, archaeologists have not...

  • Night in Day: How Mesoamerican Cultures Respond to Unanticipated (and Anticipated) Eclipse Phenomena (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Anthony Aveni.

    Effects of the sudden, dramatic inversion of day and night experienced during a total eclipse of the sun have been reported in cultures the world over. How to find meaning in the extraordinary shading, the odd color tones in the landscape produced by the sun’s corona, and the changes in animal behavior, not to mention the appearance of stars and planets flanking the black disk that accompanies darkness in the middle of the day? After a brief cross-cultural survey of where eclipse myths find...

  • The Night is Different: Sensescapes and Affordances (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Kathryn Kamp. John Whittaker.

    Archaeology has paid scant attention to the differences between diurnal and nocturnal landscapes, and the differences in meaning and use implied and constrained by the change from day to night. We also neglect the multi-sensoral nature of the landscape. Vision is emphasized almost to the exclusion of hearing, smell, and touch. Humans are diurnal animals emphasizing vision, and modern archaeologists are further biased by our brightly lit world of electricity, neon, and LED screens in which a...

  • Nighttime Sky and Early Urbanism in the High Andes (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Alexei Vranich.

    Popular understanding of the relationship between the rise of early civilization and astronomy emphasizes the observance of particular moments in the cycle of the sun. This pattern is particularly strong at the Bolivian highland Andean site of of Tiwanaku (AD 500-950), a megalithic site known for its “Temple of the Sun”, “Gateway of the Sun”, and solstice festival that attracts thousands. Recent research throughout the Titicaca Basin documents a wide range of celebrated astronomical observations...

  • Past and Present Andean Night Moon Rituals (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Tom Dillehay.

    Two nighttime rituals, one archaeological and the other ethnographic, are presented for the Andean region of South America. The archaeological case is the 7500-4000 year old littoral mound site of Huaca Prieta on the north coast of Peru where a very dense accumulation of charcoal resulting from fires and rituals formed the site. Recovered at the site were reed torches suggesting nighttime rituals. Today, shamans or curanderos from the north coast still occasionally use the site at night under a...

  • Under the Cover of Night: The Liminal Landscape in Ancient Maya Thought (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Jeremy Coltman.

    For the ancient Maya, the landscape was wild, untamed, and dotted with caves, which were the darkest of spaces. On an empirical level, caves can reveal the ancient Maya experience of intimate darkness and nullified senses. Such experience belonged to the night, which was fraught with danger, temporally distant, and inhabited by a cast of anti-social beings. These beings belonged to the wilderness and dark forests that lacked internal order and spatial division. Much like the concept of chaos in...