Anthropology Archaeology of the Senses
Jo Day
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 February 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0258


The influence of the “sensory turn” in the social sciences was first manifested in archaeology in the late 1990s and since then has permeated regional, chronological, and material specializations. Two interlinked themes underpin sensory archaeology: firstly, a recognition of a historically constructed ocularcentrism in how archaeological research has been planned, conducted, and presented; secondly, a realization that the senses are not just physiological but culturally created, and therefore every culture will have a different sensorium that establishes, reflects, and reinforces social practice (although this can be subverted by individuals or groups). Early efforts to counter the primacy of vision highlighted different sensory modalities, such as touch or hearing (less often olfaction and taste), and discussed more ephemeral aspects of visual analysis like shimmer and color symbolism. These studies explored a range of archaeological material, including monuments, artifacts, and significant elements in the landscape such as rock art. More recent work shies away from singling out any one sense and focuses on full-bodied, multisensory encounters—as happens in reality where the senses operate in tandem. This approach is a professed aim of phenomenological archaeology, adopted especially in studies of the landscapes of prehistoric northwestern Europe, although it has been much critiqued for being overly subjective and predominantly visual. Fully accessing the sensorium of any past culture is impossible, but if written sources can be used in tandem with archaeology, a more detailed picture can be painted—this has been the case with Roman, Mesoamerican, and Near Eastern archaeology in particular. Overall, the aim is to explore sensory relations for new insights into issues such as memory, feasting, social hierarchy, and ritual. To what extent this multisensory awareness can be practiced across the chain of archaeological knowledge production is much debated. Whether individual sensory experiences of excavation and finds analysis in the present are relevant for interpreting the past can be queried, but “doing” a more sensory archaeology must involve some element of reflection. Experiments with sensual narratives, audio recordings, collaborations with contemporary artists, and augmented reality (AR) explore dissemination beyond the traditional text and image. Museums have embedded multisensory elements within exhibitions and collections management, both to further engage the public and at a curatorial level to create more inclusive object biographies. Rather than requiring archaeologists to embrace a paradigm shift, as some have called for, sensory archaeology is one more element in the toolkit that enriches our understanding of past lives.

General Overviews

Two single-authored monographs represent the most comprehensive applications of an archaeology of the senses to specific cultural contexts—Skeates 2010 on prehistoric Malta and Hamilakis 2013 on prehistoric Crete. Useful overviews come from the introductions to edited volumes, such as Day 2013 and Skeates and Day 2019. Earlier scholarship lays the groundwork for these more fully developed approaches by highlighting certain fundamental issues: Frieman and Gillings 2007 discusses the predominance of vision, Gosden 2001 focuses on the aesthetics of objects, and Houston and Taube 2000 explores the possibility of synesthetic material culture. Note that in sensory archaeology, the term synesthetic refers to an artifact or place having multiple sensory dimensions and should not be confused with the neurological condition of the same name, whereby stimulating one sense produces a reaction in others.

  • Day, J. 2013. Introduction: Making senses of the past. In Making senses of the past: Toward a sensory archaeology. Edited by J. Day, 1–31. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.

    Key paper that summarizes the state of the field c. 2010, locating archaeology within sensory studies more broadly and discussing thematic issues like ritual, landscape, and how to access different sensory modalities in the past, as well as future possibilities. It also introduces the chapters of the edited volume, which is based on a 2010 international conference.

  • Frieman, C., and M. Gillings. 2007. Seeing is perceiving? World Archaeology 39.1: 4–16.

    DOI: 10.1080/00438240601133816

    Important early paper critiquing the predominance of visual analyses in archaeology, e.g., “viewsheds.” It suggests the adoption of a “sensory envelope” and “synaesthscapes” to place greater emphasis on multisensory engagements with landscapes.

  • Gosden, C. 2001. Making sense: Archaeology and aesthetics. World Archaeology 33.2: 163–167.

    DOI: 10.1080/00438240120079226

    A seminal paper that stresses how material culture operates on the body through sensory engagements and that objects have agency, via a discussion of aesthetics. Introduction to a World Archaeology issue on archaeology and aesthetics.

  • Hamilakis, Y. 2013. Archaeology and the senses: Human experience, memory, and affect. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139024655

    A call-to-arms by one of the foremost thinkers on archaeology and senses, this book urges a paradigm shift in how archaeology is practiced. Covering topics like memory, commensality, personhood, and reflexivity, it is anchored in multisensory case studies of Early Minoan funerary practices and Minoan palaces. Introduces the concepts of “sensorial flow” and “sensorial assemblage” to connect material culture with sensory experience.

  • Houston, S., and K. Taube. 2000. An archaeology of the senses: Perception and cultural expression in ancient Mesoamerica. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 10.2: 261–294.

    DOI: 10.1017/S095977430000010X

    Ground-breaking study of Mesoamerican conceptions of the senses, in particular vision, hearing, and olfaction, based primarily on iconography and glyphs. Useful too as a reminder of how ancient written sources can provide invaluable information about past sensory perception and hierarchies.

  • Skeates, R. 2010. An archaeology of the senses: Prehistoric Malta. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Written by a leading figure in the field, this is the first monograph on sensory archaeology and is firmly located within the material culture and landscapes of prehistoric Malta. Important especially for its suggestion of five methodological approaches (reflexivity, inventory, experimentation, thick description, creative writing), which are adopted by the author throughout. Also includes a discussion of interaction with cultural heritage on Malta since the 17th century.

  • Skeates, R., and J. Day. 2019. Sensory archaeology: Key concepts and debates. In The Routledge handbook of sensory archaeology. Edited by R. Skeates and J. Day, 1–17. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    Introductory chapter to the most comprehensive collection of research in sensory archaeology currently available, and written by two experts in the field, it outlines the “sensory turn” and its effect on archaeology as well as unpacking concepts such as sensescape, sensorium, affect, and sensory museology.

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