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

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


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How did ancient peoples experience, view, and portray the night? What was it like to live in the past when total nocturnal darkness was the norm? Archaeology of the Night explores the archaeology, anthropology, mythology, iconography, and epigraphy of nocturnal practices and questions the dominant models of daily ancient life. A diverse team of experienced scholars uses a variety of methods and resources to reconstruct how ancient peoples navigated the night and what their associated daily—and nightly—practices were.

This collection challenges modern ideas and misconceptions regarding the night and what darkness and night symbolized in the ancient world, and it highlights the inherent research bias in favor of “daytime” archaeology. Numerous case studies from around the world (including Oman, Mesoamerica, Scandinavia, Rome, Great Zimbabwe, Indus Valley, Peru, and Cahokia) illuminate subversive, social, ritual, domestic, and work activities, such as witchcraft, ceremonies, feasting, sleeping, nocturnal agriculture, and much more. Were there artifacts particularly associated with the night? Authors investigate individuals and groups (both real and mythological) who share a special connection to nighttime life.

Reconsidering the archaeological record, Archaeology of the Night views sites, artifacts, features, and cultures from a unique perspective. This book is relevant to anthropologists and archaeologists and also to scholars of human geography, history, astronomy, sensory studies, human biology, folklore, and mythology.

Contributors: Susan Alt, Anthony F. Aveni, Jane Eva Baxter, Shadreck Chirikure, Minette Church, Jeremy D. Coltman, Margaret Conkey, Tom Dillehay, Christine C. Dixon, Zenobie Garrett, Nancy Gonlin, Kathryn Kamp, Erin Halstad McGuire, Abigail Joy Moffett, Jerry D. Moore, Smiti Nathan, April Nowell, Scott C. Smith, Glenn R. Storey, Meghan Strong, Cynthia Van Gilder, Alexei Vranich, John C. Whittaker, Rita Wright

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781646421244
Publisher: University Press of Colorado
Publication date: 01/15/2021
Edition description: 1
Pages: 442
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Nancy Gonlin is a Mesoamerican archaeologist who specializes in daily and nightly practices, household studies, and inequality. She serves as co-editor of the Cambridge journal Ancient Mesoamerica. Her publications include the co-edited volumes Commoner Ritual and Ideology in Ancient Mesoamerica, Ancient Households of the Americas, and Human Adaptation in Ancient Mesoamerica. She is co-author of Copán: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Maya Kingdom. Watch her TEDx talk "Life After Dark in the Ancient World" here.

April Nowell is a Paleolithic archaeologist and professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria. She directs an international team of researchers in the study of Lower and Middle Paleolithic sites in Jordan and is known for her publications on cognitive archaeology, the archaeology of children, Paleolithic art, and the relationship between science, pop culture, and the media. She is the author of Growing Up in the Ice Age: Fossil and Archaeological Evidence of the Lived Lives of Plio-Pleistocene Children and coeditor of Stone Tools and the Evolution of Human Cognition. Watch her TEDx talk “Paleo Porn” here.

Read an Excerpt


Introduction to the Archaeology of the Night


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 and features associated with these activities were particular to the dark, while other material culture was transformed in meaning as the sun set or just before it rose. While daily and nightly activities alike left their mark on the archaeological record through objects, features, iconography, writings, and even entire buildings, often archaeological reconstructions of the past privilege descriptions of daytime doings. But, as Minette Church (chapter 5) observes, our research subjects lived as many nights as days. Sleep, sex, socializing, stargazing, storytelling, ceremony, work and play — so much of our economic, social and ritual lives takes place at night that, in fact, some modern cities have begun appointing "night mayors" to oversee the ever expanding nocturnal economies of our urban centers (Henley 2016) — and yet relatively little archaeological research has been undertaken specifically on nightly quotidian practices. Does darkness obscure these activities for the archaeologist or is it that we need to learn to see them? There are, in fact, many questions we can frame around an inquiry into the night, such as what did people in the past do at night? How did our ancestors, before the advent of electricity, experience the night? What were their views and concerns about the night and darkness? What symbols, stories, myths, and rituals are specifically associated with the night? How did the night simultaneously liberate and confine? Perhaps most important for archaeologists, what are the archaeological signatures of these nighttime behaviors? We are just beginning to explore possible answers to these questions, answers that rest upon an enormous amount of comparative research and draw on evolutionary psychology, history, epigraphy, art history, biology, cultural astronomy, religious studies, literature, the four fields of anthropology, and many other related disciplines. Our purpose in writing this chapter and gathering together the case studies in this volume is to begin to make up for the lack of inquiry into the night from an archaeological perspective and to correct a bias that favors daytime doings in our reconstructions of the past.


Archaeological studies of the night are best advanced from what is known as a parallax perspective, which essentially involves viewing one's subject from a different angle. The change in the position of the observer — in this case, our explicit orientation toward nightly practices rather than daily practices — has proven to be extremely productive. By viewing culture through what people did during the day and the night, we come to a more holistic understanding of the practices that have left their mark on the archaeological record. Studies of the night inform about human variation, what is unique about the night, how we humans have been able to adapt to the night, and much more. For these reasons, we asked authors of this volume to explicitly reimagine the sites where they have worked, the data they have amassed, the interpretations they have made, and the theories they have employed through the dark lens of the night to explore the past. We ask our readers to do the same, in essence, to evoke the parallax effect. Sarah Jackson (2016, 26) has effectively used a parallax perspective in her innovative analysis of Classic Maya materials from an emic viewpoint; the utilization of hieroglyphs reveals properties of material items previously understudied by Mesoamericanists. Her work, in turn, cites Faye Ginsburg's (1995)visual anthropology analysis. While Jackson and Ginsburg discuss the emic/etic differences in analyzing data, we utilize a night/day perspective as an analogy to the emic/etic one, and argue for a wider context within which to reconstruct past cultural behaviors that encompass the round-the-clock habits of our species.


Humans adapt to the night both biologically and culturally, so it is productive to begin by looking at the ecological parameters within which ancient humans lived their lives and the nightscapes they faced. There are several environmental changes to the Earth that occur as night settles in and light wanes. Temperatures cool for both animate and inanimate objects. In general, the night is a quieter time than the day for humans, but sounds at night emanate from different sources. In the cities, sounds of the "night shift" take over, while outside urban areas, numerous animals such as bats, owls, and crepuscular felines become active as darkness falls and the croaking of amphibians and the humming of insects begins. Even the aroma of night differs from daytime, with some flowers, whose growth is in response to moonlight, opening as the moon rises and closing as it descends. The length of the night varies from season to season and from latitude to latitude, from the long-lasting nights of the northern hemisphere during winter time and midnight suns during the summer to the nearly equal lengths of days and nights year round near the equator.

Chronobiology is the field that studies circadian rhythms. There are several physiological, biochemical, and behavioral changes that occur in the human body (as well as in the bodies of numerous other species) in response to variation in the amount of light (Burton 2009). Body temperature, urine production, and blood pressure generally drop at night, as does one's alertness while metabolism slows (Dewdney 2004). Hormonal changes include an increased production of melatonin and human growth hormone, while cortisol peaks just before rising to assist one in awakening (Burton 2009; see also Nowell, chapter 2, this volume). The cultural adaptations that humans have made to accommodate their circadian rhythms are numerous. Some of the obvious ones with which most humans are familiar are the invention of coverings, clothing, and safe places for sleeping. We also create myths about the night to explain the absence of the sun, the presence of the stars, and the possibility of harm from creatures both real and imagined. Many rituals center on the gloaming and the hopes of a new sunrise.

Night represents a study of time as humans experience it, rather than the longitudinal framework of scientists who can view chronology through millions and billions of years. Recent interpretations of the past call for such types of analyses (Ashmore 2015, 214; Golden 2002; 2010) because ancient peoples did not live for periods as long as a ceramic phase or for the duration of a dynasty. While we collectively study such phenomena as the "Upper Paleolithic" or the "Classic period," we can never experience such longevity ourselves. Furthermore, humans live in ecological time rather than geological time. The turning of night into day, winter into spring, or the annual solar cycle is how humans experience the world within their framework of reckoning time and social life (Lucas 2005). Such experiences mark the archaeological record and it is through their remains that we can further our knowledge of the past.


With the advent of the controlled use of fire millennia ago, our ancestors first began their quest to conquer the night and extend the availability of the light, warmth, and security naturally afforded by the sun. The earliest evidence for anthropogenic fires dates to 1.8 million years ago at Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya, but most paleoanthropologists agree that the controlled use of fire dates to approximately 500,000 years ago (Gowlett 2016). Richard Wrangham (2009, 2016) writes extensively about the controlled use of fire in cooking, which was essential for plant detoxification and softening foods for infants. Instrumental in this use of technology are the effects it had on brain size increase and gut size decrease (Gowlett and Wrangham 2013). Humans made good use of fire in many other capacities (see chapter 2, this volume). Fire as light lengthened productive hours, changed our circadian rhythms, and increased social interactions (Burton 2009; Gowlett 2012).

Most important for our purposes here, the controlled-use of fire extended the daylight hours — and for the first time in human history — altered our circadian rhythms by providing greater opportunities for socializing during what were previously nonproductive hours (Burton 2009; Gowlett 2012). "Day talk" and "night talk" differ substantially among hunter-gatherers, per Polly Wiessner's (2014) ethnographic research. While mundane and businesslike operations as well as gossip are the norm for conversation during the day, firelight intensifies interactions and other topics of conversation become customary. This qualitative difference in communication involves not only the spoken word but also dance, song, ceremony, and storytelling once the sun goes down (see also chapter 2, this volume). The benefits of such ritualized behaviors extend to the entire group in terms of reinforcing social mores and group cohesion and identity. The transformational impact of fire on the biological, social, and cultural development of our ancestors has prompted some anthropologists to argue that fire is in fact what made us "human" (Boyd 2009; Coe et al. 2006; Dunbar 2014; Gottschall 2012; Wiessner 2014).


In modern times, we face a disappearing night (Bogard 2008, 2013) as stars fade into the glow of cities and only the biggest and brightest of astronomical bodies are visible on even the clearest of nights (Bortle 2001). Only in recent human history have humans conquered the night with an intensity that sometimes outshines the day (Brox 2010; Edensor 2015). In fact, the abundance of artificial light pollution today is a significant concern for life on our planet. Recent research demonstrates that the circadian cycle controls between 10% and 15% of our genes, and its disruption has been linked to several medical disorders in humans, including depression, insomnia, and cardiovascular disease (Chepesiuk 2009; Naiman 2014). Further research suggests that early humans experiencedselective pressure to fulfill sleep needs in the shortest time possible. Human sleep is shorter, deeper, and exhibits a higher proportion of REM than other primates to enable longer active periods in which to acquire and transmit new skills and knowledge (Samson and Nunn 2015). Even though humans have been described as the only "nocturnal ape" (Hill et al., 2009), we may be reaching our limits.

The adoption of electricity also had social consequences from the household to larger society. "When gas light and kerosene lamps disappeared, so did the last vestige of a central fire in the home. Electric light was everywhere, yet concentrated nowhere; everyone sat in the halo of his or her own lamp" (Brox 2010, 171). However, electricity provided a new hearth in the form of the radio (Brox 2010, 171) and later the television, although this is no longer the case in many households globally as each family member hunkers over his or her own cellular or computer screen. In light of these biological and social changes, Jane Brox (2010, 303) encourages us "to think back to the past, to ask ourselves whether we are hampered more by the brilliance than our ancestors ever were by the dark."


The excavation of sites is largely a daytime occupation. As archaeologists, we rarely experience our sites at night or in the darkness. Daytime digs are the norm since light is necessary for documenting what one is uncovering. However, when digging in dark places such as caves or tunnels deep inside pyramids, just as critical as the trowel is a source of light, and these digs usually occur during the day. Only under extraordinary circumstances, such as the excavation of royal Mochica tombs in Sipán, Peru (Alva and Donnan 1993), do we ever conduct nocturnal excavations or experience the sites we excavate at night. Dark doings, such as looting, the antithesis of professional excavation, are envisioned to take place at night. When in the field, nighttime is for lab work, research, report writing, and refreshment, all occurring under artificial light. For those of us in academia, similar activities ensue at night with a heavy dose of grading, lecture preparation, and committee work thrown in as well. It is no wonder then, that our bias toward the day is an occupational hazard.

Remains of the night, like other types of archaeological remains, will be biased toward the durable. Drawing on the usual suspects of stone and ceramic, we can learn a great deal from these items that previously went unnoticed or unremarked upon by asking new "night-focused" questions. Complex societies left more durable buildings, monuments, and in some cases, writing than less complex ones. These hierarchical societies' artifacts and features will be prominently seen, as will the possessions of royalty and elite, while the remains of their followers are sometimes cast into shadow. Nonetheless, the challenges that we face in understanding ancient nights are no greater than the challenges we as archaeologists normally face. Once our perspective has shifted, our night vision is enhanced (Van Gilder, chapter 8, this volume).

For most of us studying the past, the day is the default setting in our research orientation. We presume, for better or worse, that an object, space, or building was used during the day. While we have no reason to make such assumptions, they exist and once we are aware of them, only then can we reorient our research toward the night. Rarely have we stopped and questioned ourselves, "How do I know that artifact was used during the day?" Many objects have both day and night uses, as aptly pointed out by Shadreck Chirikure and Abigail Joy Moffett (chapter 17, this volume), which can be quite different: for the Shona, a broom for cleaning during the day is a witch's nocturnal vehicle. By resetting our perspective to envision how material remains would have been used at night, we will be able to switch from the "neutral" daytime and include activities of the night (Church, chapter 5, this volume). The task before us is to distinguish between daily artifacts that we find to be used at night and whether there are indeed artifacts/sites/places that pertain entirely to the night; only then can we begin to build an understanding of "nighttime culture" (K. Landau, pers. comm., November 2016).


Despite the challenges, there are a number of productive ways in which theorizing about the night can be advanced. While with notable exceptions (Galinier et al. 2010; Handelman 2005; Monod Becquelin and Galinier 2016; Schnepel and Ben-Ari 2005), nighttime has been a neglected topic in anthropology and more specifically in archaeology, researchers in other disciplines have embraced this topic. Historians of European and Western history (e.g., Ekirch 2005;Koslofsky 2011; Palmer 2000) have more directly and extensively examined the night. Craig Koslofsky noted (2011:14), "we can see the night as part of a broader form of analysis, rather than as a self-contained topic ... daily life as a category of historical analysis [can be used] to understand the reciprocal relationship between night and society."

The basis of any approach for archaeologists, however, is the assumption that behaviors at night, like many human behaviors, will have some material correlates that have survived in the archaeological record (e.g., Elson and Smith, 2001). We advocate approaching the night from wide theoretical perspectives and interdisciplinary viewpoints. This subject is best advanced through a holistic, cross-cultural, comparative framework as the investigation of the night involves various data sets and lends itself well to the four-field approach of American anthropology. The methodological and theoretical approaches of household archaeology, Pierre Bourdieu's practice theory, and phenomenology are three readily applicable vehicles for guiding and interpreting these inquiries, as well as approaching the night through a human adaptation perspective. All of these theoretical orientations have been readily and successfully applied to understand daily activities, yet explicit consideration of nightly activities has been notably absent in our analysis of the archaeological record.

Household Archaeology

Most humans, contemporary and ancient, spend the night at home. Fortunately, the remains of houses/habitation structures are the most numerous type of archaeological site on the landscape. Household archaeology has become a prominent and productive form of analysis for the remains of residences, whether they are humble abodes or dwellings of the rich and famous (e.g., Douglass and Gonlin 2012; Parker and Foster 2012). Nighttime household archaeology relies on the same types of data that household archaeologists depend upon to reveal information about production, distribution, transmission, reproduction, and coresidence (followingWilk and Netting 1984). Activities do not stop after the sun sets; to the contrary, this time period can be extremely productive. By tweaking the types of questions we ask, we open up a new way of thinking about the past. Our inquiries can include questions such as: how was culture transmitted at night? what tasks did household members routinely perform at night, especially through engendering the night? (Gero and Conkey 1991). Men's nighttime household activities often differed from those of women, especially for the unmarried. Children may have been safely tucked into bed or working, particularly in agricultural communities when harvest season was in full swing. Evidence for the transmission of culture at night through ritual can be found in households as Yosef Garfinkel (2003) has successfully demonstrated for early agricultural villages in the Near East. Many cultures have particular artifacts associated with the night, such as the sleeping benches and mats of the Classic Maya, which inform us about nightly coresidence (see Gonlin and Dixon, chapter 3, this volume). A traditional emphasis on activity areas can be enhanced by considering not only the time of day in which an activity was performed, but also an analysis of the lighting situation: those working at night likely worked where the light was strongest and perhaps relied upon other senses such as touch as well (Dawson et al. 2007; McGuire, chapter 13, this volume).


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Table of Contents

List of Figures xi

List of Tables xv

Foreword Jerry D. Moore xvii

Preface Nancy Gonlin xxix

Section I Introduction

1 Introduction to the Archaeology of the Night Nancy Gonlin April Nowell 5

Section II Nightscapes

2 Upper Paleolithic Soundscapes and the Emotional Resonance of Nighttime April Nowell 27

3 Classic Maya Nights at Copan, Honduras, and El Ceren, El Salvador Nancy Gonlin Christine C. Dixon 45

4 The Night Is Different: Sensescapes and Affordances in Ancient Arizona Kathryn Kamp John C. Whittaker 77

5 "La Luz de Aceite es Triste": Nighttime, Community, and Memory in the Colorado-New Mexico Borderlands Minette C. Church 95

Section III The Night Sky

6 Nighttime Sky and Early Urbanism in the High Andes: Architecture and Ritual in the Southern Lake Titicaca Basin during the Formative and Tiwanaku Periods Alexei Vranich Scott C. Smith 121

7 Night in Day: Contrasting Ancient and Contemporary Maya and Hindu Responses to Total Solar Eclipses Anthony E Aveni 139

8 In the Sea of Night: Ancient Polynesia and the Dark Cynthia L. Van Gilder 155

Section IV Nocturnal Ritual and Ideology

9 Night Moon Rituals: The Effects of Darkness and Prolonged Ritual on Chilean Mapuche Participants Tom D. Dillehay 179

10 Where Night Reigns Eternal: Darkness and Deep Time among the Ancient Maya Jeremy D. Coltman 201

11 The Emerald Site, Misstssippian Women, and the Moon Susan M. Alt 223

Section V Illuminating the Night

12 A Great Secret of the West: Transformative Aspects of Artificial Light in New Kingdom Egypt Meghan E. Strong 249

13 Burning the Midnight Oil: Archaeological Experiments with Early Medieval Viking Lamps Erin Halstad McGuire 265

Section VI Nighttime Practices

14 Engineering Feats and Consequences: Workers in the Night and the Indus Civilization Rita P. Wright Zenobie S. Garrett 287

15 All Rome Is at My Bedside: Nightlife in the Roman Empire Glenn Reed Storey 307

16 Midnight at the Oasis: Past and Present Agricultural Activities in Oman Smiti Nathan 333

17 Fluid Spaces and Fluid Objects: Nocturnal Material Culture in Sub-Saharan Africa with Special Reference to the Iron Age in Southern Africa Shadreck Chirikure Abigail Joy Moffett 369

18 The Freedom that Nighttime Brings: Privacy and Cultural Creativity among Enslaved Peoples at Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Bahamian Plantations Jane Eva Baxter 369

Section VII Concluding the Night

Afterword: A Portal to a More Imaginative Archaeology Margaret Conkey 387

List of Contributors 391

Index 397

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