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Making Sense: Archaeology and Aesthetics

Author(s): Chris Gosden

Source: World Archaeology, Vol. 33, No. 2, Archaeology and Aesthetics, (Oct., 2001), pp. 163-
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd.
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Making sense: archaeology and

Chris Gosden

In both our daily life and our academic practice we attempt to make sense of the world.
'Making sense' captures the central link between objects and bodily existence explored in
this volume. Material culture affects us through our senses, especially if we include our
haptic sense which allows our bodies to work on and in the world in a muscular, physical
manner. Our sensory apprehension of the world is not a purely physiological matter of
impulses reaching the brain from the body, but rather it is something that we have to
engage in actively, albeit unconsciously. Making sense, as the verb implies, is an active
process. The locus of sensory activity is as much cultural as bodily, so that various cultures
apprehend the world in different ways. Cultural forms educate the senses, privileging
some over others and structuring the means by which we make sense of the world. Many
cultural forms pick out both certain classes of objects and of experience as especially
important. In the West we use words such as 'art' to designate objects of particular sensory
value in our culture, but not all cultures have a category of art. Notions of art and
aesthetics have long been part of archaeological discussions, but few, if any, of these
discussions focus on the links between objects, embodied experience and the senses.
When discussions of art and aesthetics do take place in archaeology, they often have an
untheorized look to them and revolve around issues of typology, dating and the trans-
mission of style. This is strange given the resurgence of interest in the social and cultural
roles of material culture in art history and also given the thriving nature of studies of art
and aesthetics within anthropology. Archaeology, which has always held material culture
central, now has something of a gap in its tool-box of theories concerning the aesthetic
appeal of objects to people under given cultural circumstances. In this volume we attempt
to address the aesthetic appeal of objects to people in varying places and times and how
social relations are created and shaped through the aesthetic properties of objects.
The relations between people and objects have obviously been a long-term preoccu-
pation of Western thought and old ways of addressing these issues are breaking down.
The split between subject and object put forward by Descartes now poses us two prob-
lems if we do not believe it any more. For Descartes, people were animate, purposive,
rational and able to conceive of their own goals and move towards them; objects were
inanimate, had no sense of purpose or will and were the instruments of human intentions.
However, we can now see, on the one hand, that human bodies are material objects with
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^o^1 World Archaeology Vol. 33(2): 163-167 Archaeology and Aesthetics
? 2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd ISSN 0043-8242 print/1470-1375 online
'~...ra....s DOI: 10.1080/00438240120079226
164 Chris Gosden

physical properties that are a crucial aspect of human life; on the other, we realize that
objects affect people in ways that would not happen if they were not there. We now realize
that these old divisions between people and things do not work and are trying to rethink
them. An obvious strategy is to make things more like people, animating objects in some
way and giving them agency, even if of a highly restricted type. But this move still works
within the old terms of reference specifying the distinctions between people and objects
and doing less than might appear to erode the distinction between animate people and
inanimate objects. What is needed is a framework that acknowledges objects as a creative
part of social life, but which focuses on the effects of objects in creating or subverting the
values attached to human relations, as well as the means by which human aspirations and
values are carried by objects, which can be seen as prosthetic extensions of ourselves.
The work of Gell (1992, 1998) is vital in this context, as he has made a series of distinc-
tions which have sharpened the discussion about objects and people in useful ways. An
important influence of Gell's work concerns questions of agency. In order to understand
his discussion of agency, we need to start at the core of Gell's arguments about art. For
me, this core is the shift Gell makes from an analysis of meaning to the analysis of effect.
Many anthropologists have run into difficulties in ascertaining the meaning of objects
which have been categorized as art. In one of his most influential articles 'The technology
of enchantment' Gell (1992) looked at the intricately carved and decorated Trobriand
canoe prows to which Trobrianders were never willing to ascribe specific meanings.
Although they were not the bearers of specific meanings, the canoe prows were carved to
produce definite effects. The carvings were made to bedazzle and beguile kula exchange
partners into handing over valuables cheaply. It was not just the virtuosity of the carving
itself which was thought to be effective, but also the idea that a carver's skill represented
a connection with the cosmological forces of the universe which would lend power and
force to all their other acts, including those necessary for exchanges. The potency emanat-
ing from a carving bespoke a general social potency which would be hard to resist and
undermined the will of exchange partners to pursue a hard bargain. Although no specific
meanings were ever attributed to Trobriand canoe prows, they were important elements
in the complex network of social relations, including all-important relations of exchange.
Gell's point is that one cannot understand kula exchanges without taking into account the
role of objects like canoe prows in these exchanges. If objects are able to make a differ-
ence to social actions, perhaps then it makes sense to see these objects as possessing some
form of agency? An object, in the terminology that Gell developed in Art and Agency,
could be seen as an index of a person's agency and thus as a secondary agent. An import-
ant result of ascribing agency to objects is to encourage serious and detailed analyses of
the formal qualities of objects, paying attention to the ways in which those formal quali-
ties affected and effected human social relationships. However, the idea that objects are
secondary agents does not ring true, responding to doubts about the Cartesian distinction
between animate people and inanimate objects by giving objects some of the character-
istics of animate beings.
Objects can be seen to be active, but they are active in the manner of objects not in the
manner of people. To call objects secondary agents is make them look like people, but
with certain deficiencies of intention. If there is a constant interaction between people's
senses and the physical world, the active nature of objects lies in their ability to elicit and
Making sense: archaeology and aesthetics 165

channel particular sensory responses on the part of people. We all live in a sensorium
which is socially and culturally created; which depends on subtle interactions between
people and things. An object with new or subversive sensory qualities will send social
relations off down a new path, not through any intention on the part of the object, but
through its effects on the sets of social relations attached to various forms of sensory
activity. Calling objects secondary agents detracts attention from Gell's main point, which
is that we should concentrate on the effects of objects and the formal qualities of objects
which were aimed at creating effects. A focus on effect is especially important in prehis-
toric archaeology where any discussion of the intentions of individuals can start only from
the objects themselves. We may not be able to isolate individual intentions or specific
attempts to exercise agency, but we may well be able to see what types and combinations
of sensory responses were socially important and whether the visual appearance of objects
was always more important than their feel to the hand, for instance. The emphasis on
different senses might tell us about the nature of the social groups in which objects oper-
ated and an emphasis on the intimate contact of touch, taste or (to a lesser extent) smell
might indicate that objects exercised their effects in and on small groups, whereas a
regular appeal to sight or hearing might allow for social effects within a larger, more
distanced group. Objects which can be distributed widely from a single source, like pots,
have a very different set of effects from stone circles or temples which people have to visit
in order to experience. The balance of social effort that goes into circulating socially effec-
tive objects, or bringing people to objects, can tell us a lot about the sensory uses of objects
and their effects on social relations in varied cultural settings.
Issues concerning aesthetics have been part of a lively intellectual debate within anthro-
pology. Coote and Shelton (1992), in an influential volume, have argued the case for an
emphasis on aesthetics, which looks at the manner in which the senses are socialized and
attuned to aspects of the physical world in culturally directed ways (Coote 1992). Their
approach is very much the one which I am following here. Gell and others have criticized
the use of the notion of aesthetics in the anthropology of art, as it comes with too much
intellectual baggage connecting it to Western notions of high culture and fine art (see
Ingold 1996). While I would accept that we need to be cautious in exactly how we use the
term, the idea of aesthetics is too useful to throw out. I think the notion of aesthetics is
vital in allowing us to understand the values that people attach to objects in different
cultural contexts. I also feel that Gell's criticism could be turned back on him: art is a
category that is so culturally laden and there are so many cultures lacking in the concept
that the term art has to be used very circumspectly and with regard to cultural appropri-
ateness. If all cultures attach values to objects and these values derive in part from the
sensory impact of objects, then aesthetics is more useful than the term art for cross-
cultural considerations of objects. The heart of Gell's approach is the analysis of objects
in terms of the social relations they help create and maintain. Although stressing
aesthetics, I do realize that the lack of a notion of art misses out on an important element
of Gell's analysis which is that there are special categories of objects which add an extra
excitation to social relations and around which important human relations cluster. These
special objects are called art objects by Gell and others. Not all objects are equal in their
effectiveness and not all objects attract social relations at the same rate or degree of
importance. However, I think we can recognize that the aesthetic qualities of objects
166 Chris Gosden

represent a differentiated field, with some objects or classes of objects attracting a lot
more attention and respect than others. These highly charged objects do not need to be
called art for us to recognize that they are socially central in ways that other objects are
not. In many areas of the Pacific, pigs are of crucial social importance as exchange objects
and in many areas the physical characteristics of pigs are carefully evaluated and their
colour, size and general degree of health are important influences on their role as
exchange objects. It would be absurd to see pigs as works of art, but equally absurd to
ignore their aesthetic qualities in analysing the ways in which pigs help create social
relationships. It is the clustering of important relations around especial objects and the
aesthetic properties that make them special which are the important facts, rather than
whether we class some objects as art.
Each culture creates its own sensory environment, both physically through construct-
ing a material world with its own set of sensory properties and culturally through empha-
sizing and valuing certain types of sense impressions over others. Ethnomusicologists have
developed the idea of a sonic environment in which both the structure of sounds common
to a time and place and people's means of listening to those sounds will influence the way
they experience anything aural. In the urban Western world of the present we are accus-
tomed to a background of low bass noise through traffic rumble, central heating systems
and air-conditioning. This forms a regular part of our urban sonic environment of which
we are rarely conscious. Listening to twelfth-century plainsong, even if it can be repro-
duced in a manner similar to the original, is an experience quite different from that of
people in the twelfth-century, as the music exists for us within a sonic environment which
encourages us to pick out and attend to specific aspects of the music (H. La Rue pers.
comm.). We may still find the experience moving or pleasurable, but it does mean that we
have a twenty-first-century experience of twelfth-century music. The notion of the sonic
environment can be extended to all our senses, so that we can be seen to exist in particu-
lar tactile, sonic, visual environments, plus those of touch and taste, when these senses are
considered singly and together (Rodaway 1994). As has often been pointed out, vision is
the sense we give most emphasis to in the Western world, looking constantly at large and
small screens with flickering images, and the visual arts are highly valued areas of artistic
endeavour. The visual sense may colour our appreciation of other senses and the links
between senses (synaesthesia - Ackerman 1990) are well known. We need to understand
the sensorium in which we live as this influences the ways in which we approach objects
as archaeologists. Of the myriads of possible ways we could experience and evaluate
objects, we exercise only a small proportion. The attempt to appreciate the sensory worlds
of others, distant in time and place, necessitates an unlearning: that we subject to scrutiny
our sensory education, of which the prejudice towards vision is only one part.
The papers in this volume review most of the senses in a variety of social, geographical
and temporal instances. The greatest emphasis is still on sight, but attention is paid to
hearing, touch and the haptic sense. The creation of the human body as a particular
cultural artefact comes across in a number of cases, as do also the links between different
items of material culture. Linkage and creation are twin themes: the linkage between
bodies and the totality of the material culture, on the one hand, and the way in which
bodies shape objects, but are themselves given cultural form through sensory interaction
with objects.
Making sense: archaeology and aesthetics 167

Each cultural form creates cultural difference through an education of the senses which
links people to objects and to each other in particular ways. Social life is composed in large
part of the links between people and things in which the values attached to objects are a
crucial means by which values are attached to relationships. Aesthetics need not empha-
size concepts of beauty or a refinement of taste, but rather the full range of evaluations
any culture makes of its objects. The experiences of pleasure, pain, comfort or sensory
over-load are all culturally specific and derive from a complex interaction between our
bodies and the world around us. The exact experiences of people in the past may well
elude us, but the ways in which they set up worlds that made sense to them is available to
us through an appreciation of the sensory and social impacts of the objects that formed
the fabric of past lives.

Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

64 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6PN


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