In this post, Dr Kevin Pijpers discusses his recently completed doctoral research on how archaeologists use their senses, in particular their sense of touch and the relationship between archaeological touch and the making of knowledge.
As part of my PhD research, I joined archaeologists of the University of Leicester and the University of Leicester Archaeological Services to two of their field sites, during the summer of 2014. The first, the Burrough Hill Iron Age hill fort, is located near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire, while the second one is in Ardnamurchan, a remote area in west Scotland. My research questions, constructed with the help of my supervisors, focus on how archaeologists might learn from their work on field sites. Looking at their work from a vantage point of their embodiment, I studied their use of their senses, and in particular their sense of touch, for the many ways they ‘do knowledge’ in practice. Archaeologists continuously touch things like soil, wheelbarrows, trowels, shovels, buckets, pens, paper, mattocks, and other things and stuff. I figured that asking questions like how and why they touch things, might say something about how they know as well. Touch is remarkable, as it was generally taken to be the master sense of the human body until the eighteenth century. As described by the intellectual historian Martin Jay: ‘it tests, confirms what sight could only perceive’. The relation between archaeological touch, and the making of knowledge, was central to my work of rethinking ‘science’ from the field.
This research project was an adventurous undertaking into what Quentin Meillassoux might call ‘the great outdoors’ of scientific research. In one sense, archaeologists obviously visit the literal outdoors, where they engage in their excavation work. In another sense, images of the carefully managed environments of the modern laboratory remind us mostly of a pristine kind of science, and not of rats, rodents, grave robbers, rain, midges, and roots, and other para-sites of formal scientific and political procedures of gathering ‘data’. The work of archaeologists is exemplary for dealing with the so-called contingency of scientific work in this great outdoors. In other words, things do not always go as planned in the field, and prediction – and not to mention reproducibility – are rarely possible when one’s hands are deep into the muddy soil. Even with the help of many tools to make life in the field more comfortable, fieldwork remains a messy and crafty business.
The messiness extends to archaeological findings. Archaeologists commonly visit and re-visit past events within landscapes, following ‘elusive and allusive’ remains of bodies from older times. Their ‘data’ are the discarded things of history, which they re-entangle in archives in (and of) the present. Dwelling with both human and non-human others for extended periods of time also entangles the archaeologists with one another, their tools, and the past(s) they are studying. My focus on their sense of touch underwent a similar trajectory of entanglement, and came to include whatever affected their embodiment in more and less intense ways. In other words, my research became more abstract, since it became increasingly clear that the ‘archaeological touch’ has the uncanny ability to ‘knot together’ the time and space of landscapes in very particular ways, irreducible to the touch of their physical hands.
I set out to experimentally think their excavation work in terms of switches, edges, and grooves. Crucial to their work, it seems to me, is their ability to move in and out of their trenches; to be in close contact with the trench at an instance of trowelling and excavating, then cleaning up the trench, in preparation for the more distanced practices of photographing or mapping, after which they move back again to employ a different technique. It was urgent, I felt, not to lose a sense of motility embedded in their bodily techniques of touching. In other words, it became necessary to approach ‘high-tech’ methods (like sampling for particular isotopes in a laboratory) as being symmetrical to the ‘low-tech’ digging in the soil with a trowel, in order to highlight that fieldwork encompasses a multiplicity of techniques in relation to each other. The bodily ability to switch between bringing some ‘objects’ closer, while making others more distant, and continue to switch in relation to material events, seemed crucial to archaeological ways of knowing in and of the field.
I want to emphasise archaeology in my work as a ‘society’ of subjects, objects, and techniques of revisiting the temporality of landscapes. These techniques are as much scientific, as they are crafty pathways of organising excavation sites, translating ‘hard’ objective landscapes into ‘soft’ cultural and historical data, while inverting this relationship in the same process of manipulating the site. Touch is then not a metaphor (at all!) for a sense of autonomous archaeological practices, nor for ‘woolly-minded vagueness’. It rather invokes a sense of continued commitment to rethinking the organisation of scientific knowledge.
Thinking with touch, I propose, opens up the uncanny ability to dis-entangle and re-entangle the materiality of archaeological field sites. As such, archaeologist Matt Edgeworth conceptualises excavation practices in terms of acts of inscription and material transactions. Invested throughout with qualitative intensities, the affective dimension of touch makes sensory detachment betweens us and our worlds problematic, as Maria Puig de la Bellacasa aptly shows. In contrast to the representation of modern science in the guise of the pristine laboratory, thinking with touch forces us instead to open up an alternative science. Touch and being in touch then provokes a temporal intervention in our bodies and the world: it de-centres our subjectivities in relation to the felt atmosphere of the historical world, populating it with a sense of shared commonality, different from ‘before’.