Habits of the Night

In a previous post, I discussed the archaeology of the night and I’m excited to announce that the book – Archaeology of the Night: Life After Dark in the Ancient World – is out! My fellow contributors and I reexamined our research in the context of the night and contributing to this volume made me look at my research in whole new light 😉 I also found myself giving more thought to nightly habits and the traces they leave behind. In honor of the book’s publication, this blog post echoes its spirit by reexamining photos to consider what nightly habits they might represent and how they might be interpreted in the archaeological archaeology.

The Archaeology of the Night book. If you’re interested in purchasing the book, the end of this post gives you some options.

Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, Japan is considered the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world. We visited the crossing at night and I remember being surprised that it was still so busy. After contributing to this volume, I began to realize how I (incorrectly) associated certain activities with solely the daytime. Life still goes on at night. In some instances, certain activities do not exclusively happen during the day. Shibuya Crossing is a good reminder of that.

In the archaeological record? If I were to excavate a pedestrian crossing, I would keep an eye open for artifacts indicating illumination (e.g., night lamps, areas of consistent but contained burning, etc.). I would also consider how certain public spaces might have been used at night.

This is a palm in Dubai’s Marina in the U.A.E. The lights were intentionally put on for the night. If you drive around Dubai at night, many buildings have ornate lighting elements. These lights create a decorated illuminated world that can only be properly taken in at night.

In the archaeological record? While lighting can serve functional purposes, I would be on the lookout for lighting elements with decorative elements or that could be displayed in a decorative way. This can be challenging to interpret. Think about the typical ‘Christmas tree lights’. If you had never seen them before and you didn’t find them wrapped around a tree, how would you interpret them?

My good friend, and fellow footballer, is pictured imbibing ‘The Dirty Filthy Habit’ (a cocktail). The drink’s name is a reminder of the habitual weekly nighttime ritual that my fellow UCLUWFC footballers took part in – SPORT’S NIGHT!

When I studied in London, every Wednesday night sports team would gather in UCL’s Union and then proceed to the Roxy (a club).

As footballers, we socialized during the day by playing or practicing, but the night was when we casually hung out together. While this division of activities is not surprising or unique to our team, what is interesting is that specific drinks (e.g., The Dirty Filthy Habit) and places (e.g., the Roxy) occupy an exclusively nighttime memory space for us.

In the archaeological record? Searching for memory in the archaeological is challenging; however, it’s an important area of research. Considering nighttime memories could lead to powerful and robust interpretations. Some authors explored the topic of memory in the Archaeology of the Night book and their discussions were thought-provoking.

For some people, the night houses specific religious and spiritual habits. During my recent trip to India, my grandmother and uncles often lit a short-lived flame on the floor of our front courtyard. I wasn’t sure if every night’s flame served the same purpose. Regardless of the purpose, the actions surrounding this nighttime ritual were so well-defined that my two-year-old cousin knew what to expect. If any action was amiss, you would hear a two-year-old firmly correcting you.

In the archaeological record? The sequences of this ritual remind me of a popular concept used in anthropological discourse – chaîne opératoire (operational chain). The concept can be used to examine the steps of technical (e.g., creating a stone tool) or, more broadly, social acts (e.g, performing nighttime religious rituals). Like any concept, the definition and applicability are debated; however, I find that the chaîne opératoire can be quite useful in theorizing about the process behind certain acts.

There are holidays celebrated around the world that have specific nighttime practices. In many countries, witnessing fireworks at midnight on New Year’s Eve habitually occurs every year. To ring in 2016, we celebrated in Berlin. Pictured are fireworks going off over Oberbaum Bridge shortly after midnight. Even in cold and rainy weather, people still step outside to see the illuminated night sky.

In the archaeological recordOne of my favorite aspects of the Archaeology of the Night book is that there are case studies from around the world. Nighttime celebrations occur throughout the world and this book gives us a small preview of the sheer diversity of nightly celebratory habits that is housed in the archaeological record.

Pictured here is Union Terrace Garden in Aberdeen at 9:50pm on June 5, 2015. During the summer months, places in higher northern latitudes (e.g., Scotland, Iceland, Scandinavian countries, etc.) experience longer hours of daylight. In Aberdeen, the average daily hours of daylight in June is around 17 hours

So what time does the night start, especially is the sun is still out? While the ‘dark’ is heavily associated with the night (it’s in the title of our book!), how do people orient or adjust personal nightly habits when daylight is still present?

In the archaeological record?:  This picture made me consider what parts of the archaeological record contain evidence of blocking out daylight and, perhaps, creating darkness? For example,  the curtains at our hotel in Aberdeen seemed to be made out of quite thick material. Perhaps this was intentionally put in place to aid in blocking out light during the summer months? At least for us tourists!

This image is of the night sky as seen from the edge of Oman’s Rub al-Khali (an extensive sand dune desert) right before the sun comes up. Both this image and the previous one depict a transitional time between daylight and darkness.

We associate certain shades of colors (e.g., pink, orange, blue, etc.) with the sky during certain times of the day and night. These colors can help anchor our orientation of not just time in a 24-hour period, but also the time of year and even location (think sunrises or sunsets on islands with volcanic activity).

In the archaeological record? I would look to artistic pieces throughout the archaeological record to get an idea of what colors people associated with the night and what that might mean about their perception about this time. Think about the blues in Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night‘ or just check out this Pinterest Board with paintings of the night to get an idea of how artists have imagined night colors.

The last image is not just a shameless plug. Though if you’re interested in supporting site, you can purchase the book using the following links for Amazon and Abe Books.

This image represents personal habits that we might practice at night and how the same activity might differ during the day.

For example, as archaeologists, we have to read a lot. Academic reading can permeate throughout my day and night. However, if I want to decompress before I sleep, I turn to fiction. I appreciate that reading fiction helps me turn my attention away from things I need to do and learn. Building a fiction reading habit also helps foster another habit I try to maintain – getting enough sleep!

I hope the stories from this photo essay got you thinking about the night. My fellow co-authors touched upon many of the themes that I discussed above so if you want to learn more, check out their chapters too.

Have you ever thought of the night in your work, travels, and daily life? What are your habits of the night? Let me know in the comments below!

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.



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