The Archaeology of the Night – What’s That About?

Earlier this month I posted on Facebook and Instagram that I was giving a talk at the ‘Archaeology of the Night’ symposium at this year’s Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in Orlando, Florida. One of my readers, Wolfgang Alders, asked on Facebook, “What is the archaeology of the night?” Fair question! This post tells you what the archaeology of the night is about, provides a quick summary of the talks covered in the symposium, super exciting news for all of you archaeology of the night enthusiasts, and reflections on how this topic sparked my own creativity.

What is the archaeology of the night?

The archaeology of the night investigates nightly practices in the ancient world. Dr. Nancy Gonlin of Bellevue College expands on this in her blog post.  I encourage you to read the entire piece. It’s well-written, short, and absolutely fascinating. Here is an excerpt:

How can archaeologists enlighten us about the way ancient peoples experienced life after dark? By using the same data we collect for other purposes and thinking about it in the context of the night. Household archaeology, practice theory, and a human adaptation perspective are productive avenues to explore ancient perspectives. In much the same way that one discusses “daily practices,” one can investigate “nightly practices.” And ancient writing and art inform us about symbolic aspects of ancient nights. Evidence for the past has been hiding in plain sight—we need to ask the appropriate questions in order to see it!

 Archaeology of the Night by Dr. Nancy Gonlin

The key takeaway here is that the ‘night’ is an important part of both past and present lives and warrants further study.

Society for American Archaeology Symposium

Dr. Nancy Gonlin and Dr. April Nowell co-organized the symposium, “Archaeology of the Night”, at this year’s Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. Funnily enough, the symposium had a night slot so from 6pm to well past 10pm, a diversity of scholars presented various perspectives on the archaeology of the night. Here is a list of the talks:

April Nowell and Nan Gonlin—An Archaeology of the Night

This talk introduced the panel and gave an overview of why we should consider ‘An Archaeology of the Night’.

Rita Wright—Engineering Feats and Consequences in the Indus: Workers in the Night

Water tanks, sump pits, street drains, toilets, sewage drains, shaft wells, bathing platforms and other waste management amenities are among the visible landmarks of the cities of the Indus civilization.  While they did provide conveniences for city dwellers, there were certain inequities in the types of amenities associated with individual households, but it was in the interest of all to keep the system in working order.  There is no direct evidence for the complex network and infrastructural arrangements that made the system work, but using modern cities as examples, optimal times to clean waste pits, flush drains, and remove unpleasant deposits would have been those few hours between the end of the night hours and dawn.  In this paper, I explore the efficacy of the night, phases of the moon, and the open skies in Indus cities and the technical specialists that maintained them.

Meghan Strong—Illuminating the Path of Darkness: Transformative Aspects of Artificial Light in Dynastic Egypt

When discussing light in Ancient Egypt, the vast majority of scholarly attention is placed on the sun, a physical constant of the landscape and the primary source of illumination. The development of ideas on the significance of natural light in Ancient Egyptian culture is abundant, particularly in religious sources. Studies on artificial light, however, stand in stark contrast to the number of academic publications on natural light. This emphasis forms a uni-dimensional view of lighting in Ancient Egypt, but creates the opportunity for a comprehensive study on the significance of artificial light within the Egyptian cultural tradition. Oil lamps, torches, and braziers were certainly employed in Ancient Egyptian domestic spaces to provide warmth and light in the evenings. Over time, however, these mundane tools were adopted and adapted into the sacred realm. In order to ensure the safe passage of their relatives to and from the land of the living, the Egyptians developed a series of rituals to provide light for the deceased along their way. This presentation will employ archaeological and art historical sources to discuss the type of light sources used, the rites with which light was associated, and the significance of providing illumination in the afterlife.

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

Since the Early Bronze Age in Oman (ca. 3100 BCE to 2000 BCE), oasis agricultural communities have held social and economic importance in Southern Arabia. Throughout the Arabian Peninsula there are varying microclimates. This paper focuses on northeastern Oman, where an arid landscape is a defining environmental characteristic. In order to successfully maintain an agrarian lifestyle in these environs, strategic decision-making was key. This paper brings together previous work on agricultural activities and the author’s recent ethnoarchaeological research to explore how select nightly activities, including irrigation and plant propagation, were integral in the maintenance and success of Omani oasis communities.

Shadreck Chirikure and Abigial Joy Moffett—Fluid Spaces and Fluid Objects: Nocturnal Material Culture in Sub-Saharan Africa with Special Reference to southern Africa

The transition of time from day into night is a fundamental pivot through which human existence revolves. And yet, as if ‘afraid of the dark’, few archaeological reconstructions have attempted to explore nightly practices. In the anthropology of southern Africa, particularly amongst groups such as the Shona, the dawn of the night opened the door to a host of nocturnal activities, which included learning, reproduction, relaxation, and ritual. For example, witches used mundane winnowing baskets as transport while they placed quotidian pestles adjacent to their partners as decoys to prevent them from noticing their absence during nocturnal expeditions. Given that houses and material culture used during the Iron Age (CE 200 – 1900) of southern Africa often closely resemble that used in some contexts, it is possible, within limitations, to delineate nocturnal activities. We fuse a rich body of anthropological knowledge, supplemented by participation in Shona society to explore nocturnal activities in an archaeological context. Interestingly, objects such as glass beads, often celebrated as symbols of prestige by archaeologists, were used to enhance sexual pleasure at night. The use of spaces and objects was fluid between day and night such that archaeological interpretation should be alert to multiple possibilities.

Tom Dillehay—Past and Present Andean Night Moon Rituals

Two nighttime rituals, one archaeological and the other ethnographic, are presented for the Andean region of South America. The archaeological case is the 7500-4000 year old littoral mound site of Huaca Prieta on the north coast of Peru where a very dense accumulation of charcoal resulting from fires and rituals formed the site. Recovered at the site were reed torches suggesting nighttime rituals. Today, shamans or curanderos from the north coast still occasionally used the site at night under a clear moon to make coca offerings (pages) and to pray for productive fertility from the sea and the land. The ethnographic case is the Mapuche shamans or machis of south-central Chile who perform nighttime rituals to communicate with the gods and ancestors. The wider political and community and interactive implications of these two cases, set within the Andean world and within broader anthropological concepts, are discussed and compared.

Alexei Vranich and Scott C. Smith—Nighttime Sky and Early Urbanism in the High Andes

Popular understanding of the relationship between the rise of early civilization and astronomy emphasizes the observance of particular moments in the cycle of the sun. This pattern is particularly strong at the Bolivian highland Andean site of Tiwanaku (AD 500-950), a megalithic site known for its “Temple of the Sun”, “Gateway of the Sun”, and solstice festival that attracts thousands. Recent research throughout the Titicaca Basin documents a wide range of celebrated astronomical observations during the initial development of social complexity. While early sites developed at the confluence of such predictable variables as nearby water sources and fodder for animals, they were also preferentially located where alignments between the nighttime sky and sacred mountains could be seen. This initially modest public architecture formed the setting for structured encounters between transhumance groups and dispersed sedentary peoples. Most of these locations were cyclically occupied, with communal gatherings defined by small-scale architecture. A rare few became the nucleus for settlements that reached monumental proportions. The rituals that defined social interaction in these locations, as well as the relationship of attendees to the sacred world, developed into the complex institutions that became the basis for the development of the primary state.

Anthony Aveni—Night in Day: How Mesoamerican Cultures Respond to Unanticipated (and Anticipated) Eclipse Phenomena

Effects of the sudden, dramatic inversion of day and night experienced during a total eclipse of the sun have been reported in cultures the world over. How to find meaning in the extraordinary shading, the odd color tones in the landscape produced by the sun’s corona, and the changes in animal behavior, not to mention the appearance of stars and planets flanking the black disk that accompanies darkness in the middle of the day? After a brief cross-cultural survey of where eclipse myths find their place in society, we turn to the significance of eclipses in cultures that have developed the capacity to warn of the advent of such phenomena, most notably the Maya.

Jeremy Coltman—Under the Cover of Night: The Liminal Landscape in Ancient Maya Thought

For the ancient Maya, the landscape was wild, untamed, and dotted with caves, which were the darkest of spaces. On an empirical level, caves can reveal the ancient Maya experience of intimate darkness and nullified senses. Such experience belonged to the night, which was fraught with danger, temporally distant, and inhabited by a cast of anti-social beings. These beings belonged to the wilderness and dark forests that lacked internal order and spatial division. Much like the concept of chaos in Classical antiquity, the darkness of night symbolized the mythological past that predated the creation of the sun and the ordered world. This paper will explore the dark depths of night and will offer a reappraisal of the Maya “underworld” by way of a liminal landscape where basic human actions such as sleeping and dreaming intersect with the realm of creation, curing, and witchcraft, all of which coexist together under the cover of night.

Nan Gonlin and Christine Dixon—Midnight Madness in Mesoamerica: Dark Doings in the Ancient World

After the sun went down, the world of ancient Mesoamerica was transformed into a dark landscape. Some sought sleep while others came alive for nocturnal naughtiness. Ancient Mesoamericans simultaneously embraced and respected the dark.  Are nightly practices destined to remain obscured from our view, or can we illuminate such dark doings by expanding our focus from daily practices to include those of the night? A fundamental question explored in this paper is the extent to which there is material evidence for what ancient humans did at night using ancient Mesoamerica as a case study. Nighttime has left its mark on the archaeological record and we hope to shed light on this auspicious time of day through the exploration of several different types of evidence and various cultures. Tasks of nightly living differed from those of the day. Ritual activities permeated the darkness and cosmological beliefs constructed ancient conceptions of night and day. The nightly practices of ancient Mesoamericans were rich with meaning and transcended time and space.

Kathryn Kamp and John Whittaker—The Night is Different: Sensescapes and Affordances

Archaeology has paid scant attention to the differences between diurnal and nocturnal landscapes, and the differences in meaning and use implied and constrained by the change from day to night. We also neglect the multi-sensorial nature of the landscape. Vision is emphasized almost to the exclusion of hearing, smell, and touch. Humans are diurnal animals emphasizing vision, and modern archaeologists are further biased by our brightly lit world of electricity, neon, and LED screens in which a nighttime without artificial light and cultural clutter is optional. We need to examine biology, psychology, and cross-cultural behavior to understand both the limitations imposed by the relative and variable darkness of night, and the potential offered by nocturnal landscapes when analyzed as sensescapes, rather than as viewscapes. We discuss the prehistoric world of the southwest, where considering the difference between night and day may inform us about the lived experience of occupants of the Flagstaff region.

Susan Alt—Mother Earth, Father Sky, Figurative Art and Reproduction at Cahokia and in the Mississippian World

In the Cahokian world the sounds and sights of night would have brought stories: the moon, morning star and evening star; human origins.  Origin stories generally abound with sex, (mother earth, father sky) but our analyses are oddly devoid of sex. Yet Mississippian figurative art plays with the seen and unseen of sex as it hints at how cosmic principles, sex, and gender were entangled and tied to night and reproduction.  By focusing on reproductive themes, but not sex, archaeologists have not fully faced feminine principles. They have instead focused on warrior and shaman images. In the Cahokian figurative world, where women birth corn and gourds, much more can be teased out about how sex and reproduction were intertwined with the cosmos at night.

Jane Baxter—The Freedom that Nighttime Brings: Privacy and Cultural Persistence among Enslaved Peoples at Bahamian Plantations

When Bahamian scholar and educator Arlene Nash Ferguson wrote about the history of the famous Bahamian festival of Junkanoo, she began her story with enslaved people taking action under cover of darkness. Freed from labor for the two day Christmas holiday, the enslaved went into “the bush” at night time, adorned their bodies with decorations found in the natural world, and reenacted, recreated, and created dances, songs, and traditions reflecting their African heritage. Nighttime afforded privacy, not just for activities that were forbidden by their owners, but also for activities that held a place of cultural significance that they did not want to share with people outside their community. This paper considers the landscapes of Bahamian plantations on the island of San Salvador, and the opportunities and affordances created when those landscapes were experienced and encountered after dark. By comparing diurnal and nocturnal landscapes of the plantation, it is possible to think about space and place making in ways that consider the role of privacy as an essential element in practices of resistance and in the perpetuation and generation of cultural knowledge

Pauline Wiessner—Discussant

Margaret Conkey—Discussant

As you can see, there were a diversity of geographic regions, methodological approaches, theoretical frameworks, and material culture represented. From Dynastic Egyptian iconography of artificial lights to private night spaces of enslaved populations in the Bahamas to global archaeoastronomical insights on eclipses, this session covered a lot.

Exciting News!

At this point, I hope you’re fascinated and enthusiastic about this topic and want to learn more. Well, I have good news for you. Early next year there will be a book coming out that includes chapters on many of the SAA, as well as more perspectives from around the world!

The SAA panel was actually preceded by a session called ‘From Dusk to Dawn: Nightly Practices in the Ancient World’ at the 2015 American Anthropological Association (AAA) Annual Meeting. All the talks from AAA will also be featured in the book. If you’re curious about what talks occurred at the AAA, the list and abstracts are right below.

Nancy Gonlin & Christine Dixon – An Introduction to Nightly Practices in the Ancient World with Illustration from Mesoamerica

This paper was expanded into two papers for the SAA: 1) the introductory talk, ‘An Archaeology of the Night’ by April Nowell & Nancy Gonlin and 2) the paper, ‘Midnight Madness in Mesoamerica: Dark Doings in the Ancient World’ by Nancy Gonlin & Christine Dixon.

April Nowell – Paleolithic Soundscapes and the Emotional Resonance of Nighttime

This paper will explore what might be reasonably said about nighttime activities of Upper Paleolithic peoples in Europe and why these behaviors may have been selected for evolutionarily. This study is inspired by a recent publication by cultural anthropologist Polly Wiessner, who documented the differences between “day talk” and “night talk” among a variety of hunter-gather societies. Wiessner observed that while day talk most often involved gossip and economic matters, the transition to nighttime saw people engaging in qualitatively different forms of social communication. Specifically, she noted that people participated in singing, dancing, ceremony and storytelling around camp fires. These kinds of activities are well documented to promote social cohesion, adherence to social values and norms and/or to galvanize people to action. These forms of communication may be particularly effective at night. Musicologists have recently begun to explore the relationship between time of day and the emotional impact of music with preliminary findings suggesting that later in the day, particularly if tired, people’s perception of emotion in music is heightened. It is likely that the emotional resonance of narrative and dance is similarly elevated. Drawing on archaeological and neuropsychological data, this paper proposes a model of a cultural Paleolithic soundscape set against the natural soundscape of the Pleistocene world as day turned to night.

Glenn Reed Storey – All Rome is at My Bedside: Nightlife in the Roman Empire

et ad cubile est Roma moaned the poet Martial (2nd c. CE) as he related the nightly goings on at Rome which kept him awake. Thanks to the rich archaeological record and highly detailed accounts we have of everyday life in Rome, we understand how the ancient Romans carried on urban life much as in the modern milieu of the “city that never sleeps.” In this paper, we will explore Roman nightlife focusing on three case studies that combine highly visible archaeological remains that are well-documented ethnohistorically in the Roman written record. Two of these case studies are known to us vis the Roman legal code, the Digest of Justinian. In the first, wheeled traffic was prohibited in Roman cities during the daytime, meaning that the provisioning of these cities took place at night. The second case involves the Vigiles, the police-fire brigade established by the Augustus in 6 CE; we know how they were barracked and what their duties were at night. In the third case, we have a unique description by Pliny the Younger of his villa on the coast near Rome, how he built his own retreat there to escape the noise of his partying slaves during the December festival of the Saturnalia. We may even have the archaeological remains of this villa. These three cases demonstrate how the facilities of the Roman city were equipped to address the needs of a vigorous nightlife carried on by its inhabitants.

Erin-Lee McGuire – Burning the Midnight Oil: Archaeological Experiments with Viking Lamps

The Viking Age falls at the tail end of what was once called the Dark Ages of Medieval Europe. People lived and worked in long houses made from wood, stone, and turf, with central hearths, few doors, and no windows. Accompanying the long houses were smaller pit-houses, dug into the earth and serving a variety of purposes, including workshop space. The image that we have of living in Viking structures is of smoke-filled, damp spaces, crowded with people and shrouded in gloom. Among the house assemblages from across the Viking world, we find evidence of lamps, usually made from stone or ceramics and designed to burn oil. During the summer of 2015, experiments will be conducted with a range of materials for wicks, fuel, and lamp forms to measure factors such as quantity of light, amount of heat and smoke produced, etc. These experiments will take place in a reconstructed Viking Age pit-house in Vancouver, WA with the aim of assessing how efficient the lamps are as a light source.

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

This paper was actually withdrawn from the session, but the contents will be featured in the book!

The rich ethnohistoric and ethnographic sources of Polynesia provide a record of nightly practices, meanings, and associations. For these islanders, conceptions of the night were inextricably tied to their conceptions of the sea. Both were places of power and potential routinely navigated by starlight. For example, In Hawai’i, creation came from/with/during pō, the dark, and the passage of time was measured by the passage of nights. For this reason, Polynesians deliberately engaged in a variety of activities, both mundane and sacred, at night, many of which would have left material traces in the archaeological record. These included fishing particular species, harvesting certain crops, and engaging in special rituals. Drawing primarily on Hawaiian sources, I will explore how enhancing archaeologists’ “night vision” could be accomplished, and what insights into pre-contact “daily” life might emerge.

Minette C. Church – “Le Luz de Aciete es Triste”: Archaeology of Nighttime along the Santa Fé Trail

“La luz de aciete es triste” was the phrase used by Antonio Serrano in response to 20th century ethnographers probing his thoughts on the choice of some villagers in Cañones, New Mexico, to reject the public rural electrification initiative of 1951/52, a modern amenity which the majority of their neighbors had embraced. Those who refused electricity were generally older residents, with lifetimes of memories primarily lit by lamp or candle light. Surely nighttime was far less strange and fraught, and candle and oil light more familiar to the 19th and 20th century villagers in the southwestern U.S. borderlands. Yet even for them, night held behaviors and meanings beyond the pragmatic technical challenges of lighting; there were particular social and ritual activities that were relegated specifically to la noche. In the 21st century, as we have become increasingly accustomed to newer, more full-spectrum, compact fluorescent, and LED light that blur the boundaries of day and night, we still have a tendency to assume (often implicitly) that activity ended and sleep began soon after the setting of the sun on the sites we study. As the yellower, mellower tones of incandescent light become increasingly strange to our children, perhaps this is a good moment to think over our historical and archaeological relationship with candles, kerosene, moonlight, and what went on in the past “after hours.”

Jerry D Moore – Discussant

If you can’t wait until early next year, I encourage you to check out the following:

Personal Reflections

To be honest, I was a bit stumped on what to discuss as I began to formulate my paper — Midnight at the Oasis: Past and Present Agricultural Activities in Oman. Sure, I wrote an abstract, but as I began to delve into previous research that corroborated with my topic, there was not much.

I reached a wall.

At that point, I really had to stop, sit, and re-examine my research in Oman. That’s when my creative juices started flowing. You see, I’m writing my dissertation and my topic is fairly focused. It’s not often that you get to approach an aspect of your work from a completely new perspective at this stage. To be fair, if I did this all the time, along with living my life, I would never finish my dissertation.

Nonetheless, I found writing this paper an incredibly productive and creative way to think about my research. It sparked other ideas that will directly contribute to my dissertation work. After speaking to other participants in the panel, they also found re-examining their research, in the context of the night, to be thought-provoking and engaging.

One of my favorite parts of conducting archaeological research is to creatively examine and interpret the material record. Sometimes as we’re busy building our functional knowledge, preparing for summer work, fulfilling impending deadlines, etc. and we lose sight of the various compelling ways we can approach our research. This symposium was an excellent reminder.

Group photo of participants of the 'Archaeology of the Night' Symposium at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.
Participants of the ‘Archaeology of the Night’ Symposium at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology. Photo Credit: Erin McGuire



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Thank you so much for the interesting read about the archaeology of the night. It is interesting to think that people in ancient times had such developed thoughts and could explain things the way that they did. I have a friend who is thinking about going into this field of study and would absolutely love this read about the ancient world. Thanks again!

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.



Some links on this site are monetize through VigLink. For more information, please see this site’s Privacy Policy.

VigLink badge