Mesa Talk

Sensory Archaeology:

Quantitative and Humanist Ways of Understanding the Past

As social scientists, archaeologists often struggle to convince the broader STEM audiences of our discipline's objectivity and rigor. For decades this tension has led many archaeologists to under-appreciate or altogether abandon the humanities, leaving a large body of research resting wholly on measurements and mathematical projections, to the exclusion of grounded sensations. More recently, archaeologists who pioneered studies of the senses have come under fire for neglecting said rigors, revealing rifts within specialized archaeological subfields. The STEM v. humanities factionalism is counterproductive to the inherently interdisciplinary field of archaeology. Here we explore examples of archaeologists worldwide whose work successfully straddles this divide. Studies from Stonehenge to South America to the Southwest showcase archaeologies of color, sound, music, and more. I break down heady theoretical and philosophical concepts into lay terms and relate these ideas to the aforementioned successes. Case studies covered here (including my own work) exemplify how rigorous STEM methods combined with qualitative evaluations enrich archaeological communication, humanizing the past and the processes we use to study it. Likewise, humanities disciplines studying religion, philosophy, language, history, and the arts can guide better informed and more ethical research design, while simultaneously encouraging methodological innovation using the tools adopted from STEM.