The Elemental (Re)turn. The Archaeology of Elementary Philosophy and Humoral Principles

Posted on June 22, 2016


Your Wednesday dose of archaeology conference videos. Again from the TAG conference-

Session Abstract: This session encourages archaeologists to (re)engage with pre-Enlightenment doctrines— namely elemental and humoral theory—which, it will be argued, are more relevant for archaeological interpretation than much of current theoretical discourse. Its aims is to show how these ancient theoretical paradigms might be marshalled to provide more direct readings and robust analyses of the archaeological record, provide fairer representations of past cultures, heal present rifts in the discipline’s arts- and science-based research, and position archaeology at the forefront of debates concerning future sustainability and resilience.
Throughout the western world, and for at least the last 2,500 years, all aspects of human life, lifestyle and behaviour—diet, farming practices, health, life-cycles and overarching cosmologies—were perceived, explained and dictated by the principles of the four elements (earth, air, fire and water) and their corresponding humors (melancholy, sanguine, choler, and phlegm). Detailed evidence for these belief systems is found everywhere, from the Vedas of India through pre-Socratic Greek philosophy and the later works of Pliny and Galen, to medieval and post-medieval agricultural, culinary and medical treatises. Living traditions remain fundamental to practice and belief across large parts of Asia and the New World; while many indigenous and First Nations peoples follow cognate cosmologies.
The near total neglect in current archaeological dialogue of the centrality of elemental and humoral theories to so many cultures past and present is thus astonishing. Even phenomenologists, who explicitly seek to engage with lived experience and environmental immersion (both ideas foundational to elemental and humoral theory), have been very slow to ask about the actual philosophies that informed past experience. The discipline’s general failure to acknowledge the importance of elemental and humoral theory appears to be the result of timing: the birth of archaeology and the demise of elemental philosophy both belong to the ‘Age of Reason’. Because of this coincidence, and perhaps also because of the historical legacies of British empiricism which privileged substantiated facts over unsubstantiated popular lore, archaeology has neither explored nor rejected the paradigm of elemental philosophy; it has simply looked forward not back, perhaps viewing any return to pre-Enlightenment ideas as retrograde.
This session challenges this stance. It will suggest that elemental philosophy and humoral theory represent the intellectual paradigm that archaeologists have been striving to invent since the discipline’s creation—one that considers entanglement, agency, materiality, object biographies, individual identities and life course; one that sees no separation between nature and culture or religion and daily practice, and one through which arts- and sciencebased archaeologists can best converse.

Session organisers: Richard JONES, Holly MILLER and Naomi SYKES (University of Leicester, University of Nottingham and University of Nottingham)

Elemental theory: a dummies’ guide for archaeologists

In recent months, as we have showcased our thoughts on the value of elemental theory in archaeological interpretation, it has become apparent that few practitioners in our discipline are aware of elemental theory and fewer still understand its guiding principles. As an introduction to this session, therefore, the fundamentals of elemental theory—at least as it was understood in the Greek, Roman, and medieval European worlds—will be presented. It will be demonstrated how elemental theory was implicated in every aspect of human experience: its foundational role in humoral theory; how the months and seasons were reckoned in elemental terms; how elemental theory mapped on to the human life-style; how it guided thoughts about the planets, meteorology and even terrestrial geography. It’s cosmic man!

@archaeoelement represented here by Richard JONES (University of Leicester)

Getting a sense of humors in zooarchaeology

Archaeologists often go to great lengths devising complex theoretical models about social practice (often developed from anthropological ideas) without considering the evidence provided by the ancient societies under consideration. Textual and iconographic evidence make clear the centrality of humoral principles to Roman and medieval minds: not only did all living things possess their own humors but these could be transferred to ‘consumers’ through any of the bodily senses. Yet there is little mention of the humors in discussion of Roman and medieval archaeology; this is an astonishing oversight. Using a variety of zooarchaeological case-studies, this paper will explore how new interpretations and insights concerning human-animal-landscape interactions might be gained if we consider senses and humors.

Naomi SYKES (University of Nottingham)

The slightest elements of material culture

Artefact analyses have been long dominated by studies of typology and technology. Only in recent decades have we begun to look beyond ‘form’ and ‘function’ for more esoteric meaning in the archaeology of material culture, yet there are categories of artefacts that are still under-studied and under-theorized in this way, such as beads. Understanding the sociocultural- economic significance of beads is obscured by their general classification as ‘ornamentation’, which implies an outward-looking, visually driven, social practice, with decorative purpose. Conversely, ethnographic studies show us that beads, with their physical closeness to the human (or other) body, often have an important role in sympathetic magics that are invoked to counteract the ill effects of elemental imbalances. In this paper, we will attempt to trace a continuity of ideas, if not practices, through modern pastoral and Bedouin groups into the prehistoric record of bead related practices in Anatolia and the Near East. In this way we highlight how our current, post-enlightenment approaches to these items may be inadequate and how viewing these items with the aid of an elemental lens may enhance their interpretation.

Emma BAYSAL (Trakya University, Turkey) and Holly MILLER (University of Nottingham)

The Medicine Tree: pollen analysis as a window into the elemental world of Tibetan Buddhism

The (re)turn to elemental philosophies and using interpretations that are based on the cosmologies of the people who are being studied, potentially offers a fresh and invigorating way of reinterpreting environmental data. Approaches based more broadly in a posthumanism perspective are also attracting greater archaeological attention, but these have been primarily within the realms of period-based studies, zooarchaeology and osteoarchaeology (e.g. Fredengren 2013; Garcia-Rovira 2013; Sykes 2014). Arguably, these sub-disciplines offer either a theoretical or a direct link between people and the past; whether it is through the artefacts they made, the food they ate, and the animals they raised. Can we apply a similar approach to proxy palaeoecological data such as pollen analyses, whereby we attempt to de-centre our western anthropocentric, positivistic perspective and offer equally valid interpretations based on alternative frames of reference? This paper presents an example of how an elemental perspective can provide a reinterpretation of a pollen diagram from a Buddhist dominated area in the Himalaya of Nepal. In particular, we draw on the deeply complex elemental philosophy and knowledge of an Amchi (medicine man) to posit an interpretation focussed on potential entangled meaning within the landscape, rather than purely as an ecological ‘reading’ of the diagram following a ‘conventional’ disciplinary framework. We will also propose that such dominant, avowedly apolitical modes of academic enquiry may be anything but and will consider how we might foreground and negotiate these and related concerns.

Suzi RICHER (Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service) and Benjamin GEAREY (University College Cork, Ireland)

Scientific fields? Medieval peasants, sustainable farming and elemental theory

Our current understanding of the medieval rural environment is largely based on scholarly writings focusing on the landscape policies pursued by the social elite. This study reexamines manorial sources from the perspective of local peasants to reconstruct the physical—and in some respects, metaphorical—environment of the lower orders in two contrasting English villages between 1086-1348, and to determine how this led to the development of the local economic strategies that can be pieced together from the records of the medieval manor. Maintaining soil quality was fundamentally important since peasants’ survival was closely linked to their agricultural success. Local peasants clearly understood that the land needed nourishment, but they also had to decide where and how best to deploy their limited fertiliser stocks, and this required a thorough understanding of the land they worked. Nothing emphasises this more than the wide variety of local fieldnames coined by the peasants themselves. Many field-names were selected and retained over a long period, and describe the specific qualities of individual cropping units. This paper argues that some of the most enduring field-names survived as part of a collective mnemonic system used by local farmers in conjunction with commonly held scientific ideas, from which they determined how best to treat their fields. It suggests that, although uneducated in any formal sense, some peasants nevertheless had a strong grasp of contemporary scientific thought, and there is evidence to suggest that elemental and humoral scientific theory informed their approach to the sustainability of soil quality.

Susan KILBY (University of Leicester)

Bodiam Castle and Longthorpe Tower: elemental readings of later medieval building design

The interpretation of Bodiam Castle (East Sussex) has been hotly contested. Was Bodiam designed as a functioning defensive structure or was it an old soldier’s conceit, a dream house and nothing more? Much of this debate stems from consideration of Bodiam’s position in the landscape, the role of the moat, consideration of the fields of fire afforded by its gunports and arrow loops, levels of fenestration, and analysis of the internal arrangement of, and lines of movement through, its rooms and services. Here medieval rather than contemporary landscape theory is applied for the first time to the reading of Bodiam. Since the basis of good medieval landscape design lay in the application of elemental theory, foregrounding elemental (and humoral) theory brings critical insights that help us to understand Bodiam’s design and the thought processes of its architect. Longthorpe Tower (Peterborough) contains some of the best surviving late medieval wall paintings to be found in a secular context. The scheme depicts key ideas of medieval natural philosophy. The elements are subtly integrated into the scenes, providing an unique opportunity to examine how they were used as part of interior décor at the beginning of the fourteenth century.

Richard JONES (University of Leicester)

Food, identity and humoral theory in early modern England: a case-study from Leicestershire

Archaeological studies of food have generally taken an isolationist approach: they have tended to consider animal and plant remains separately; and have largely failed to integrate written sources fully into their discussion. Furthermore, interpretations have tended to focus on the economics of production (e.g. an increase in the consumption of calves can be explained by a rise in dairy production) or on identifying aspects of dietary identity (most commonly social status). A major omission in current scholarship is consideration of humoral theory as a framework that guided contemporary attitudes to diet and good health. This was particularly true for the early modern period. My research will attempt to address this problem through an interdisciplinary case-study of an early modern aristocratic household at the forefront of cultural change—the home of the Grey family at Bradgate House, Leicestershire. In this presentation, I will outline and exemplify how I will integrate and interrogate archaeobotanical and zooarchaeological evidence alongside household accounts within a humoral framework to reconsider the role of humoral theory in influencing consumption behaviour and its influence on the construction and negotiation of group identities.

Rachel SMALL (University of Leicester)




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