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Digging up feelings: can archaeologists excavate emotion?

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Digging up feelings: can archaeologists excavate emotion?

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Published by University of Leicester Press Office for University of Leicester in Communities and also in Education

Professor Sarah Tarlow of the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History. Professor Sarah Tarlow of the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History.

Is it possible for archaeologists to uncover human feelings and emotions as well as objects and artefacts?

That is the question which will be posed at a University of Leicester public lecture entitled ‘Digging up feelings: can archaeologists excavate emotion?’ on Tuesday, February 19.

The lecture will be given by Professor Sarah Tarlow, of the Centre for Historical Archaeology within the University’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History.

Professor Tarlow, who is an editor of the journal Archaeological Dialogues, will explain how a shift in attitudes has seen an increase in examination of the emotional past.

Professor Tarlow said: “Until about twenty years ago, experiential aspects of the human past were mostly considered to be beyond the reach of archaeological investigation, especially in the case of non-literate societies. Asking questions about anything so intangible was not just difficult: it was foolhardy. Archaeologists, it was argued, should stick to things they can touch, measure and put in a museum.

“In the 1980s and 1990s however a number of linked developments in archaeological theory encouraged archaeologists to think that experience, emotion and meaning might be worth looking for in the archaeological past.

“This talk will consider different approaches to the archaeology of emotion, considering what we can usefully learn from colleagues in other disciplines, and what we could maybe contribute. Some archaeological approaches assume that emotions are universal in humans and are biological phenomena. In other disciplines such approaches have been criticised by those who point out the cultural variability of emotional experience, but given the difficulty of accessing personal human experience in the remote past, are there approaches that archaeologists can usefully make to the subject?

“One way round this dilemma is to advance as the subject of study social emotional values, rather than personal emotional experience. Another approach might be to consider how material culture and space were manipulated to lend emotional force to particular moments, places and relationships.

“I will discuss a range of examples from my own and my colleagues’ work, and end with a few timely reflections on Richard III.”

The lecture will be held in Lecture Theatre 1 of the Ken Edwards Building, University of Leicester main campus, at 5.30pm on Tuesday, February 19. The event is free and open to the public.

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