Archaeology of the Night

02 February 2016 Written by   Nancy Gonlin
Archaeology of the Night Photo courtesy of Kris Landau

Without electrical lighting to guide the way, our ancestors in the ancient world experienced night very differently than we do today. Only recently have anthropologists begun to explore life after sundown and to explicitly incorporate this topic into their research (see an excellent 2010 Current Anthropology article by Galinier and colleagues). As light pollution continues to dissipate the darkness for us modern humans—changing, for example, our perception of the stars—the urgency to document the history of human experience from dusk till dawn has never been greater. As an archaeologist, I need to examine past perceptions of life after dark through the material record (which, like our experience of darkness, is diminishing), but rarely do we get the resolution of a single night represented in the archaeological record.

The nighttime is, and was, experienced in different ways by different peoples across the world. Minimally, the factors of age, class, and gender affect one’s experience. The length of the night differs across the world as well, as the natural factors of latitude and seasonal changes affect its duration. Scholars of European history Roger Ekirch and Craig Koslofsky have each deftly delved into the complexities of the night from the 1500s up until the dawn of the modern era. But, as historians working with the written record, their emphases do not include the explicit material evidence upon which archaeologists depend to understand the past.

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!

Let’s take an example of the Late Classic Maya (AD 650–900) of southern Mexico and Central America. How did the ancient Maya conceive of the night and what were their nighttime activities? Where and how did they sleep? Epigraphy, iconography, and archaeology used together form a powerful database. The ancient Maya did not write about everything, so it is revealing to see the numerous glyphs that relate directly to life after the sun sets. The existence of symbols that connote star/planet/constellation, the moon, and darkness/night reveals the significance of the nocturnal to the Maya. Other symbolic evidence is conveyed through the iconography of the Moon Goddess and the Nine Lords of the Night. The famous Lintel 24 from Yaxchilan, Mexico, shows Lady Xooc conducting a bloodletting ceremony in the dark (perhaps outside after sunset?) with the assistance of her spouse, King Shield Jaguar, who wields a large torch to supply illumination to the queen and her audience witnessing this act of devotion. Household archaeology contributes to our understanding of Late Classic Maya nighttime through the excavation of palaces and humble abodes alike. The remains of ceramic braziers tell us how the ancient Maya warmed the interiors of their houses, small and large, to deal with the elements after dark. Stone benches, made comfortable for sleeping with the addition of matting and cloth, are commonly found in higher status residences, sequestered in the back or corners of structures. From the extraordinary preservation of the 1,500-year-old farming community of El Cerén, El Salvador, we know that mats were used for nighttime sleeping on house floors, as documented by Payson Sheets.

The Late Classic Maya adapted to the night in myriad ways that included symbolic and cognitive measures, as well as those concerned with ensuring the material comfort of their nights. I encourage archaeologists to embrace and contribute to the archaeology of this area of inquiry by pursuing evidence for ancient nights. As we gather data from across the globe, we can begin to see in a cross-cultural fashion how humans dealt with the dark and contribute to a holistic perspective of our species, rather than one that largely has depended on a sun-up-to-sun-down view of the past.


Nancy Gonlin is a senior associate professor of anthropology at Bellevue College in the state of Washington, where she has taught for eighteen years. She is the co-author of a book on the Copán Classic Maya and co-editor of three volumes that deal with ritual, household archaeology, and human adaptation: Human Adaptation in Ancient Mesoamerica, Ancient Households of the Americas, and Commoner Ritual and Ideology in Ancient Mesoamerica. Her latest conference presentations have involved "nightly practices," and she is in the midst of developing the "archaeology of the night" with like-minded individuals.

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