unizeit Schriftzug

The archaeology of seeing

How do we perceive things? And what does this mean for the way we act – or don’t act? A new international research project with Kiel-based participants is considering these questions by looking to the past.

Stone ship "Ales stenar"
© pur.pur

"Ales stenar", one of the largest preserved stone ships in Scandinavia. A stone ship is a boat-shaped stone settlement that occurs primarily in the Scandinavian Baltic region and marks cremation or urn graves.

There are some truly impressive contemporary witnesses in the form of large megalithic tombs found in northern Germany. These monuments, which are around 5,500 years old, can measure up to 65 metres long. The menhirs or standing stones are just as spectacular features of the landscape. The stone pillars measuring up to three metres high date back to the late Neolithic Age and Bronze Age. Alongside Gothic churches and Hindu temples, these structures play an important part in the international and interdisciplinary research project Material Minds. "These monuments can be used to research fundamental principles that still apply to today's visual perception of objects and architecture," explained archaeologist Professor Johannes Müller. The Kiel-based scientist is working in collaboration with teams from Spain and Great Britain on the innovative and interdisciplinary research project XSCAPE: Material Minds: Exploring the Interactions between Predictive Brains, Cultural Artifacts, and Embodied Visual Search". The project is receiving € 10 million in funding from the European Research Council (ERC) through its ERC Synergy Grant, which is one of the most prestigious research funds in science.

"In the Neolithic Age – from 5,500 to 2,200 BCE – tombs and the well-known longhouses were built on a horizontal orientation. This resulted in a certain perspective," said Müller, from the Kiel Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, explaining the research approach. In the European Bronze Age (2,200 to 800 BCE) eye movements changed in response to changed social forms, living conditions and building methods: perspective is "verticalised" through steles and new ceramic design. "Socio-specific ways of seeing were shaped over the centuries in such a way that it affected brain activity. The materiality of things co-determined actions and was used to legitimise power," said Müller.

A pilot study before the research application demonstrated the impact of socially generated visual habits or "secondary visualisation". Participants were shown a ceramic vessel from the Neolithic Age that was commonly found from the Baltic Sea to Morocco. The way they looked at the object was tested using eye trackers, which are special glasses that record eye movements. "We ascertained that the eye movements do not vary from person to person, but according to social type. The way we see things and the knowledge that comes from that depends on the contexts in which we live as well as the power relationships by which we are determined." Also the fact that we now communicate less through written text and more through images – for example, perfectly staged photos on social media – shows how important the research and its findings are for society today.

Teams from archaeology, neurology and philosophy from the University of Santiago de Compostela (Spain), Brighton University (UK) and Kiel University are involved in the project. Their aim is to study the link between material culture and human action in different forms of society from the Paleolithic Age through to the Middle Ages. "We assume that materiality or everyday objects and our built environment plays a part in how we process knowledge in a similar way to language," stressed the Kiel-based archaeologist.

In order to investigate this, the researchers plan to create a database of visual and perceptive behaviour in various social and historic contexts. From this summer onwards, other cases studies will be initiated for this purpose, for example, in north-eastern India, Indonesia, Ethiopia and the Amazon. While Müller is researching the material culture in its temporal dimension, the neurological working group plans to examine the connections between visualisation and brain development. The aim of the philosophical part of the project is to determine from the results whether and how the way we see is manipulated, what that means for today's society and what options there are to counteract this manipulation.

Author: Jennifer Ruske

Tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady
© Ad Meskens

Tower of the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp.