By Zach Zorich |

These cedar torches were found at Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico. | Credit: Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution

At sunset, when the light drains from a landscape, it forces a change in perspective that archaeologists have not often considered. How would the places and people they study have been different during nighttime? Nancy Gonlin of Bellevue College in Washington State is among a group of archaeologists who are rethinking the way they interpret sites by asking how they would have been used at night. This perspective shift has led archaeologists in North America to arrive at new conclusions about the way that nighttime was lived among the Maya, Cahokians, and the Sinagua people. “We are missing half of people’s lives if we don’t consider the night,” said Gonlin, who coedited the book Archaeology Of The Night: Life After Dark In The Ancient World with April Nowell.

Her work focuses on the lowland Maya at two sites, Joya de Cerén in El Salvador, and Copán in Honduras. Cerén offers a uniquely detailed perspective on Maya nighttime activities. The village was buried under volcanic ash from an eruption in A.D. 660 that seems to have taken place after sunset. The level of preservation at the site provides an intimate snapshot of Classic Period Maya life shortly after sundown. Unwashed dishes were discovered, indicating the site was abandoned after an evening meal. Household doors were tied shut, as if most residents weren’t home during the eruption. Sleeping mats were found rolled up and stored on the rafters of the roofs of the houses showing that the residents had not yet gone to bed. “Different artifacts have their own lives,” Gonlin said, “they are used in different ways throughout the day.”

Numerous tasks have been accomplished at night through the ages. In this nineteenth-century photo a woman in New Mexico spins wool. | Credit: John Collier, 1943; Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection LC-DIG-fsa-8d38302.

She pointed out that benches used for working and sitting during the day became sleeping platforms at night, and two pots found at Copán had charcoal inside them and may have held torches for lighting up dark rooms. Burn marks on plastered floors were likely caused by vessels that perfumed rooms with incense during all hours, but simultaneously served as night lights once the sun set.

This structure found at the Classic Maya center of Copan in Honduras has been interpreted as a Council House or an ancestor shrine that features the Nine Lords of the Night. A dancing platform is located to the left of the building. Many political deliberations and dancing occurred at night during the Classic period. | Credit: W. Scott Zeleznik


This is an article excerpt from the Summer 2021 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.  

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