The Detectable (and Delicious) Smell of Haunted Space

A “ghost excavation” can dig-up” more than a phantom presence. It is an application of phenomenology to the past. My use of K.O.C.O.A. (key areas, observation areas, cover and concealment, obstacles, and avenues of approach) to investigate haunting phenomenon at Gettysburg (in my book, “Battlefield Hauntscape”) is one example. But, can a “ghost excavation” dig-up smells, tastes, and other sensory modalties?

Archaeological fieldwork has demonstrated the importance of smell in Ancient Mesoamerica and many cultures, both past and present, communicate with “spirits” through aromatic aids. Odor, memory, movement, and meaning are closely-related. Somatic memories also apply to taste, and to the haunting uncertainties of environment (kitchen, “dining areas” (whereever they existed in a location’s historical/cultural context)) within which these embodied acts occur. These are issues of deep cultural resonances that would not normally occur on a typical “ghost hunt” tech or EVP sweep.

Anthropologists and archaeologists have found that the biological uniqueness of the sense of smell evokes memories, emotions, and connections more easily and readily than do other senses (see conference briefs in “Making Senses of the Past: Toward a Sensory Archaeology”: March 26-27, 2010 at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale).

The preparation of food is a total sensory experience:

-feeling the texture of the “raw” food.

-stirring it in a pot or other household vessel.

-smelling it cooking.

-tasting it to season.

-hearing it cooking.

-habitual, mundane preparation movements, etc.

With this in mind, we used “food prep” as a “trigger sensation” in our investigation of a “live” excavation of Farnham Manor in Ohio on May 22nd 2009 on ParaNexus Radio. This was an ongoing participatory act that was used throughout the investigation. It involved a total sensory immersion that is both contextual (the site was also once a Danish Restaurant), and historically-significant (the ghost of “Emily”, the original owner’s daughter who fell into a cistern and drowned, haunts the kitchen area. The cistern is located beneath the floor of the kitchen)!

Today, we live in a 21st c. sensorium that unconsciously influences the ways we try to understand the past. To “unlearn” these modern cultural ways (try taking a cell phone away from one of your children!), we must incorporate into our field investigations a consideration of embodied practices and sensory ontologies that are different. Some of these which I have used in the field are contextual cultural immersions, peripatetic audio-video/narrative positional surveys, a “theatrical ghosting” in my participatory/performative field practices (P.O.P.), and the use of fictive memory practices that identify me as a “dinosaur” with some people (including my 20 year-old daughter).

For me, these contextual cultural fieldwork practices are a move from simply measuring and recording the environment with scientific devices to exploring the effects of resonating practices on a “live” past presence who “identifies” with me as one of “them”, and I am not talking about being one of the “undead” or a “ghost” of my former self!! Only then, can I “POP” a contextual manifesting presence. STAY TUNED for more “recipes” to “sense” (and “taste”) a “live” past presence in this project!!