Is there such a thing as an archaeology of humour?
Some readers may recall that, not long ago, it was determined that “the world’s oldest joke“, concerning flatulent young wives, was carved on Sumerian clay tablets around 1900 BC. Literate societies have indeed left us with loads of jokes that veer between the very weird (in that the punchline may feature, for example, a donkey eating a thistle) and the very familiar (in that flatulence and sex were, even then, recurring themes). There’s a short summary of what the Romans laughed at over at the Guardian (including the joke about the thistle-eating donkey, if you’re curious), and you can find loads of information on Egyptian humour here.
But what about societies that had no writing, like the Inka, or in which writing had very restricted functions, like the Maya? Here we have to look for humour in objects–or, as archaeologists prefer to say, material culture.
This may sound difficult, but it can be done. A few adventurous archaeologists have attempted to reconstruct the emotions of aliterate societies, based entirely on the material culture these societies left behind. For example, DeMarrais (2011) has looked at social emotions in Basketmaker cultures in the American Southwest. A simplified version of her argument goes like this: emotions are largely determined by culture, in the sense that a lot of material culture is meant to evoke certain specific emotional responses in people, to the point that it may be seen as teaching people to feel a certain way about things; this results, in most societies, in the sharing of many basic emotions. For example, as Basketmaker communities became larger and denser and less mobile through time, thus multiplying the opportunities for social tensions to emerge, the emphasis in rock art shifted from representations of single individuals to depictions of large groups of people, often shown holding hands and dancing. The idea, here, is that this art was meant to foster a sense of solidarity, perhaps even recorded past episodes of solidarity, in order to overcome increasing social tensions.
I would argue that humour, also, is a social emotion. Many countries are defined by their particular shade of humour, and sharing jokes, amusing anecdotes and “being funny” are a key part in building most types of social relationships,to the point that sometimes we don’t even notice.
But how do you look for humour in the archaeological record?
I think I have found a few jokes, in the form of ceramic vessels, from the Moche culture of Northern Peru.
The Moche were a group of small states that occupied the Northern coast of Peru between about 250 and 800 AD. Archaeologists have found out a lot about them in recent decades, and yet most of what they have found out relates exclusively to the Very Serious aspects of their culture–the solemn state ceremonies, the deadly duels fought between grim-faced warriors, the elaborate funerals of leaders (as well as the torturous deaths suffered by the healers who didn’t cure them of their ills), and the all-importance of the aristocracy, whose dignified expressions were immortalised in beautifully life-like ceramic vessels.
And yet, they also laughed: the ceramic vessel on the left depicts, unmistakably, a laughing man. What is he laughing about?
Perhaps he is laughing because someone told him The One About The Guy Who Didn’t Know How To Ride A Llama.
Sixteen pots, in Lima’s monumental Museo Larco collection, depict this very strange scene: a man whose belly lies flat over a llama’s back, his feet sticking out over the animal’s shoulders, and the llama’s tail tickling his face. This scene doesn’t make me roll on the floor in hysterics, but it’s amusing, and I think it’s likely that the Moche would have agreed with me. After all, it easily fits within two of the major categories of “things that make people laugh”: incompetence (which is related to slapstick, as well as schadenfreude), and absurdity. Perhaps we could even add flatulence to this list, considering the location of the man’s face. Moreover, the popularity of this scene (i.e. the fact that it was a shared source of amusement) is suggested by the fact that each of the pots that depict it is different enough (in details of the man’s face, in his headdress, and so on) from all the others that it was probably produced by a different craftsperson, in a different place.
Or perhaps the laughing man has just been told The One About The Curious Monkey.
The Museo Larco collection also includes another series of sixteen vessels (again, each different in crucial details, suggesting a popular story), these ones in the shape of a monkey pressing its ear against a smaller vessel it is holding in its paws. The monkey is dressed like a human, with a tunic, a little hat or turban, and large earrings. I should say that the Museo Larco itself interprets this as an “anthropomorphic creature” with the head of a monkey, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be a pet monkey dressed up in human clothing to amuse its owners. Could this be a scene from a famous story in which some noble’s pet monkey was too curious for its own good? Maybe the monkey is about to open the pot and discover something deeply unpleasant within, like a snake, or bees. Perhaps here it is more likely that I am projecting my own notions of what is funny into the past–after all, I am living in the age of funny animal videos. But there is nothing obviously solemn or serious about this pot, so I don’t think my idea that it is a joke is entirely unreasonable.
Anyone who knows a bit about the Moche could point out that it is likely that these objects were meant to accompany people to their graves: we don’t know this for certain (most of them were excavated by looters, not archaeologists), but their degree of preservation is such that they were probably protected by the ravages of time by the sort of sealed environment that a tomb would easily provide. Moreover, the few pots that have been unearthed by archaeologists were found in tombs. And why would you want the Pre-Columbian equivalent of a lolcat in your tomb? I think it makes sense to provide the deceased with entertainment for the afterlife: Han burials from ancient China included statues of dancers, so I don’t see why tombs could not include sources of light comedy as well.
I am tempted, at this point, to produce a model, based on these two strange pots, that could help future archaeologists detect ancient humour in material culture. This model, perhaps, could feature a number of themes that are often considered to be funny, in very disparate cultural settings, including flatulence, sex, and “things that are not quite as they should be” (e.g. a donkey eating a thistle, a monkey dressed as a human, a man riding a llama in a very counterintuitive way). And I could add that some of these themes may well occur in non-humorous material culture (for example, erotic Moche pottery has been linked to ancestor worship), but, when this is not evident, based on what we already know about the society we are studying, then we should at least entertain the possibility that what we are looking at is a centuries-old joke. However, this sort of model will inevitably be reductive, and miss out on any number of important things to consider–there will always be that one culture in which things are different, for example–although I would be happy to try to construct a useful model with any game commenters below.
I think the main point here is that investigating past emotions, though undoubtedly difficult, has the potential to give us a much richer and more nuanced understanding of ancient lives. This is particularly important in a field where there is always a risk that we forget that the true object of our study is not the pots and flints left behind by people, but the people who left them behind. And humour, specifically, is a fundamental aspect of social life–as I’ve said already, so much social interaction (though obviously not all) consists in trying to make other people laugh or smile, and so many countries are defined by their particular shade of humour.
What do you think, dear readers? Do you agree that humour is a very important social emotion? Do you have any good jokes about randy pharaohs or one-eyed Roman Senators? Do you have better ideas for a model with which to identify humour in ancient material culture? Do you have your own theories about what the strange Moche pots I’ve found could be about? Answers to these questions, and any other comments or questions you may have, would be very welcome.
DeMarrais, E. 2011. Figuring the Group. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 21(2): 165-186.