The Archaeology of Love Part I: The Heart of the Matter

Who would write a love letter to archaeology? I’m sure it’s been done before. If not a love letter, then surely a drunken text, followed by a long Facebook message the next day full of regret? Or perhaps a cheery email sent by an enthusiastic site assistant at 8am? Maybe not, but if archaeology was a person, I dare say you might have a bone to pick with them…


“Archaeology is an emotion factory;” (Hodder, 2000: 713) -it inevitably elicits feelings in everyone from a 10 year old on a school trip at an archaeological site to a jaded academic looking for a career change. We gaze on the face of Agamemnon, discover the treasures of Tutankhamen or just find a really nice sherd of medieval pottery in a ditch and we’re forever changed by it.


It seems reasonable to suggest that archaeology is entangled with all kinds of human emotion, but can the discipline actually help us understand emotion in the past? You can hardly dig up rage or excavate loneliness, much less identify ecstasy in an environmental sample. Then there’s ‘love,’ a feeling that poets and scientists alike have struggled to define. Surely love, that most inexplicable of emotional experiences, is inappropriate for a field so tied to the material?


Yet, this is precisely why archaeology has the potential to provide a unique insight on the material manifestations of ‘love,’ and how our own responses to the concept as archaeologists reveals a great deal about contemporary preoccupation with the subject.


What is love?


Love is powerful, even just as an idea. Loving something or someone ultimately renders them/ it significant and creates a relationship between the subject and the object of these affections, even if this is only one-sided.


In her article Emotion in Archaeology Sarah Tarlow outlines how human emotion has often been considered in binary terms as either intrinsically biological and universal in nature, or as social and culturally relative (Tarlow, 2000: 713). Tarlow advises that no such binary opposition should be subscribed to and that whilst the emotions of individuals are not likely to be recovered in the archaeological record, it is much more useful to examine societal values concerning emotions within a particular period (Tarlow, 2000: 728). Furthermore, emotion is ultimately a matter of “embodied subjectivity” (Tarlow, 2000: 734) As the Benedictine nun Catherine Wybourne expressed in a Guardian article for Valentines’ Day, “Love is more easily experienced than defined” (Wybourne, 2012).


How can love survive?


If love is a personal experience, then how can it survive in the archaeological record? One method of identifying the concept of ‘love’ in the material remains of past human cultures is through semiotics. In Carl Knappett’s An Archaeology of Interaction, he discusses how C. S. Pierce’s “triadic system of icon, index, and symbol”(2011:100) can aid in understanding how artefacts influence interactions within a community. Indexes have a direct causal relationship between sign and referent, for example smoke and fire. Icons do not require proximity or causality, therefore in the case of the smoke and fire a picture made of the fire some time afterwards would count as an icon (Ibid). Symbols on the other hand do not require any kind of direct relationship, thus “symbols have limitless potential to range across time and space.” (Knappett, 2011: 101).


One way of studying love through archaeology is to trace contemporary symbols associated with it as a human concept backwards in time. So the obvious symbol of choice, at least for the western world, would of course be the love heart.


The heart’s history


So why on earth is the ‘heart’ shape associated with love anyway, and where did it come from?


Just as the study of emotion itself is deeply rooted in ideas about human biology and cultural constructs relating to that, the heart symbol itself is simultaneously originally an index of the actual human heart, and a symbol in that it relates to cultural attitudes to the heart and its importance in terms of emotion and identity.


In his book Christ to Coke How Image Becomes Icon Martin Kemp dismisses claims that the heart symbol has no resemblance to the actual thing itself, and also points out that it may have originally been based on dissection of animal hearts which are naturally somewhat different in morphology (2012:85). In On The Usefulness Of The Parts of the Body in the 2nd century AD Galen wrote on both the central importance of the heart to bodily function and its relation to the human soul. The perceived wisdom that the heart was the focal point of human biological function seems to have led to cultural attitudes towards the heart as the repository of individuality (Stanford University).


The notion of ‘courtly love’ and chivalry was reflected in Western playing cards which were hand-painted and depicted court subjects. The earliest playing cards in Europe were originally introduced from the Middle East and dated approximately to the 1370s (Kemp, 2012: 97). Not surprisingly, early playing cards don’t often survive due to the fragile and perishable nature of their material, however part of an uncut sheet of cards from 1490-1500 can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Medieval and Renaissance Collection. Both the ‘Knave of Heart’s and the ‘Knave of Diamonds’ can easily be identified in this piece, and this “shows how static the basic elements of the design have remained over the centuries” (Victoria & Albert Museum). As woodblock printing allowed for the mass production of playing cards, it comes as no surprise that the heart symbol has survived in this form.


The influence of religious iconography on the resilience but also emotional potency of the heart symbol cannot be overlooked. The importance of the ‘Sacred Heart’ in Christian iconography seems to stem from a series of texts in the 11th century, including the Vitis Mystica now attributed to the Franciscan St Bonaventure, who describes Christ’s heart as part of his spiritual journey in the text (Kemp, 2012: 101). As Christ’s heart is seen as a conduit to his love, so imagery of his heart becomes an icon for Christ himself. Thus in a French Book of Hours dating to roughly 1490, an image of Christ’s heart nailed to the cross and surrounded by thorns is depicted (Kemp, 2012: 105). Just as woodblock printing allowed for the wide diffusal of heart imagery on playing cards, it also enabled the image of the Sacred Heart to flourish.


Excavating the heart


Obviously I’ve only scratched the surface of the heart’s history, and the heart symbol is only archaeologically relevant in very specific cases. Luckily, I have one such example to share.


The medieval practise of removing the heart of a deceased individual and interring it separately links back to the previously discussed idea of the heart as a centre of human emotion and identity. From the 12th to the 18th century this practise was conducted especially in cases of members of northern European nobility who died abroad (Edwards, 2010). For hygienic reasons, their bodies could not be transported home but the heart could be- after all, ‘the home is where the heart is.’


Last year five heart-shaped urns dating to the 16th and 17th centuries were found in the basement of the Convent of the Jacobins in Rennes, France. These were then analysed by a Radiological Society of North America research team using MRI and CT scanning which revealed plaque and atherosclerosis on three of the specimens (Morley and Brookes, 2015). The RSNA issued a press release about the findings. What is particularly interesting about this piece is that although it is dominated by a discussion of the scientific methodology and results from the embalmed hearts, it finishes by addressing the fact that an inscription on one of the urns identified one of the hearts as belonging to Toussaint Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac (see the image above); his heart was removed when he died and placed alongside the body of his wife Lousie de Quengo, Lady of Brefeillac. The study author, Dr. Fatima-Zohra Mokrane is quoted as saying:


“It was common during that time period to be buried with the heart of a husband or wife…It’s a very romantic aspect to the burials” (Ibid).


Even within the context of a scientific press release, the emotionally charged nature of the heart symbol and its association with a husband and wife cannot be escaped. No doubt the potential “romantic aspect” of the heart burials was included in the piece so as to make the publicity material more generally accessible. As stated earlier, archaeologists and researchers can’t help but have an emotional response to the material that they study, and often one of the best ways to engage the public with the past is to share and discuss this emotional entanglement.


The example above also indicates the potency of the heart symbol as a mnemonic device for conventional attitudes about love and romance in the modern western world. After all, Dr. Mokrane makes it clear that the burial of a heart with a spouse was indeed a convention among people of a certain class. Thus, related to what Sarah Tarlow surmised when exploring emotion in archaeology more generally, these heart burials probably tell us more about societal ideas concerning marital love amongst the French aristocracy in the 16th and 17th centuries than they actually do about the human emotion itself. Though it may sound rather cynical, heart burials are to love what the heart symbol itself is to the actual human heart: a representation. This doesn’t make them any less interesting in terms of studying love in the archaeological record, it just means they provide a particular lens on the enduring vitality of the physical human heart in the cultural body of the Western world, as well as its symbolic partner.


Furthermore, we can see how as in examples above, even when an individual’s body is subjected to ‘fragmentation,’ the heart endures as a strong referent for their identity. In contrast, though Ancient Egyptians also believed in the heart as the centre of a “person’s being and intelligence” (Smithsonian Institution, 2012) this led to it being the only organ that was kept inside the body when it was mummified, as opposed to it being removed and  preserved separately.


Don’t take this to heart?


The heart symbol certainly isn’t shallow: it has a vast history that I was only able to court briefly. Similarly, the potentials and pitfalls of pursuing an archaeology of love are potentially endless and I’ve only explored one brief avenue. Where to next? For a start, I’ve mostly cited examples from the Medieval period to the present day from the West. This provides an extremely limited foray into the ‘archaeology of love.’ In part II, I hope to ‘play the field’ more widely. Still, examining the history of the heart symbol and its discovery in archaeology has allowed for a consideration of how symbols can influence human behaviour. From playing cards to paintings and even urns, the heart symbol wasn’t pierced by time but instead thrived through its easily recognisable and repeatable shape.




RSNA, 2015. Heart-shaped lead urn with an inscription identifying the contents as the heart of Toussaint Perrien, Knight of Brefeillac.[Image online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16 March 2016]




Edwards,E., 2010. Human heart in a heart shaped cist 1884.57.18. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16 March 2016]

Hodder, I., 2000. In: Tarlow, S., 2000. Emotion in Archaeology. Current Anthropology Vol.31 (5), pp. 713-746


Kemp, M., 2011. Christ to Coke How Image Becomes Icon, Oxford: OUP


Knappett, C., 2011. An Archaeology of Interaction Network Perspectives on Material Culture and Society, Oxford: OUP


Morley, M., and Brooks, L.. 2015. Imaging Yields Evidence of Heart Disease in Archaeological Find. [press release] 2 December 2015. Available at: <> [Accessed 16 March 2016]


Smithsonian Institution. 2012. Egyptian Mummies. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16 March 2016]


Stanford University. The History of the Heart. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16 March 2016]


Tarlow, S., 2000. Emotion in Archaeology. Current Anthropology Vol.31 (5), pp. 713-746


Victoria & Albert Museum. Part of an uncut sheet of playing cards. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16 March 2016]


Wybourne, C., 2012. In: Wybourne et al.What is love? Five theories on the greatest emotion of all. The Guardian [online] 13 December. Available: <> [Accessed 16 March 2016]


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