Academic journal article
By Snead, James E.
Antiquity , Vol. 76, No. 293
Trails are the physical manifestation of social transition, of both leave-taking and arrival. For many indigenous societies trails are liminal spaces, neither home nor away, with their own rules and obligations. `Trails', wrote an ethnographer of the Yurok people of California, `... are sentient, and must be traveled with urbanity. If you step out of a trail and in again, and fail to preserve decorum, the trail becomes resentful' (Waterman 1920: 185; see also Bonnemaison 1994). The successful journey, leading the wayfarer from the familiar world across unnamed and dangerous country (Helms 1988: 85; Thornton 1980: 19), thus depends on the cooperation of the route of travel itself.
Trails, paths, and routes form a distinctive category of social space, one structured by both geography and action. As archaeological phenomena, however, trails pose dilemmas as formidable as those faced by the traveller. Linear features of variable length and preservation, they confound standard schemes of documentation. Trails are seen as lacking formal structure almost by definition and thus present few diagnostic characteristics. With routes often dictated by the logic of terrain, trails accommodate the foot traffic of the 21st century as they may have for any earlier period and are thus famously difficult to date. Although paths play a central role in recent interpretations of Neolithic land scapes in England and Wales, for instance, the features themselves are generally absent, with routes inferred by topography and by the presence of associated monuments (Barrett 1994: 137; Tilley 1994: 86). Despite temptation (see Bradley et al. 1994; Darvill 1996: 147-8; Evans 1999), most archaeologists find these obstacles sufficient to prevent trails from being the subject of systematic analysis, following O.G.S. Crawford's suggestion that such efforts `are foredoomed to failure' (1960: 75).
A theoretical structure for the archaeological study of trails as social space, has, however, evolved in recent years. Timothy Earle suggests that variation in road and path networks reflects the organizational complexity of the larger system (1991: 14). The inherent value of using trails to study people has also been articulated by Tim Ingold, who writes that `there can be no places without paths, along which people arrive and depart; and no paths without places, that constitute their destinations and points of departure' (Ingold 1993: 167). Christopher Tilley takes up the importance of paths, describing them as an `essential medium for the routing of social relations' (1994: 31), sentiments echoed by other landscape theorists (Tagon 1994: 125; Thomas 1996: 90).
The social implications of trails are particularly pertinent when viewed at sub-regional and local levels. Since social relationships within groups are given physical shape by paths and trails, it can thus be expected that those paths will to a certain extent reflect that relationship. The `linear hollows' that Tony Wilkinson has identified in association with Bronze Age communities in North Syria appear to be corridors of transportation that also define site catchments and social boundaries (Wilkinson 1993: 561). Roads associated with the Pre-Columbian Chacoan system in the American Southwest also now appear to have been of greatest significance to local communities (Kanter 1997). The wooden tracks of the wetlands of southwest England and central Ireland are evidence of complex local communications networks, within which considerable spatial and temporal variation existed (Coles & Coles 1986: 77; Raftery 1990: 9). Local trails in these settings and others are sources of considerable information about the societies that created them.
The problem that faces archaeologists interested in trails, then, is twofold: grappling with strictly empirical concerns over the nature of the data, and unpacking the relationship between trail systems and social behaviour. …