Tombs with a View: Landscape, Monuments and Trees. (Research)

By Cummings, Vicki; Whittle, Alasdair | Antiquity, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Tombs with a View: Landscape, Monuments and Trees. (Research)

Cummings, Vicki, Whittle, Alasdair, Antiquity


Neolithic existence across much of Europe involved dwelling among' trees. For all the voluminous literature on the Neolithic, the implication of woodland for the experience and meaning of landscapes has been comparatively little considered. There is ample (and important) discussion of the technicalities of woodland composition, clearance processes, wood use, technology and land-use. But the trees of woodland or forest are often simply taken to have blocked the feasibility of any extensive views. This negative supposition has influenced discussions about the possibility of lines of sight from Neolithic monuments to distant horizons, in connection with the risings and settings of the sun, the moon and the stars. A more optimistic stance about the practicality of significant viewpoints over surrounding terrain has largely been adopted in rock art studies (e.g. Bradley 1997) but on the whole without detailed consideration of vegetation cover. Now, as interpretation in Neolithic studies has broadened to draw in the landscape as a whole, the question of visibility in wooded environments becomes even more crucial. To address this important problem, this paper draws on environmental evidence, fresh field observations and ethnographic analogies; none is perfect witness and the stance of the paper is deliberately speculative.

We can begin with an analogy from the ethnographic literature--useful for the possibilities which it raises, though in this case the implications might be seen as rather negative. The forest world of the Umeda people of Papua New Guinea has been vividly evoked by the late Alfred Gell (1995). Living in dense woodland in hilly lowlands, the Umeda make much use of sound as well as seeing things primarily at close range. Gell describes their landscape as a soundscape modulated through the human body; sight is a 'climactic sense with connotations of intimacy and danger' (1995: 239). Gell vividly records the frustrations (from his perspective) of daily practicalities. 'I spent fourteen months in visual surroundings limited to tens of metres, and at most, half a kilometre or so ... To this day, I do not know what an Umeda village looks like from a distance' (Gell 1995: 236).

Could this be the sort of experience of and engagement with place (Thomas 1993; Ingold 2000) that would be most appropriate to the Neolithic people of north-west Europe who lived their lives in wooded settings? Over the past decade there has been considerable interest in the significance of the landscape in relation to Neolithic monuments (e.g. Bender 1993; Fraser 1998; Tilley 1994). This approach, part of a broader phenomenology, has relied in general on the sense of vision. Is it right to privilege this sense for the Neolithic, so familiar from our modern western way of apprehending the world (Rodaway 1994)? And what should be done about the trees and woodland of the Neolithic setting which might be taken to have hindered if not physically prevented any wide-ranging views of the broader landscape? In this paper, based on ongoing work on a project which is examining the landscape settings of the chambered monuments in Wales (Cummings & Whittle forthcoming), we seek to confront these important questions. Our detailed studies are limited to the eastern side of the Irish Sea, but their implications may have much wider relevance. While we accept that the issue of tree cover is problematic, we argue that the monuments and their vegetational settings may have been in dialogue. People may have had a strong sense of general orientation as to where they were in the landscape; many monuments were so placed as to allow at least partial views over woodland; and from observations in modern woodland in west Wales we record again the rather obvious but often overlooked fact that visibility varies from season to season. Our final suggestion is that wooded surroundings were often a central aspect of the experience of encountering monuments in the Neolithic; they should figure more prominently in interpretation. …

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