Introductory Comments

By Bender, Barbara | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Introductory Comments


Bender, Barbara, Antiquity


When I first read these papers my first thought was how curious it was that although archaeologists on both side of the Atlantic have enthusiastically begun to focus on socio-cultural landscapes there has not been a great deal of cross-ocean communication. There are American books and papers cited by several of the authors, particularly neo-ecological ones, that I have barely heard of and certainly haven't read, and, equally, the work of British landscape archaeologists (Barrett 1994; Bradley 1998; Richards 1996; Tilley 1994; Thomas 1996 and more besides) are clearly not on American reading lists.

I also felt that I was, to some extent, entering terra incognita. It was not just the particular case-studies that were unfamiliar to me, but also the intellectual and institutional landscapes of the researchers. It brought home to me that just as we recognize the multi-vocal and historically contingent engagement of past people with the world around them, so we have to recognize and acknowledge the multi-vocal and historically contingent nature of our own engagement. Reading these papers, I got a strong sense that, unlike British post-processual archaeologists who no longer feel the need to tilt at their processual adversaries, American archaeologists, or perhaps American archaeologists in particular universities, are still locked in oedipal combat. A frowning figure still gesticulates from the wings. It may seem that I am mushing my metaphors, swinging from landscape to person tropes, but, in reality, the variable significance of the processual father-figure needs to be contextualized within specific political and social landscapes.

I would tentatively suggest that one of the effects of the lurking figure is that most of the authors of these papers feel the need to retain a very strong scientific methodology. I think this creates some problems. The papers pose new and interesting questions, they offer more socially and culturally charged narratives, but question and narrative have to be matched by procedures and methodologies. How do we match important questions about scale from the individual to the group to networks of contact, or from intimate place to landscapes of distant power only half understood, with archaeological techniques? How do we legitimately make use of ethnographic or historical analogies (Parker Pearson 1998)? I'm not suggesting that we've cracked these questions on this side of the ocean, but perhaps because we've moved into a more reflexive relationship to the past and to the process of doing archaeology, we are uneasily aware that they need addressing.

Having, so far, sounded rather critical and also rather self-righteous, let me say that I found these papers both interesting and stimulating. I thought that each one came at the question of prehistoric landscape from a slightly different place, and that, together, they present an exciting set of potentials.

The group of papers on Meso and South America seem to work off each other. They all work with an ecological approach that, as CLARK ERICKSON put it, stresses that the environment is dynamic and historically contingent. So Erickson, in his discussion of Lake Titikaka, rebuts an environmental determinist model in which climatic change explains everything, and, instead, postulates a lakeside environment that is constantly in flux. He created a finely nuanced picture of how people, over long millennia, work with the flux, building on earlier traditions and on the landscape capital of their ancestors. I was particularly drawn to the long linear ditches that extend into the lake and that re-emerge when the lake levels drop and are re-invested with meaning and action. I liked the resilience and contingency built into his story. What I would question is that, in creating a bottom up picture and emphasizing the voices and work of the local lake-side inhabitants that usually go unheard, he side-steps the issue of changing political and social relations and perceptions associated with periods of state formation and urbanization. …

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