Palaeoecology and the Perception of Prehistoric Landscapes: Some Comments on Visual Approaches to Phenomenology
Chapman, Henry P., Gearey, Benjamin R., Antiquity
The need to obtain meaning from data is fundamental to the study of archaeology. This has been highlighted in the study of archaeological landscapes with the development of phenomenological approaches that centre on the proposition that landscapes are embedded with meaning and imbued with and recreated through changing human experience (cf. Meinig 1979 and Cosgrove 1989 for non-archaeological landscapes, and Tilley 1994 for archaeological landscapes). Such approaches to landscape have concentrated on the `topography, waters, rocks, locales, paths and boundaries' (Tiney 1994: 67) and have studied landscape phenomenology by using visibility as a primary tool to measure perception in the past. Although contemporary vegetation patterns would clearly have influenced past visibility, this has often been neglected within such studies. In this short note we wish to demonstrate how this oversight may serve to render studies of past landscapes incomplete, and it is argued that, where such evidence exists, it should be embraced. Environmental data provides a broader platform from which enhanced archaeological meaning may be derived.
The central themes within landscape theory are underlain by the definition of landscape (cf. Olwig 1993). Tilley (1996) summarized the relationship between archaeology and landscape in four ways:
1 as `a set of relationships between named locales' (p. 161);
2 to be `experienced and known through the movement of the human body in space and through time' (p. 162);
3 as `a primary medium of socialisation' (p, 162); and
4 creating `self-identity' by controlling knowledge and thereby influencing power structures (p. 162).
The key principle is that of experience, and thus studies of archaeological landscapes have been based upon attempting to replicate the experience of `Being-in-the-world' while trying to reconstruct the dialectic of the existential `Being' (Tilley 1994: 12). The primary method of measuring experience (if measuring is a suitable word) is through analysing visibility patterns. For example, Thomas (1993) investigated the visual impact of monuments, particularly around Avebury, suggesting themes of inclusion and exclusion (similar to Tilley's fourth point, mentioned above). Devereux (1991) analysed the spatial relationships between monuments and topography at Avebury by investigating their visual relationships. Similarly, Tilley (1994) investigated three archaeological landscapes through a photographic essay and by recording patterns of intervisibility between monuments. This technique has also been explored through digital landscape reconstruction. Fisher et al. (1997), for example, analysed the positioning of Bronze Age cairns, demonstrating a visual relationship between their positioning and corresponding view to/from the sea.
Leskernick and visibility analysis: a case study
At Leskernick, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, the relationship between a Bronze Age settlement and its surrounding physical and anthropogenic landscape was explored using a very direct way of measuring visibility (Bender et al. 1997). This was achieved primarily by `framing' the landscape using wooden `door' frames held in the positions of the settlement hut entrances. From each of the 50 or so huts on Leskernick Hill the view of neighbouring tors, such as the important site of Rough Tor with its possible early Neolithic hill top enclosure (Johnson & Rose 1994), and the view of the stone row from particular parts of the settlement were explored. On the basis of this approach, the authors concluded that `What these people saw, and what they oriented their hut doorways towards, was a nested landscape' (Bender et al. 1997:169); a landscape consisting of the merged components of the anthropogenic and natural environment.
The discussions of landscape visibility in these cases are dominated by considerations of topography. Other aspects of the landscape, such as significant tors and water courses, are considered (e.g. Tilley 1994; 1995; 1996; Bender et al. 1997), but the issue of palaeovegetation is usually given a cursory or contradictory mention. In their investigation of Bronze Age cairns referred to above, Fisher et al. approach this issue from a methodological basis: `In spite of the palaeobotanic record of the area, it is not possible to reconstruct vegetation with sufficient detail for visibility analysis [using Geographical Information Systems]' (1997: 587).
More often vegetation is mentioned in passing but not investigated in any detail. Tilley, for example, in his general investigation of the phenomenology of landscape on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, refers to oak as the `most significant ... tree' (1995: 48) in the prehistoric period. In a later article referring to the same landscape, Tilley mentions that `Environmental evidence ... indicates that the landscape was dominated by grassland and heath as it is today' (1996: 165), but continues later in the same article to mention `localized woodland destruction [on Bodmin Moor during the later Neolithic and Bronze Age]' (1995: 168); two statements which appear at best confusing and at worst contradictory. Bender et al. (1997) make only one explicit reference to available palaeoecological data, and this is in the context of establishing the Bronze Age as a period of local woodland clearance on the moor rather than to address the issue of the vegetation per se.
The site of Leskernick is particularly pertinent since there is a near-complete Holocene pollen sequence from the nearby Rough Tor area (2-3 km to the southwest) providing palaeovegetation data contemporary to the settlement (incidentally mentioned by Bender et al. 1997: 147, see above). Tilley's (1995; 1996) main reference for the essentially open character of Bodmin Moor during the early to mid-Holocene is Brown (1977) who concluded that the environment of the moor was essentially open, with little tree cover except in the more sheltered areas such as valleys. However, this hypothesis has since been challenged and an alternative one erected: with total tree and shrub pollen percentages accounting for over 95% of total land pollen in a sequence recovered from 280 m OD at Rough Tor south, woodland cover spread to the higher parts of the moor during the early-mid Holocene (Gearey 1996; Gearey & Charman 1996; Gearey et al. in press). Corylus avellana-type (hazel) and Quercus (oak) are the dominant taxa in the pollen record, indicating dense hazel-oak scrub which may have reached up to tor summits, particularly on sheltered lee slopes. Damper areas such as valley bottoms would have been more open with grass and sedge mire, but alder became established in these and other areas of high soil moisture following the Alnus rise at c. 6500 years before present. Alnus accounts for 80% of total land pollen identified in a core from a valley mire site on the eastern edge of Bodmin Moor (Gearey et al. in press). The only significant open areas on the moor would therefore have been at Dozmary Pool, an open body of water since the Late-glacial period (Brown 1977), and perhaps the more exposed tor summit areas.
It was therefore anything but an open landscape which faced the Mesolithic gatherer--hunters who probably used the moor on a seasonal basis (Herring & Lewis, 1992), and the later Neolithic groups, who may have built the earliest monuments such as the hill top enclosures at Rough Tor, the Cheesering and the Long Cairns at Louden, Catshole and Bearah. The clearance of tree cover that would thus have been necessary prior to this settlement and monument construction is in fact reflected in clearance episodes in the pollen record. Evidence of Neolithic activity is dated to around 4700 cal BC at Rough Tor south and intensifies into the Bronze Age at around 3700 cal BC (Gearey et al. in press).
The possible importance of the more prominent craggy tors highlighted by Tilley (1995; 1996) is given an added dimension with the likelihood that the higher tors might have been the only `naturally' open areas in the earlier Holocene prior to this anthropogenic clearance activity. Likewise, the concept of `paths of movement' (Tilley 1995: 11), as well as the act of `being' in the landscape, might also be viewed in a different light if the hypothesis of a largely open moor is replaced with one of a closed, woodland environment (cf. Evans et al. 1999). The significance of Dozmary Pool (situated in the centre of the moor), with its extensive collection of flint assemblages, is acknowledged by Tilley (1995; 1996) and attributed to the pool as a `manifestation of a sea in the land' (1995: 12). The treeless setting of this location in the context of a wooded moor may also be regarded as an important aspect of the focus of early activity at this locale.
Bender et al.'s (1997) consideration of visibility and lines of sight is also potentially flawed by this lack of appreciation of environmental factors. For example, the visibility of the top of Rough Tor from Leskernick (`the tip of Rough Tor comes into view in the far distance' -- Bender 1997: 155) would have been dependent upon the vegetation cover on the intervening ridge of High Moor. Whilst the precise spatial and temporal structure of this vegetation cannot be easily established, it cannot be immediately assumed in the manner the authors do, that the hill was entirely cleared of its probable cover of hazel-oak woodland by the time the settlement at Leskernick was occupied. The view to and from the stone row to the southeast of the settlement are also regarded as significant. This row is some 300 m in length and crosses a boggy area (since modified by tin streaming) after which it becomes more `regular' in the arrangement of its stones. The authors regard the topographic point at which this occurs (i.e. the boggy area) as significant in this change in its construction. No consideration is made of the likelihood that alder fen woodland may have been present on such a boggy area during the Neolithic. Not only might this have affected the visibility to and from the monument, but by disregarding it the possible role of the `natural' environment beyond that of the topography in the siting of such structures is ignored.
We acknowledge the inherent difficulties both in extrapolating site-specific palaeoecological data over extensive areas (cf. Caseldino & Maguire 1981) and in incorporating such data where available into landscape-wide syntheses of the sort attempted by Tilley, Bender and their collaborators. Similarly, we have not attempted to comment on the validity of their field data, as has boon questioned elsewhere (Fleming 1999). Rather we wish to highlight that, if `scientific' sources of data pertaining to landscapes are given a low priority by landscape theoreticians, meanings gained from them will be incomplete.
This short note has focused upon the potential influence of vegetation on visibility and therefore of palaeoenvironmental data on visibility analysis, but this is not the only area where closer integration may be fruitful. The dichotomy between environmental and landscape archaeology has boon evident to certain palaeoecologists for some time (e.g. McGlade 1995) and has only recently begun to be addressed, at least in terms of moro rigorous data interpretation and analysis (e.g. Brown, 1997). More collaboration between landscape archaeologists and environmental archaeologists is clearly desirable to prevent the split between the respective `camps' becoming ever wider.
Acknowledgements. This note has benefited from the comments of J.A. Pearson and two anonymous referees.
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HENRY P. CHAPMAN & BENJAMIN R. GEAREY(*)
(*) Centre for Wetland Archaeology, University of Hull, Hull HU6 7RX, England. firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com
Received 22 July 1999, accepted 9 November 1999, revised 8 February 2000.…
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Publication information: Article title: Palaeoecology and the Perception of Prehistoric Landscapes: Some Comments on Visual Approaches to Phenomenology. Contributors: Chapman, Henry P. - Author, Gearey, Benjamin R. - Author. Journal title: Antiquity. Volume: 74. Issue: 284 Publication date: June 2000. Page number: 316. © 2008 Antiquity Publications, Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group.