Soilscapes and Settlements: Remote Mapping of Activity Areas in Unexcavated Prehistoric Farmsteads

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With every new methodological or theoretical development, archaeologists are confronted with new opportunities, and quite often with problems they had not imagined. In mitigation archaeology, financial pressure demands a rapid response at high resolution over large areas, but the results are often uneven and tend to be dominated by the visually obvious large-scale sites. But archaeologists are now aware that many smaller settlements existed contemporary to the larger centres, and that what went on in the 'hinterland' played an important role in the development of prehistoric communities. A recent example of a study that treats smaller settlements as analytical units for understanding social change is by Liu (2004), who brings together environmental factors, agency, spatial organisation and the social relations of Longshan farmers to reconstruct developmental trajectories of early state formation in Neolithic China. Similar work may be found in the archaeology of Mississippian societies (Pauketat 2003), and Balkansky's (2006) summation of large-scale survey in Mesoamerica. The dynamics of small-scale societies in the ancient Near East, focusing on local scales of analysis in relation to the rise of socio-economic complexity, are presented in a recent collection of papers edited by Bolger & Maguire (2010).

Archaeologists wishing to tackle these issues are confronted with several obstacles. First, archaeological knowledge and skills are typically honed on large sites. While the wealth of data that comes from such excavations does not need to be recited here, it is definitely the case that learning the proper techniques for excavating a 15m-high settlement mound does not prepare one for making sense of a landscape of 100 small farmsteads. Yet understanding the interdependence of multiple communities is essential for understanding the complexities of social change. The volume of information that is coming from regional-scale survey, satellite imagery, mechanised ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and other prospection conducted at the level of whole landscapes can be overwhelming, leading to a second obstacle; we do not have formalised plans for investigating hundreds of sites effectively in terms of time, money and other resources.

One solution to these problems is to investigate the occupied landscape through the concept of cultural 'soilscapes'. These are defined as "a given area of the Earth's surface that is the result of spatially and temporally variable geomorphic, pedogenic and cultural processes" (Wells 2006: 125). That is, the cultural soilscape is a piece of landscape that has been formed or affected by human activity. At the local scale, the soils surrounding the village forma local soilscape, one that is altered by everyday practices. The soilscape concept differs from the anthrosols concept in that the cultural soilscape encompasses human activity at the scale of the local landscape, whilst anthrosols exhibit change at a much smaller scale (Wells 2006: 126). Soilscapes can influence concepts of identity and community by demarcating traditional places for tasks or interactions, as well as through the sense of belonging that shared place can provide.

Soil is both an archaeological resource and a structuring element for agrarian societies. Treating soil as material culture discovers interactions between people and soil, addressing the ways that everyday practices alter the soil and are in turn influenced by the soil (Boivin & Owoc 2004; Owoc 2005; Salisbury 2010). Sediments are the largest class of material remains at archaeological sites, yet soil is more than just a by-product of site formation. We have not only the intended action, perhaps clearing off some space on a retrace along a boggy river meander, building a house of wattle and daub, and cultivating a garden plot, but also the unintended effects. The visual appearance and tactile sensation of the soil is transformed. …