Palaeoecology and the Perception of Prehistoric Landscapes: Some Comments on Visual Approaches to Phenomenology

Article excerpt


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.

Landscape theory

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. …