What is the nature of the narratives that we write as archaeologists? What status do our accounts about the past have? I have long characterised my own writings about my chosen area of expertise, the Neolithic period, as being fictional accounts of an ancient past that we have no direct experience of. These fictions rely on research, evidence and facts that act as a framework for what I say about Neolithic monuments and lifeways; these in effect offer resistance to flights of fancy and nonsensical accounts of the past, although I have been accused of producing both of these in the past, my defence being that we cannot write about the past without writing about ourselves. One of the key reasons that archaeological accounts of the past have – let’s be generous – a fictional element, is that they are mediated through the present. Our archaeological engagements happen today and thus we must account for the circumstances within which we investigate remains of prehistory, although there is precious little of this kind of introspection in archaeology.
A good example of this is ‘landscape phenomenology’, which has been used to help make sense of Neolithic monuments, settlements and landscapes ever since Chris Tilley published his seminal but flawed book A phenomenology of landscape in 1994. This book offered the first comprehensive foray by Tilley into experiential fieldwork and one of the first uses of the philosophical concept of phenomenology in archaeology. Phenomenology is concerned with processing and understanding perceptual and bodily engagement, trying to make sense of phenomena by how we encounter them. So the description of our experiences of things is more meaningful and helpful than merely describing things in themselves; this should be an involved, not detached task. This is typified by an approach to Neolithic landscapes that is embodied and carried out on foot on the ground as opposed to a detached analysis based on maps, air photos and site plans.
Tilley achieved the remarkable sleight of hand of moving from ontological philosophy to archaeological fieldwork method. Thus, experiences one has today such as walking through a prehistoric enclosure, approaching a dolmen, or surveying the wider landscape from the entrance of a chambered tomb to see what can and cannot be seen, could be meaningful data in the study of how people in the Neolithic experienced and used those things and why those monuments were built where they were. This approach has many flaws and critics, but has been much imitated as a method over the past two decades in no small part because, as Jo Brück says, it is cheap and anyone can do it. To paraphrase Andrew M Jones, it is the theory that has launched a thousand student dissertations – including mine.
Tilley argued that taking his experiences in the contemporary landscape (all of his fieldwork happens there of course unless he has a secret time machine) and transposing his own personal observation, knowledge and insights derived from these walks back 5000 years can be done because of our shared human physiology, and the consistency of the ‘bones of the landscape’. (See what I mean about archaeology-as-fiction?) Issues of historicity and trees can be overcome so it seems although archaeologists from John Barrett to Andrew Fleming have voiced serious reservations. For my own perspective, I have always been a recreational user of phenomenology, but have never hooked. My first ever published piece of writing was back in 1998 in the now defunct magazine 3rd Stone where I felt confident enough to offer some tentative misgivings about how beneficial walking along Neolithic cursus monuments was although these related more to refining the method than destroying it (in much the same way as Frankenstein kept trying to make better monsters through the Hammer film series rather than just giving up after the first one and admitting it was a pretty bad idea all along).
Landscape phenomenology of the kind proposed by Tilley and others has as one of its explicit aims the imaginative recreation of the Neolithic landscape (except for all those troublesome plants which we can’t say much about with any precision), and this means that somehow the contemporary landscape has to be filtered out of the equation, in the same way as an augmented reality app might do so on a smart phone. In other words, the very context within which all archaeological engagements happen – the present – is subordinated by the past in the present, which is really just the present when you stop and think about it. It’s almost as if to carry out landscape phenomenology one has to don a pair of x-ray glasses that can see through the actual AD2017 and back to a version of 3017BC. I happen to think that augmented reality in this case means diminished reality and no amount of phenomenology hats can disguise this.
Tilley called this ‘imaginative self-transposition’ which sounds a bit like a course you could do over a weekend at a lodge in the country somewhere, but is in fact the process of imagining away the present – the roads, field boundaries, planes overhead, car noises, funny smells – to get to the past, or rather the past as imagined by the archaeologist carrying out this process. Thus, we have the emergence of the selfish walk as archaeological fieldwork method, where, as Julian Thomas has put it, ‘the investigator bases their interpretation of a place or object on their unbridled subjective experience’. I actually don’t have that much against acknowledged subjectivity in fieldwork – I am a fiction writer remember – but I do disagree with screening out the context within which archaeological engagements happen. Because we have to understand the nature of our encounters to begin to understand the significance of those encounters; how reliable what we have to say about the Neolithic is contingent upon this.
Little wonder that Tilley has also stated that ‘a megalith in an urban environment does not seem to work’ because the more urban a place is, the more sensory and physical stuff landscape phenomenology says that we must filter out. It might be more correct to say that trying to draw conclusions about Neolithic activities, movements and monuments is harder in an urban or industrial setting, but then that depends on what you are up to in the first place.
If your interest is how the past and the present intertwine, if your concern is what multifarious and denuded ways prehistory appears to us in contemporary settings, if you are passionate about exploring what we can say about contemporary prehistoric landscapes – all concerns of mine – then in a sense it is easier to do this in an urban setting, as this jars more violently with social and disciplinary preconceptions of what prehistory was like. It electro-shocks a reaction, which can be one of intrigue or horror. But here’s the thing: it isn’t really prehistory, no matter with how much determination Tilley and others might walk along, or up to it, and experience it. Prehistory has gone, it’s over, done with. The less prehistoric a place or landscape feels, the more likely that prehistoric remains in that context will tell us something meaningful about our engagements with the past in the present and the conditions within which archaeological knowledge emerges. Some humility and honesty go a long way here.
It might also tell us bugger all about the past, but I am comfortable with that, plenty of archaeologists do that shit.
In fact, a much better way to deal with prehistoric monuments in a landscape context is to use psychogeography which Guy Debord famously defined as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. What better means could we use to explore how urbanisation has impacted on our ability to see and make sense of prehistoric monuments and activities? Psychogeography as a practice is not concerned with filtering out the present, but rather it embraces it as a necessary condition of being concerned with the past in the first place. The imposition of an urban grid replaces what went before, and thus necessitates actions that presence what went before in the present. Here, the urban change has to happen in order for the need, the want, to emerge. It goes without saying that urban prehistory demands urbanisation to have occurred.
The use of mapping in psychogeography as a means to plan or record walks and journeys accords far better with the reality of our urban encounters than vain attempts to forget maps and yet have to draw them anyway to report on our discoveries. Maps are not detachment, they are a record of the world that exist to be subverted, not ignored. Maps are the tools of psychogeographers, not the enemy. The dérive is a far more effective way to encounter prehistoric sites and monuments than knowing-a priori-assumption-laden walks between cairns and stone circles. Psychogeography can adequately allow for outlandish encounters and weird juxtapositions, celebrated as an inevitable and beautiful outcome of human palimpesting of the land, whereas landscape phenomenology can only lead us to bemoan things getting in the way, breaking up the experience, blocking views, generally ruining the megalithic aura and – well, just being annoying reminders that everything is really happening now, in the present, and not in the past. Psychogeography is not as half as visually dominated as landscape phenomenology is. And so on.
So, returning to my first point, I draw a very firm line between the two types of archaeological narratives that I write. Some are indeed fictionalised versions of the Neolithic, and are intended to offer my expert interpretation of the chaotic mass we call the archaeological record. Others are far from fictional – they are serious, factual reportage on encounters I have with prehistoric sites and monuments in the contemporary landscape. I don’t have to make that stuff up because it really happened to me. Nothing Neolithic ever happened to me, and if you have ever seen the huge polished stone axes they were knocking out and hitting one another on the heads with back then you wouldn’t want it to happen to you either. Urban prehistory can and should be a serious business because the traces of prehistoric actions are more useful to society if we understand how people encounter them today, than how they were encountered 5000 years ago.
Crap, this was supposed to be a blog post about me walking along a cursus monument in East Lothian. I’ll do that next time.
My thoughts in this post have greatly benefited from various conversations with Andrew Watson, although he may not agree with my conclusions!
The Stonehenge VR image came from the VR Scout Stonehenge webpage.
Academic sources referred to in the text:
- Brűck, J 2005 Experiencing the past? The development of a phenomenological archaeology in British prehistory, Archaeological Dialogues 12, 45-72.
- Barrett, J. and Ko, I. 2009. A phenomenology of landscape: a crisis in British landscape archaeology. Journal of Social Archaeology 9(3), 275-294.
- Bender B 1998, Stonehenge: making space, Oxford: Berg
- Brophy, K 1998 This is not phenomenology (or is it?): experiencing cursus monuments. 3rd Stone Magazine 30, 7-9.
- Fleming, A 2006 Post-processual landscape archaeology: a critique, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 16, 267-80.
- Jones, AM 2007 Review of The materiality of stone, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 17, 229-31.
- Tilley, C 1993 Art, architecture, landscape [Neolithic Sweden], in Bender, B (ed) Landscape: politics and perspectives, Berg, 49-84.
- Tilley, C 1994 A phenomenology of landscape, Oxford: Berg.
- Tilley, C 2008 Phenomenological approaches to landscape archaeology, in David, B & Thomas, J (eds) Handbook of Landscape Archaeology, Leftcoast Press.