Archaeological Phenomenology and the Landscape of Prehistoric Burial
by Neil Baker
Phenomenology is a branch of social
theory that has achieved archaeological notoriety
in recent years for explorations of primarily prehistoric landscapes. Its use in archaeology has been one of
the most provoking theoretical developments in the discipline in recent years
and has been a constant source of debate between archaeologists (Bruck, 2005:
Fleming 2006). The following discussion
will not provide an overview of the wide-ranging philosophical field of
phenomenology. It will focus upon on
archaeological phenomenology and whether it can increase our understanding of
the landscape context of Neolithic and Bronze Age burial sites.
“Went to see an ancient mound
People buried underground
Long ago, will never know
What it was like to hear their sounds”
Lyrical excerpt of “Rollright Stones” from “Shoot Out At The Fantasy
Factor” by Traffic, 1973.
What is archaeological phenomenology?
Archaeologists have a long
history of describing and classifying prehistoric burial sites but many are often uncomfortable with defining how people might have experienced them. Early studies tended to focus on the monument rather than its’ situation (Chapman & Geary, 2000, 318; Watson, 2001). The way in which landscapes and sites were, and still are generally understood is commonly dictated by conventional established fieldwork methodologies such as survey or excavation. To this end, landscapes are still frequently depicted as static and disembodied, two-dimensional diagrammatic
representations (Tilley, 2004). The landscape archaeologist would argue that such “typical” information gives no sense of first-hand familiarity with the site. It does not convey information relevant to how prehistoric burial sites were physically experienced by the people that constructed and interacted with them (Cummings et al, 2002: Parker Pearson, 1999). In an attempt to address this problem, landscape phenomenologists study place, and analyse “sites and locations as static positions where human actions are carried out” (Peterson, 200, 394; Woodward, 2000, 123).
In order to fully comprehend and appreciate how a monument relates to its landscape, one has to attribute value and meaning to it by experiencing it first-hand. In this way the relations and interconnections of a landscape such as “place, social and personal identity and experience” together with feeling, emotion and significance will be better understood (Tarlow, 2000: Tilley, 2004, 185). However, critics of this approach have described it as “a nice long walk with your eyes open” (Russell, 2007, 31). Phenomenology is often viewed as a modern discipline, but this is not the case. The relationship between a monument and its setting is by no means a new phenomenon and was first mooted and recorded by antiquarians such as William Stukeley in the 18th century (Barnatt & Edmonds, 2002; Peterson, 2003).
Can the adoption of a phenomenological approach to prehistoric burial studies increase our knowledge of them? Landscape phenomenologists often claim that barrows, cairns and other prehistoric monuments were carefully located so as to ensure views of particular landscape features while others were deliberately obscured (Tilley 1994, 135; Bender et al, 1997; Cummings 2002). They argue that some prehistoric burial sites were specifically located to establish control over “topographic perspective”, uniting significant natural places in the wider landscape (Tilley, 1994: 204: Tilley, 2002, 185).
In 1994, Christopher Tilley suggested that a number of Welsh Neolithic chambered tombs in Pembrokeshire (26) and The Black Mountains (14) were designed and constructed to have deliberate relationships with natural landscape features (Fleming, 2005: Tilley, 1994, 92 & 118). These included mountains, river valleys and places outside natural limits such as caves and were suggested to be liminal zones where the boundary between this world and the otherworld became blurred (Bradley 2000, Cummings et al, 2003: Fleming 1999). It was noted that the long axis of some of the Pembrokeshire cairns “seemed to be oriented” west-east and emphasised prominent natural features (Tilley, 1994, 94). Fifty four percent of the Pembrokeshire group (14) were suggested to have had close or direct relationships to inland rock outcrops. The principal orientation of the Black Mountain group of cairns was also suggested to have “relationships” with dominant landscape features such as rivers (5) and prominent hill spurs (9) on the Black mountains (Tilley, 1994, 124). Tilley proposed that in the Neolithic period such features were regarded as “natural, non-cultural or non-domesticated megaliths” making them special places (Tilley, 1994, 94).
Tilley’s fieldwork in Pembrokeshire and the Black Mountains was the catalyst for more studies of both areas which cast some doubt upon his interpretations. Cummings et al (2002) re-examined various claims about the axis of the Black Mountain cairns. Their research studied the tombs’ relationship to specific features in the landscape using a methodology that would reproduce their own observations (Cummings et al, 2002). The work focussed on the cairns’ construction, ground plans, positions and building materials. They suggested that the tombs were deliberately asymmetrical both in their location and in their construction but seldom “oriented directly upon landscape features” (Cummings et al, 2002: Fleming, 1999). It was concluded that the cairns were sited to emphasise transitional areas. These were “places in between places” for example between river valleys and between mountain escarpments (Cummings et al, 2002, 67). Much of the work in Wales by Cummings et al and Tilley has been criticised by Andrew Fleming (1999, 2005 & 2006). He checked Tilley’s observations and pointed out that many of his proposed alignments were in fact erroneous (Woodward, 2000, 123). Fleming argued that the apparent relationship between monuments and rock outcrops at North Preseli in Pembrokeshire may be the result of preferential survival. Many of the sites are in found marginal, stony areas where the land has not been intensively farmed. This fact, coupled with the easy availability of building materials to subsequent generations possibly meant that tombs were not robbed out.
Tilley also employed a phenomenological approach in “Round Barrows and Dykes as landscape metaphors”. This was an exploration into the locational significance of Bronze Age round barrows and dykes located at the eastern end of the Ebble-Nadder ridge in southwest Wiltshire (Fleming, 2006: Tilley, 2004). Of relevance to this essay is the section of Tilley’s work which focussed on twenty-four Bronze Age barrows. The project concentrated on the relationship between a northern and southern group of barrows, and the natural coombes and spurs found on the chalk ridge. Each barrow was visited and its’ individual relationship to major topographical features was noted (Fleming, 2006: Tilley, 2004: Woodward 2000).
Tilley concluded that eleven of the twenty-four barrows were directly related to coombes and were located at or near coombe heads or conjunctions. Seven barrows were connected to character changes in the landscape i.e. spurs (2), gullies (2) and changes of escarpment direction (3). The southern barrow group was not intervisible with the northern group, which led Tilley to suggest that the barrow siting was related to “highly localised topographical features” (Tilley, 2004, 194). The link between barrows and coombes has been suggested by many archaeologists, and various studies have focussed on intervisibility and barrow placement. These have shown that burial sites frequently occur on false crests, ridges or higher ground, while others have a geometric relationship within thelandscape (Tomalin, 1991; Woodwood & Woodwood, 1996; Field, 1998; Parker Pearson & Ramilisonina 1988).
Some phenomenological arguments cut both ways and it is possible that perceived orientations were deliberate, but then again it could is equally possible that they could be accidental. Archaeologists’ need to critically consider how relationships should be identified, asking, for example, how close a monument needs to be to a particular topographic feature for a deliberate link between the two to be suggested (Fleming, 1999, 120 & 2005, 927). Similar points can be made regarding the significance of other sensory elements of monuments and landscapes. Phenomenologists are often criticised of manipulating evidence in favour of their assumptions and not being objective. Caution should be applied when hypothesizing about sacred mountains in areas where isolated hills and mountain ranges dominate the skyline.
We first need to identify which particular elements of a burial landscape can be shown to be important factors influencing their location in the past and which cannot. However as a point of interest, two of Tilley’s proposed sacred mountains have later religious connections which could have originated in the prehistoric period. Carn Ingli or “hill of angels”, has been linked with the Irish saint Brynach, while Mynydd Troed in the Black Mountains was known in the 5th century as Garth Matrun, the “hillspur of the Great Mother” (Thomas, 1994, 57 & 145-6).
Any archaeologist should be wary of overemphasising what is perceived as a deliberate landscape relationship without careful consideration of all the facts. It would be normal practice to note that the burials were in carefully chosen locations, and that those on high ground are often intervisible with each another while those on low ground are not (DeBoer, 2004: Fleming, 2006). Apparent orientation, intervisibility or invisibility is not an indicator that those who built and used a prehistoric burial site recognised or considered a visual relationship important.
The visual interactions postulated by Tilley (1994 & 2004) may not have been the overriding factor in barrow placement. The dead do not bury themselves (Parker-Pearson, 1999), and the selection of burial sites is a carefully considered undertaking and argument only arises in interpretation of the barrow placement (Barrett, 2004). Field suggests that it is not the burial that is sacred but the landscape itself is sacred, and the important relationship may have been one that placed the barrows in harmony with the landscape (Field, 1998, 321). He compared British Prehistoric burial sites in Sussex with the preferred location for Chinese burials and concluded that they were broadly similar in nature. The majority of sites were located on “well drained, south facing slopes…with water at the base…and mountains in the rear to protect them from…evil influences”
(Field, 1998, 322).
In an effort to illustrate their visual theories, phenomenologists have attempted to demonstrate visual relationships between places they have identified with photographs, photomontages and line drawings (Cummings et al, 2000: Tilley 1994). These techniques are reputed to enable landscapes to be represented from the perspective of lived experience in contrast to traditional cartographic depictions. In their attempt to produce a repeatable methodology Cummings et al (2002) produced panoramic representations of the landscape around each monument. This was achieved by sketching a 360 degree view from a set point in the centre of the monument a method also used by Stukeley in the 18th century. All drawings were supplemented by taking a series of photographs which created a wraparound photograph of the surrounding landscape (Cummings et al, 2002, 61). These have proved useful for analysis but they are difficult to understand, and only of limited use in the presentation of the data. The use of photography and video footage as evidence to support the claims made for particular relationships must be treated with caution. Unfortunately the images produced are not objective records but are themselves selected and edited representations of landscape (Chadwick 2004, 21; Peterson, 2003, 398). However, it could be argued that any criticisms of phenomenological recording methodologies are themselves flawed unless the site had been visited by the critic (Cummings, et al, 2002, 68).
while relying heavily on a sense of vision, also embraces a belief that there are key points of common connection. In Wiltshire, Tilley contrasts a “deep interior world of the coombes and the exterior world of the ridge tops” where the coombes were dangerous places associated with “spirits, mythical forces and the underworld” (2004, 196). He argues that the Neolithic cairns he studied in Wales were connections between Neolithic inhabitants and their Mesolithic ancestors, and were placed in locations with “emotional attachment…and significant places linked by paths of movement” (Tilley, 1994, 202). This raises interesting questions about whether prehistoric barrows were deliberately constructed over spaces imbued with significance, or whether it was pure coincidence (Benson & Whittle, 2007, 31). There is certainly a case for the argument of continuity, as many of the Black Mountain cairns have been found to be sited on early Mesolithic flint scatters, suggesting an ancestral connection via a collective social memory (Nash, 2003, 5 & 2007, pers. comm.; Tilley, 1994, 117). Cummings et al interpreted the Black Mountain cairns as “places of transformation” sited to mark significant landscapes and places where the dead would undergo a metamorphosis from flesh to bone (Cummings et al, 2003, 67). This is another plausible phenomenological theory that cannot be discounted but like so many phenomenological arguments, cannot be proved either.
would argue that a present-day experience within a burial landscape will not be considerably different from that experienced in the Neolithic or Bronze Age (Tilley, 1994). In his discussion of Wiltshire Bronze-Age barrows, Tilley suggests that the present day topography of coombes and ridges was virtually the same in the Bronze Age as it is now. Natural features such as sudden dips, marshland or steep inclines are perceived to have had a similar effect on prehistoric people’s experience of landscape as they have on his own (Tilley, 2004). He neglects to mention that form and character of the landscape may have altered dramatically over many years. The surface appearance of the monuments will also be different as several millennia of soil drift and erosion, stone robbing and plant invasion has transformed their original appearance (Savoy, 1973, 1). It may also look and feel quite different at different times of the year or different times of day. Therefore, it is recommended that sites should be visited under different conditions over a lengthy period of time to have any hope of recreating the experiences of people in the past. (Cummings et al, 2003: Chapman and Geary 2000).
The consideration of visibility and lines of sight are also potentially flawed by a lack of appreciation for past environmental factors. Any theorised visual effect in the past may have been hindered, prevented or even enhanced by trees, woodland or long grass (Bruck, 2004; Cummings et al, 256). Palaeoecological analysis of carbonized plant remains, and disturbed soil from a selection of the Black Mountain cairns revealed that some were constructed in areas of heath or woodland pasture while others were sited in more open landscapes (Cummings and Whittle, 2003, 259; Tilley, 1994, 220). This would obviously have implications for phenomenological studies; a wooded setting can have real physical and psychological effects on anyone experiencing that landscape. Prehistoric people may have been deliberately siting burials in and around wooded landscapes to create particular experiences of place that may be difficult to recreate today (Muir, 2005). Even if it is possible to identify convincing relationships between landscape features, the meaning of these associations may be more difficult to understand.
Perhaps the most important debate concerning phenomenology is whether present-day interactions with a burial landscape will ever approach the actual experience of past peoples. Any first hand experience of a phenomenological landscape interaction today can only be imaginary, socially constructed, cultural specific and subject to modern beliefs and emotions. The landscape will be experienced and interpreted by people in many different ways, and will vary depending on the context of their engagement with it (Edmonds, 1999). This makes it easy to question phenomenological landscape theories as “at any one time, landscapes…are multiple and contradictory” (Bender, 1998, 34). To some, artefacts can be places in the same way places can be artefacts to others, likewise monuments can be landscapes and landscapes may be monuments (Bradley, 2000).
interpretation “is carried out in and for the present”, and a prehistoric experience of a burial landscape might have been very different and probably emotional experience to that encountered today (Tarlow, 2000; Tilley, 2004, 225). While some aspects of “being there” are partially or directly reconstructable such as “…visibility, sound, and touch”, we can never wholly reconstruct the way in which our prehistoric ancestors viewed or experienced a burial landscape (Parker Pearson, 1999, 139). We know that prehistoric people visited, used and reused burial sites, but we don’t know that they understood and saw burial sites in the same way we do today. We often forget that any visits to burial sites were most certainly encountered with friends, family, strangers, animals and objects, and all to the sound of stories, songs and conversation (Nash, pers. comm.; Watson, 2001). Tilley himself acknowledges this and “makes no claims to an understanding…or significance of the prehistoric burial landscape (Tilley, 2004, 74). All that can be suggested by phenomenological explorations of burial landscapes are interpretive possibilities based on our own contemporary experience and observations.
Phenomenological studies of archaeological landscapes have been based upon attempting to replicate the experience of “being-in-the-world”, primarily through analysing visibility patterns (Tilley 1994: 12). This has been called into question and had been critiqued as un-testable, overtly subjective and misguided (Fleming, 1999, 2005 & 2006). A major problem with taking a phenomenological approach to the study of prehistoric burials is that the landscape can only be experienced as it appears today (Brophy, 2004). While phenomenology does assist the recognition of some visual relationships that were considered significant in the past, it cannot tell us what they may have meant (Tilley 2004: Woodward 2004). Despite its drawbacks, landscape phenomenology has certainly encouraged archaeologists to reanalyse the architecture and landscape settings of various different categories of burial monument. It certainly shows the need for a greater understanding of the “detailed landscape setting” of prehistoric burials (Woodward 2000, 130).
Any criticism that stimulates both rigorous archaeological debate and new research can only be good for archaeology as a whole. Phenomenology does at least remind us that prehistoric burial sites were more than “just somewhere to put dead bodies” (Parker Pearson, 1999, 196). They may also have been markers of special places, a recreation of valued landscape features, or commemorated the passage of time (Richards, 1996). No school of archaeological thought has a “monopoly on the imagination”, and while phenomenology cannot tell us about community and characters, or their hopes and fears, neither can traditionally accepted archaeological methodologies (Fleming, 2006, 272). Archaeologists do not need to throw away their maps and air photographs. They just have to recognise that there are many ways of thinking about and interpreting prehistoric burial landscapes, and appreciate that there may b a
deeper significance to the placement of prehistoric burials than is currently
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