One of the courses I have opted for this semester is Landscape Archaeologies Past and Present, a look at various approaches to landscape and the importance of understanding how people in the past have interacted with and perceived the landscape. As part of that course we have to give a presentation on a paper by an archaeologist of prominence in the field. The paper I was given to talk about was Art, Architecture, Landscape[Neolithic Sweden] by Christopher Tilley in Barbara Bender’s Landscape Politics and Perspective.
Needless to say my presentation went awfully. I choked and died and the witty and pertinent points I had drawn out were lost as I fumbled my way through umming and ahing like a priest caught with his pecker in a choir boys gob. Damn anxiety 😡
The presentation was really short so I didn’t have time to address most of the points that I wanted to. I shall, therefore, attempt to do so here. As the presentation was a graded piece of work I won’t go over what I included in my stutter… talk as I wouldn’t want to plagiarise myself. 😀
The paper looks at the various forms of megalith found in three regions of southern Sweden and the manner in which they interact with/compliment the landscape and the effects they have on people who view and/or interact with them. My talk looked at the way in which Professor Tilley believes that people would have interacted with the monuments and the role that they played in people’s changing perceptions of landscape. Here I shall be looking at what I feel to be some serious shortcomings to his methodology, and phenomenological methods in general, and that wider societal effects of some of the concepts inherent in Tilley’s approach to understanding the monuments in their settings.
Authentic Experiences of Megaliths
My main problem with this paper, and Professor Tilley’s approach, is with the notion of an ‘authentic’ experience of megaliths. In the paper he states
“A megalith in an urban environment does not work. It is as f the modern buildings surrounding the tombs detract from them as signifiers of the past, deconsecrate their space.”
I take significant umbrage with this notion for a number of reasons. Firstly this implies that archaeology exists in isolation from the world. It does not. Archaeology is vital and existant in the present and therefore it will exist in an urban context as well as a rural one. If we want to experience megaliths in anything approximating the manner in which the people whose cultures built the monuments did then we need to experience them in as natural a state as possible. Natural that is for us, the observers.
Tilley here is creating a dichotomy that is, if anything, a hindrance to understanding these monuments, Our species is an urban one and has been for a very, very long time. Because of this our natural setting is an urban one. When we look at our natural environment, the towns and cities we inhabit, we do not see ‘landscapes’ but instead a vital environment with which we interact and move within. When we look at the countryside, Tilley’s ‘authentic’ location, then we see a landscape, a vista. Something that is other. Obviously this is not the case for 100% of the world’s population, nor even the UK’s, but there are now more people living in an urban environment than at any point in our species existence.
Look at the images below and the difference between the manner in which we perceive them is obvious. On is an environment we would engage with when going about our daily business the other is a ‘landscape’. It is not an environment we would generally engage with or move within but one that we observe and move across in order to observe further.
How did the megalith builders perceive and interact with their environment? Did they move within it or over it? The manner in which they would have interacted with their landscapes would have more in common with the way n which we interact with our own urban environment.
I do not, can not, believe that the modern buildings surrounding the megaliths in Falköping municipality, the area to which Tilley is referring, deconsecrate the tombs. The modern structures and urban setting do, if anything, the exact opposite. They establish a continued consecration of the megaliths through their being a part of a living human culture. They are more alive in this way that any dolmen or stone circle on the most remote windswept moor or rural idyll.
Tilley is reifying the rural setting of this archaeology and displays a bourgeois idealism which he acknowledges yet refuses to address. In fact he embraces this idealism willingly, supporting it by saying that he ‘objectively’ knows that all other archaeologists feel the same. By projecting his own biases and ideology onto these megaliths Tilley attempts to isolate them from extant human culture. To render them comfortable and, ultimately, sterile.
In the article Professor Tilley claims that in an urban setting there is no dialectic between the non-human environment and the cultural form. He acknowledges that the landscape is “as much a human artefact as the town” but that the town is not culturally encoded in relation to the monument. The problem here is that the rural setting is no longer culturally encoded in relation to the monuments. Forests no longer exist which once hid these monuments from view, new forms of agriculture have wiped out previous forms into which these monuments, we expect, fitted. Landscapes have changed and been dramatically altered.
Because Professor Tilley has developed this dichotomy between rural and urban I feel that he can not understand the place of these monuments in a human environment. In an urban setting we unthinkingly interact with our environment as that is our ‘natural’ setting. If we insist that megaliths only ‘work’ in a rural setting then we are separating them from their natural context, that of being within a human society/culture. It would make sense to attempt to understand megaliths through an urban setting before making any statements about authenticity and reifying contexts and dichotomies that were not extant when these tombs were built.
I only want to talk briefly about this but I feel that concepts of the authentic use of any part of the lived environment or of heritage in general is extremely troublesome and can be used in order to justify the most brutal of repressions against groups who are deemed to be socially unacceptable. The idea of authenticity and the authentic use/experience of the countryside has in the past, and at present if we look to today’s events in Basildon, been used as an excuse to oppress and assault traveler communities throughout Britain. For this reason archaeologists should be extremely careful when bandying around such concepts that we live in a society that will take the idea of authenticity and use it to crush communities and break skulls.
It is because of non-authentic use of Stonehenge that English heritage supported this.
When Tilley says that the “starting point for such an encounter must inevitably be our own personal experience of architectural and environmental space and the way they play off each other to create a distinctive sense of place” why does he do so after discounting the actual personal experience of such things that happens in the natural world. Why does he reject the urban setting that is for the majority of us the totality of our experience of architecture and space. Abandons that in favour of the ‘other’ that is the rural environment.
I feel this to be a shortcoming of phenomenological approaches. Well, the few that I have so far come across in my experience as a student of archaeology. They don’t take into account that whilst people do have a transcendental side to them, we can all have our breath taken away by a beautiful vista for example, but that is not how we view the world most of the time. We are less inclined to be concerned with the manner in which the curve of our street draws our eye inevitably towards the off license on the corner than with hoping the bloody rain holds off on our way to get a four pack.