Home > Archaeology, Grand Forks Notes, North Dakotiana, Survey Archaeology > Walking Home and the Phenomenology of Landscape

Walking Home and the Phenomenology of Landscape

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In a recent article, by John Bintliff ("The Implications of a Phenomenology of Landscape," in E. Olshausen and V. Sauer, Die Landschaft und die Religion. (Stuttgart 2009), 27-45) offers (another) harsh critique of Christopher Tilley's efforts toward a phenomenology of ancient landscapes. Bintliff, in particular, takes issue with Tilley's efforts to produce an landscape rooted in its "emotional and symbolic significance" to the exclusion of a more holistic view that includes an emphasis on the landscape as economically productive space. He argues that Tilley's view of the landscape as "really just about feelings, and symbolic behaviors…" represents a distinctly British reaction to historical phenomenon of the last century or two: namely the gradual abandonment of the countryside by a large part of the population who moved to cities and the consequent inability of most of the population to understand the countryside as productive space. Instead, the countryside has become a kind of "enormous themepark for the urban millions".

Reading this and contemplating my own walks home made me question the authenticity of my own experience. After all, I don't need to walk home or even be outside in the cold. I don't walk home for environmental reasons – my wife happily drives to and from campus in the relative warmth of our relatively inefficient little Honda. I do not even do it for convenience, bowing to our more than hectic schedules my wife and I indulged in the ultimate symbol of middle class affluence, when we purchases a second car. I always thought that I walked home because the outdoors offered an experience that was common not only to members of my community today, but also to historical members of this community who would braved the brisk walks across the exposed prairie for over a century. In short, I was imitating, in my own hopelessly local way, Tilley's call for phenomenological approach to the local landscape.

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At the end of the day, I suppose my walks home did lack the kind of authenticity necessary to allow me to engage with the past in anything but the most superficial way. The cold, bracing, North Dakota evenings existed only in contrast to the forced-air warmth of my home and office. Our knowledge of space and place can only ever be relative to our historical engagement. Bintliff's holistic view of the past, of course, is just as easily subsumed into this paradigm. His call for a holistic view of the landscape is clearly fed by the modern roots of archaeological practice and the political drive to document exhaustively the natural, cultural, social, political, and economic resources of a place. So, if the critique of Tilley's methods for understanding the landscape derives exclusively from its unabashedly urban, 20th century, bourgeois position, then Bintliff's calls for a holistic view of the landscape must certainly have roots in the modern or even colonial dream of documenting the entire world.  

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  1. John Bintliff
    March 12, 2010 at 6:15 am | #1

    Dear Bill, I think you are putting people into boxes too much. The danger of Tilley’s landscape work was the incompleteness of the analysis, not a problem with the aspects he focussed on. My case study example was not the Enlightenment but the farmer poet Hesiod ca 700 BC (but many other voices from the past would have served), and you will find that pre-moderns do not make the Tilleyesque division into the practical world and the symbolic world as he wishes to do. As for walking for pleasure, this turns out to be something inherited from our hunter-gatherer selves, where we got a kick from landscape and physical exercice but also need to to avoid predators and find food. On this see my other rather obscure paper:
    Bintliff, J. L. (2009). Is the Essence of Innovative Archaeology a Technology for the Unconscious? Metals and Societies: Studies in honour of Barbara S. Ottaway. T. L. Kienlin and B. W. Roberts. Bonn, UPA: 181-190. If anyone wants to download this and other relevant papers send me an e mail for a personal link to my website
    Best wishes
    John Bintliff

  2. March 12, 2010 at 9:35 am | #2

    John,
    I probably painted with broad brush strokes; you’re right there. And I like the idea that we acquired the desire to walk for pleasure from our hunter-gatherer ancestors!
    I do wonder how much our integrated perspective on the landscape derives from folks like Hesiod and how much comes from reading Hesiod with heads full of Enlightenment values. I suppose the difference is between an integrative holistic landscape — which clearly appears in Hesiod — and a total landscape (in the spirit of total history) — which is perhaps how I misread your short article. On the other hand, once the categories of “productive”, “symbolic”, “practical”, et c. have come into existence in relation to the landscape, I am not sure it is possible to think them away and return to premodern conceptions of the space. Perhaps I’m wrong though!
    Thanks for the comment!
    Bill

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