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Ideas of Landscapes

I strongly recommend Matthew Johnson’s Ideas of Landscapes to anyone interested in landscape archaeology.  It is among the best books on the topic, and it does a nearly brilliant job of putting the concept of landscape archaeology in a historiographic context.  Johnson’s main focus is on the emergence of landscape archaeology as a discipline in Great Britain.  He begins with the Romantic approaches to the study of landscape with particular attention to Wordsworth’s famous rambles from his home in Grasmere and argues that the Romantic tradition inspired a particular kind of empiricism which privileged experience as the quintessential character of the landscape. This Romantic empiricism continues to influence landscape studies even today through the decidedly more post-modern efforts of archaeologists to present landscapes in a phenomenological terms (see for example, the approaches critiqued by John Bintliff).

Johnson goes on to point out that some of the aversion to theory among local historians derives from this same Romantic empiricism, and this has limited the ability of scholars to take conclusions formed on the basis of detailed local studies and expand them into more far reaching arguments.  As I noted yesterday, the use of maps, aerial photographs, and detailed topographic plans fortified the empirical nature of landscape studies by melding to modern technologies and techniques.  The result was a discipline with an increasingly fine-grained capacity for microhistory, but no more robust theoretical foundation to understand the implications of this kind of methodology.  (Here he brilliantly invokes E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class and Poverty of Theory by paralleling Thompson’s attention to detail and, in the latter, attack on theory to the detailed studies of local landscapes produced by contemporary archaeologists.)

In his conclusion he places landscape archaeology at the intersection of two longstanding, divergent strands in archaeology: one, the urge to document in a detailed way the intricate features visible in the landscape and the tacit empiricism implicit in that method, and, two, the need to generalize and theorize about larger problems in the develop of human society and the epistemological critiques that are central to any effort to synthesize myriad more focused studies.  The former derives from archaeology’s longstanding ties to a Romantic view of landscapes, and the latter from fields like anthropology (and more recently history) which insist upon critiquing the particular. The contrast appears in the accusations that New Archaeology produces dry-as-dust, quantified, landscapes that while generalized and generalizable, lack any real sense of place.

My brief, rambling impressions do not do the book justice.  So I’ll offer just a few more:

1. Johnson ties Romantic empiricism to map making to colonialism in a way that stands as an important caveat to Mediterranean archaeologists who often root their claims to local knowledge and authority in deeply impressionistic views of the landscape.  At the same time, we deploy the tools of New Archaeology and produce quantified landscapes.  The intersection of older impressionistic practices with the rigor of New Archaeology have allowed us to appropriate for research large areas of the Mediterranean basin, but at the same time have moved to the foreground the colonial tendency inherent in so many archaeological practices.

2. Johnson presents a particularly interesting critique of the palimpsest metaphor in landscape archaeology.  While I am more familiar with this metaphor in the study of cities, Johnson discusses the role of the palimpsest in the larger metaphor of landscape as text.  He suggests that the metaphor has become “too strong” and reinforced a view of the landscape as static rather than engaging with more dynamic models for textuality common elsewhere in the humanities.  I’ve railed against the use of the palimpsest metaphor for years largely because the two levels of the palimpsest have no clear relation to one another.  For example, a text of Plautus could be erased and the skin used for a sermon of St. Ambrose.  These two texts are unrelated whereas historical landscapes are places where interaction between past and present is continuous and the memory of overwritten or erased landscapes often persist preserving the past “under erasure” for political and social goals.

3. Finally, the link between British landscape archaeology and Mediterranean landscape archaeology is a direct one and the history of the latter cannot be fully understood without understanding the history of the former.  I sometimes wonder if separating Mediterranean landscape studies from its British (and to a less extent North American roots) has allowed certain sections of Mediterranean archaeology to persist with just the kind of Romantic empiricism that Johnson critiques.  In fact, I find myself celebrating the more isolated and remote parts of Greece (the southeastern Corinthia and the island of Kythera, for example) for many of the same Romantic reasons that Wordsworth championed his local landscape.  The isolation from the bustle of the everyday (in other words social, political, economic reality), the feeling of antiquity, and the untrammeled natural beauty.  Johnson’s work will certainly give me pause.

Categories: Archaeology, Books
  1. July 26, 2010 at 11:29 am

    I’m reading Johnson’s book at the moment too, and it is brilliant! I’m only a few chapters in though… the connection with Hoskin’s work is well laid out, but I wonder to what extent Hoskin’s work influenced British work in say Italy, where the tradition is from Ashby and Ward-Perkins?

  2. July 26, 2010 at 11:49 am

    I’d be keen to hear your take on that exact matter. I assumed that British landscape archaeology contributed (as much as New Archaeology and other, new-world, developments) to the earliest efforts at landscape archaeology in Greece where there was a clear parallel to the Romantic, pedestrian, solitary wanderer-archaeologist (e.g. Cattling’s Cyprus Survey or Hope Simpson’s survey of prehistoric sites). But I am not as familiar with developments in Italy.

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