Tag Archives: Dominic Powlesland

Archaeology and landscape and seeing what you expect to see

16109225Time’s Anvil was brilliant in thinking about archaeology and landscape — human lives, activities and ideas and their inter-relations with their surroundings. Much of Richard Morris’ argument revolves around this:

Or as Einstein said to Werner Heisenberg in 1926: ‘Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which describes what can be observed.’

What you see is often defined by what you expect, what questions you start with, what you choose to notice and what you think irrelevant. Thus we can track archaeology by its questions and assumptions, which as years pass have shifted time and time again as widely held ‘truths’ proved completely wrong. This is a lovely little history of some of these dismantlings, a bit rambling from personal experience to excavations to poetry to agriculture to planning and battles and more. Quite enjoyable, and much for thought here — as you can unpack this kind of history for any field of inquiry.

There is quite a bit on the rise of archaeology itself, and how that shaped what early archeologists were looking for, the questions they asked, and what they were able to see.

There is, of course, that crazy period where (almost all) men worked so hard categorising things to understand them — Luke Howard’s An Essay on the Modification of Clouds (1803), William Smith’s attempt to map for the first time the stratification of minerals in a geological map (1815), the first attempt to grapple with architecture — An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of Architecture in England by Thomas Rickman (1817). Morris roots archeology here, and in the activities that emerged through it:

With these four step taken — classification, the ability to ascertain sequence, time-depth, and evolution by natural selection — modern archeology’s heart was set beating. (62)

He argues that Darwin returned man to nature, made humans –and their history and development — subject to scientific examination rather than sat above it.

Interesting that archaeology grew as a discipline alongside history and conservation — which means British/American archaeology shared much of the same understanding of land and nature. People like William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson running around delineating land worked by humans and ‘pure’ and ‘pristine’ nature.

As the industrial revolution quickened so did the idea of delimiting areas if land to keep nature in a pristine state. (64)

Thoreau rode on this bandwagon, arguing for establishment of parks ‘not for idle sport or food, but for inspiration and our own recreation’ (65). Thoreau apparently often wrote re-creation — not just enjoyment but self renewal. That’s rather nice. But still, a very different way of seeing the world around us than was common for earlier generations:

Deeper than this, though, was a perception of the pre-industrial past as a place in time that paralleled wilderness in geographical space — a slower-paced realm of pure life-giving existence, as it was, before everything became sullied or began to fail. What was old was more ennobling than what was new, because it had its own organic, creatively true and coherent network — the result of deep-rooted tradition which set it beyond fashion or unthinking utilitarianism. (65)

But we couldn’t get beyond these binaries of civilized and wild (too much riding on that one, like all of Britain and America’s arguments for colonisation and genocide), and linear progression. This is so different from other conceptions of time, so much has been written on Mayan and other indigenous understandings of teh cyclical nature of time, but for medieval Europe it was the same. This is a quote from the medieval historian Bede, from his The Reckoning of Time:

a lunar year and a solar year, a separate year for [each of] the wandering stars, and one for all the planets, which is particularly called “the great year”. (10)

And more about the differences:

Advances in technology and art during the Middle Ages were apparently unaccompanied by a general theory of progress. Until the sixteenth century an ‘inventor’ was, as its Latin root invenio reminds us, a person ‘who found something which had been lost, not one who devised a new solution unknown to previous generations.’ (quoting Keith Thomas from Religion and the Decline of Magic) (18)

Stepping outside of accepted theory we see a little more. For example, I liked the use of ‘the Old Ones’ to describe the mix of our ancient ancestors, the ones from the muddy bits of our family tree, the ones who may or may not have been homo sapiens or part of that line.

I love this amazing graph, this feels rather new since I studied such things in my heady undergraduate days in the 1990s:

Stringer graph-model of the evolution of several species of genus Homo over the last 2 million years (vertical axis).
Stringer graph-model of the evolution of several species of genus Homo over the last 2 million years (vertical axis).

I also like imagining them as different, rather than as inferior versions of ourselves.

Despite abundant evidence that earlier humans were adapted to their environments, the legend which paints them as inferior versions of us lives on…the archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley demanded evidence of progress, as if its absence was a defect…E.H. Carr argues that ‘only those people which have succeeded in organising their society in some degree cease to be primitive savages and enter into history’. On this view, it is history that defines our genes rather than the other way round. (141)

An example —

Hitherto it had been generally assumed that early people had lived in holes in the ground. Bersu showed that in fact they lived in generously proportioned timber-built round houses. (71)

How people relate to their environment is also up for rethinking. I read some of Childe doing my masters — those beloved archeology classes I took as part of the Latin American Studies degree I never finished, this makes me want to go back to him.

Child argued that human beings do not adapt to their surroundings as they really are but rather as they imagine them. ‘Each individual carries about in her or his mind a “cultural map” incorporating knowledge acquired through learning and experience, from which the individual selects the data required to adapt to the social and natural environment. (76) [Childe – Prehistoric communities of the British Isles, Trigger — Childe’s relevance]

This is a good metaphor for archaeology itself, Morris argues it arose in years of colonial expansion and nation states, ‘It is not surprising, then, that archaeology should have been harnessed to the imperialist cause’ (77)  — nor that pre-history should be understood as succession of conquests bringing new ideas and better ways of doing things. Thus rather than look at landscape or the continuity of developments over time, they cut deep shafts into sites:

‘in Britain down to the 1950s placed reliance on vertical control whereby events in the life of a place, each chapter with its own layers, each layer a stage in a story, were read off serially from sections as if from a railway timetable. (77)

Very different from countries such as Denmark, always more focused on settlement and environment. A focus on shafts in a very tightly delimited space also limited what could be seen:

At best, ‘site’ was an artificial construct, an area delineated for present convenience rather than denoting any past reality. ‘Site’ was also deceiving, for it invited you to look inwards rather than out to the surrounding area and horizons that gave it meaning. [O. G. S.] Crawford said that alongside frameworks of period and typology archaeology also needed a grammar of space and time. (122)

There is a wonderful chapter on the rise of aerial photography — a whole new view of landscape and identification of sites and how they fit into their surroundings. Trasnformational, For example, until then archeologists and historians believed settlement concentrated in a belt across England, and that places like the fenlands lay all but deserted. Aerial photography showed marks of old fields, proved this completely wrong. I love too that they found that different crops show archeological features very well or not all through changes in lushness of growth, that frost dissipates differently, that mushrooms can grow differently — Gilbert White had noted this in his journals. A nice tie-in.

As these challenges arose, new ways of excavating worked to answer them. Christopher Taylor doing an area study, challenged

four time-honoured suppositions: that places had generally come into existence in ‘waves of colonisation’ or grown outwards from stable centres; that the earliest recorded reference to a place was likely to approximate to the time when the place was first settled; that a place ommitted from Domesday Book did not exist in 1086; and that continuity of habitation presupposed continuity of site, or indeed the reverse. The new reading visualized extensive earlier settlement, and fluidity as well as fixity of habitation within an older framework of fields, estates and lanes. (162)

The fluidity is particularly important:

There is a contemporary tendency to see the past in terms of static functions, what a place was ‘for’, as distinct from processes, the perpetuity of what went on. (170)

Aerial photos and excavations revealed so much that we didn’t know — like causewayed enclosures or cursus that we still don’t understand the meaning of, like Knap Hill in Wiltshire.

It also allowed us to better trace changes in agriculture, from small fields to open-field agriculture:

Blocks of strips with the same trend had been gathered into furlongs, and a group of furlongs formed a larger land which was cropped in rotation with one or two others. Lacking permanent subdivision, tenurially subdivided, communally organized, there were the remains of open-field agriculture. (184)

And similar changes in villages — going back to Christopher Taylor:

…the settlements we see today will not usually be the result of outward growth from ancient nuclei, but the result of a succession of reconfigurations. Such transformation can occur in many ways — by relocation, slow drift, coalescence, fission, fusion — and at differing tempos in which beats of different measure may run in counterpoint. (194)

And this:

Taylor showed how widespread planning had been. By examination in the field he showed that places which looked amorphous were in fact often made up of planned elements which had, so to speak, gone out of shape as time passed — for instance through piecemeal addition or the loss, subdivision or amalgamation of buildings. (194)

Ah, planning.

Land and people differ from those once pictured: the land more intricate, locally, varied, longer settled and more efficiently managed; the people better housed, more socially and economically diverse, bearing more responsibility for events and change. (202)

Part of this is the long occupation of sites over time, and things like the widespread Anglo-Saxon cemeteries associated with earlier mounds and monuments like Wigber Low or New House Farm.

On to Dominic Powlesland, who found this incredible ‘filament of farms, a linear agricultural commune one building wide and tens of miles long’ (212) in the Vale of Pickering.

Amazing. This was a moment where I felt everything change — nucleated village settlements aren’t some kind of innate, natural form we create.

He uncovered this working systematically over nine seasons across a broad area in a way no one had before — it is now thirty years work has been happening now, and the wonderful site of the Landscape Research Centre has much more on this. Look at these images generated through geophysics:

Fluxgate gradiometer survey of Ladder Settlement. (Area 6.87 hectares)
Fluxgate gradiometer survey of Ladder Settlement. (Area 6.87 hectares)


3D view showing the ribbon of Iron Age and Roman settlement on the southern side of the Vale of Pickering near West Heslerton


These long strips could run for up to ten miles, a line of buildings facing each other across a road. They remind me immensely of Paolo Soleri’s Arterial Arcology, which is sitting in a box now for the most part unread.

This study also challenged ‘the foundation myth of a people finding its destiny in an unclaimed land’ — the Anglo Saxons moving into a mostly unpopulated wilderness parallel to rhetoric around colonisation.  I wasn’t even aware of such a myth, but it parallels closely the myths utilised n the US and elsewhere to justify expansion so I am not surprised. I (and others) find the period after the end of the Roman Empire particularly interesting, and particularly cloudy, with little evidence and much speculation of collapse and darkness. But excavations in the Vale of Pickering showing little contraction in the economy or depopulation, but stable communities

A key aspect of these settlements is the way they embraced a cross-section of rural resources between the Vale floor and the Wold top: river frontage, marshland, arable, water, upland grazing’ (223)

His surveys and excavations also showed residence, craft and industry in different zones — ah, zoning. My urban planner heart goes pitter pat.

The village of Heslerton remained occupied until the ninth century in this long filament pattern. It was then dismantled (how? why?) and a new community a short distance to the west emerged. The old area converted to ridge and furrow and communally worked fields — and this happened up and down the valley. Thus

the ‘early Saxon’ settlement did not originate in contrast to the thousand-year-old ladder, but rather was condensed out of it. (227)

The Vale of Pickering shows:

the birth of early medieval England occurs not in the aftermath of a post-Roman collapse, but as an evolution from late prehistoric society that Rome had ruled and exploited but not significantly altered. (227)

York is another example of continuity followed by change — as medieval York evolved above the still-visible ruins of Roman York:

the evolving topography of the Anglo-Saxon city had been influenced by axis of the Roman fortress. The Norman cathedral builders, on the other hand, had pointedly ignored it. (257)

Interesting. But archaeologists found Anglo Saxon graves in the old Roman basilica, and they also used Roman building blocks and Roman slabs for gravestones within remains of Roman buildings. They painted them as well! I don’t know what that last detail is so interesting, but so it is.

A final challenge to some linear developments by conquest of small insular villages — the mining industry and how it connected all of Europe over the centuries. The 1140s chronicler (Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum) writes:

although little silver was mined in England, much was brought from Germany by the Rhine on account of England’s wonderful fertility in fish and meat, in most precious wool, and in cattle without number. As a result, a larger supply of silver is found in England than in Germany. (198)

The more I read or watch documentaries on the past, the more I realise just how much trade and travel did occur across our history – a look at mining and minerals seems to be a good way to understand the long-existing connectedness of Europe:

Trade seems to have intensified from the late tenth century, and its stimulant lay some six hundred miles to the east of England’s midlands, in the Harz mountains of Germany, where late in the 960s a large new source of silver was discovered, augmenting an earlier silver supply from central Europe which had been fuelling the expansion of coinage since the early eighth century. (197)

Morris described a confluence of mining and farming in Cornwall, exploited in places like Alderley Edge, where some of the tunnels and mine working mining out minerals — copper, silver, tin, malachite, galena, vanadium, cobalt, nickel, zinc, molybedenum — date from the early bronze age. These same minerals contributed to the rise of the Industrial Revolution. Cornish tin in pewter, solder and tin plate used for canning industry, Tin alloyed with copper — bronze for machine bearings and marine propellers. Copper in boilers, vats, piping for dying and processing of sugar. in brass, parts for steam engines, and gun cartridges. Arsenic for dyes and pigments, early insecticide. But going back, a look at mining challenges some very fundamental understanding’s of the stages of human development:

The Iron Age, for long viewed as a step along the road of linear technological progress, has recently been argued to have begun because from around 1100 BC the supply of accessible continental copper began to dwindle, thus stepping up the search for other kinds of ores closer to hand. If copper was a metal of journeys and mysteries, then, iron eventually became a metal of localities. Its stories differ from those of copper and gold. (382)

For all this is true, there is a definite change with the rise of imperialism and colonisation.

From the sixteenth century, it becomes less and less possible to study the past ‘as if it happened only in one place’. (350)

This is almost a throw away line, but reiterated again and again by writers like Walter Rodney, Stuart Hall, Cedric Robinson and others — hardly a coincidence that they all write critically from the spaces conquered through Empire.

I am not an archaeologist, so unable to comment how this book fits in with work happening in the field under discussion, but there is so much here for geographers. The points above were what I found most useful in understanding more of what the study of archaeology and landscape can teach us about how humans grow and change with their environment — both in challenging paradigms of thought and methodology, as well as many of my own assumptions gleaned from reading about the past. There is a lot more that could be said about how race, class, gender and etc impact our vision and structure our theory, I missed more of that here, but it does do quite a lot.

For more on archaeology…