ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 52, April 2000


During their preliminary trials and aptitude tests last year, the BBC's Castaway 2000 hopefuls were asked who they would most dislike to spend a year with on a remote Scottish island. One said she could not abide to be with anyone with degrees in geology, the landscape or the island itself.

How could this be? It's hard to credit that there are people who react negatively to information about pillow mounds and narrow rig ploughing on freezing and windswept hillsides (although any archaeologist with a family must be aware of partners and offspring who creep back early to the car while their beloved parent or spouse gesticulates alone at the scenery).

It's possible that our would-be castaway was herself an expert. Nothing is more distressing than having to listen to someone else's research. No doubt university lecturers are occasionally forced to discourse with someone from another department and one can imagine the mutual horror and disgust when a prehistorian meets an analyst of the benefits of globalisation. Stuck on an island, someone whose life work was finding out whether people drive or reverse into parking spaces might find listening to stuff about landscape a little hard.

An example of specialist incompatibility nearer home would be the mutual incomprehension between archaeologists and botanists. These two often find themselves on the same field trips because of their forced juxtaposition in county archaeology and natural history societies. Generally the archaeologists are off over the brow of the hill within minutes of the coach stopping, to find on their return two hours later the botanists still enthusing about trifolium glomeratum on the lay-by verge and muttering about how one of the archaeologists was definitely seen cleaning his boots on the only example of hymnenophyllum tunbrigense found outside Kent.

But a more likely answer would come from considering circumstances where the imparting of information is less than welcome. Stargazing, for instance, is best done in silence, and is ill-served by a load of stuff about surely you can see Venus just two hand spans to the right of Ursa Minor on the line of Orion's belt. This sort of thing removes all the magic from the situation, and the same may be true for the contemplation of a piece of landscape.

Some people may simply not want to know that that field boundary runs under that ruined mine building, or that the round barrows are intervisible with the stone circle. We may feel that that's their loss. Surely the whole point of having sight and mind is to piece things together, pick up the clues, so as to scrap the chocolate box lid image of the British landscape and return it to its reality as the scarred survivor of millennia of settlement and use.

Though this may be the intention, however, too often we shoot ourselves in the foot by sounding as though we know it all, were there at the landscape's formation, and personally supervised most of the major episodes of land use. It may be this that so annoyed the BBC's potential survivor to the extent of picking one of us, before other more deserving causes like gameshow hosts or practical jokers.

Perhaps we do miss the point of landscapes. Imagine if Wordsworth had just got to the bit in the Immortality ode where his thoughts lay too deep for tears when he was pounced on by an archaeologist telling him that the bank he was sitting on was part of a flight of Neolithic lynchets and would he like to join English Heritage and have free entry to Dove Cottage? But then again who cares for an ode when you can get immortality, or 15 minutes of it, having a year-long televised row with a group of people on a remote island?

Peter Ellis is an archaeologist and unrepentent talker in the presence of landscapes

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