Citadel of the Scots
Reading the land
Great sites: Meols
Editor Simon Denison
Reading the land
50 years ago, most historians thought Britain’s landscape dated mainly from the 18th century. Then landscape archaeology began, and the rest is history, says Peter Fowler
Landscape - there's an awful lot of it about in archaeology nowadays. UNESCO now promotes 'cultural landscapes' as candidates for World Heritage inscription, and the first 23 sites already exist (including the first in the UK, at Blaenavon in South Wales). A European Landscape Convention was agreed last year, binding signatory Governments to protect landscapes as they do ancient monuments and buildings (although the UK has not yet signed).
Landscapes now have their own academic journal. Recent archaeological publications include several big volumes claiming to be 'landscape archaeology'. And every day numerous landscape projects are pursued by archaeological units as a matter of routine. This is how archaeology is now done in the field. The revolution has happened, but it wasn't always like this: there was a time BLA ('before landscape archaeology'), and I was there.
Grahame Clark, with palaeo-environmental colleagues, was arguably practising 'landscape archaeology' in the Fenlands in the 1930s, but the subject first reached maturity in the work of the Ordnance Survey archaeologist OGS Crawford in the middle years of the 20th century (see his Archaeology in the Field, 1953). As the great man always taught, landscape archaeology is not just an out-of-doors activity but a process which involves documentary and cartographic research too. But the crucial aspect is intellectual for, in a world of period specialists with expertise in myriad objects, Crawford conceptualised a single object, landscape, which by definition could not belong to a single period.
Even so, the subject crystallised only in the 1970s. It did so for several reasons, one of which was the massive increase in arable farming in the 1950s and 1960s and the consequent destruction by plough of vast areas of earthworks under pasture. Another reason was the development, at exactly this time, of air photography under JK St Joseph, which revealed the extent of this damage with startling clarity. A third reason was the emergence of a post-war generation of archaeologists inspired by the landscape historian WG Hoskins (The Making of the English Landscape, 1955), whose revolutionary thesis was that the origins of the existing landscape were far, far older than was then widely believed. When Hoskins wrote, most people assumed the landscape was almost entirely a product of the 18th century.
Personally, I was lucky in that landscape, not just site, loomed large in my early archaeological experience. Hadrian's Wall - with which I have been connected most of my life - is not, after all, only a wall: everywhere it responds to its landscape, and the landscape affords it much of its grandeur. At Gwithian, Cornwall, where I dug as an undergraduate in the 1950s, although we excavated individual sites, we worked within a landscape concept in which dozens of sites, from Mesolithic to modern, had been found around the lower reaches and estuary of the Red River.
At the same time, and quite improperly by today's standards, I also directed my first solo excavation while still an undergraduate, at Madmarston hillfort in North Oxfordshire. It was so obviously part of a succession of adjacent sites and developing settlement pattern from prehistoric to medieval times along a valley that even a raw student was able to absorb the idea, however subliminally, of an evolving landscape.
When I was fortunate enough to sidle into the archaeological world as a means of earning my bread a few months later, my paradigm was therefore 'landscape'; but I entered a professional world in which the site reigned supreme. I inventoried sites in Dorset and Wiltshire for the English Royal Commission; and visited a lot of excavations where archaeologists were digging sites because sites - mainly barrows called Ancient Monuments - were being destroyed by ploughing. I listened to lectures about sites being excavated, but no-one talked about the landscape in which they had existed.
In contrast, now it is landscape which is accepted as the norm. Archaeologists consider landscapes first, and from landscapes come perspective and context. From the north and east of Scotland, through the Cheviots and Yorkshire Wolds, in the East Midlands and the Fens, and down through Wiltshire and Dorset to the granite uplands of Dartmoor and Bodmin Moor, landscape archaeology not only pushes our understanding forward but asks new questions about landscapes of the future. The English Heritage Historic Landscape Characterization Project is one such questioner, against a background of what we, as a society, want of our landscape in the 21st century.
Landscape archaeology can be carried out in any part of Britain, so long as you acquire the right frame of mind to do it. If you accept that a landscape can be 'read', rather like a page of music, then you can learn to read it. Your view will change; instead of seeing scenery, you will find yourself looking at landscape; instead of seeing just hedges and fields and woods, your eyes will begin to elucidate patterns. This applies in towns and cities just as much as countryside.
What is actually happening, as you learn various techniques, is that your perception of the three dimensional adjusts to a fourth dimension: you begin to see time, or if not time itself then the consequences of time. Scenery - countryside and townscape - made of shapes, smells, sounds and colours becomes a landscape which has evolved over the centuries and is still evolving, a product of the synergy of humanity and the natural. In practice, what your eyes and brain are recognising are observations which they have learnt to be 'significant', such as an abandoned dyke on an upland hillside disappearing into (and emerging from) a fir plantation, suggesting that the latter is later than the former; or a pattern of rectangular hedged fields overlying the corrugated remains of ridge-and-furrow.
The great thing is to start: don't be shy, don't be daunted. And in no way feel constrained if interest or circumstances confine your study to your local area. One major shift in perception over the last decade is the recognition that sites of 'world' or 'national significance' are no 'better' than sites representing local and personal heritage. Indeed, considerable official encouragement is now given to the recording of such sites, for example through Heritage Lottery grants. As the car-stickers tell us: 'Landscape archaeologists do it on their doorstep.' But, once started, don't hurry: live the land and let the landscape come to you.
Peter Fowler is one of Britain's leading landscape archaeologists. Now a writer and World Heritage consultant, he was formerly Secretary of the English Royal Commission and Professor of Archaeology at Newcastle University. His book, 'Landscape Plotted and Pieced: Landscape History and Local Archaeology in Fyfield and Overton, Wiltshire' was published last year by the Society of Antiquaries of London at £40.00.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005