So when it comes to picturing what archaeologists do it usually involves someone standing in holes or as Willie Scott put it ‘men searching for their mummies’.
Archaeologists can generally be defined either by the time periods they look at (prehistoric, medieval), the places they look at (Egyptologists) or the things they look at (industrial, maritime).
Landscape archaeology is one such sub-discipline. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology defines Landscape Archaeology as:
Landscape Archaeology is concerned with both the conscious and unconscious shaping of the land: with the processes or organising space or altering the land for a particular purpose, be it religious, economic, social, political, cultural, or symbolic; with the unintended consequences of land use and alteration; with the role and symbolic content of landscape in its various contexts and its role in the construction of myth and history; and with the enactment and shaping of human behaviour within the landscape.
Simple, pithy and to the point. I admit it could have been worse, the words ‘epistemological’ or ‘heuristic’ could have been in there.
Basically it is looking at how the landscape has been shaped or how it has shaped how we have used it. So, where a Chinese mining camp would be located or where a church is placed within a town fall into this category. But it is so much more. In August this year the 4th International Landscape Archaeology Conference was held at Uppsala University, Sweden. I didn’t get to go but check out the abstracts to get a real feel for the breath of topics that were covered.
Want to know why looking at things this way is important. Because what I see in the landscape how I perceive it and the value it has to me is not necessarily the same as what you see. I can have a look at the south coast of NSW and see a network of settlements, both extinct and extant, that reflect early European colonisation. They place a layer of meaning that links timber tramways, maritime infrastructure, roads, managed forests and any other number of elements that have organised and shaped the landscape. It has a meaning that I can understand and relate to.
Yet this landscape also has a different layer of meaning. The largest complex of Aboriginal middens on the south coast of NSW, Gulaga and Didthul (Mount Dromedary and Pigeon House Mountain). This is a landscape that was created by the Dreamtime serpent. It has a meaning that came from and also informed how this landscape was used. Where Aboriginal people feasted, met, hunted, gathered and buried their dead are all intertwined with the meaning and significance of this area. You cannot understand the people without understanding how they viewed or lived in this landscape. This is a meaning that others can understand and relate to.
Then again there is someone else who spent their childhood holidaying at Kioloa. Coming back to the same caravan park. The beaches they went to, places they visited, shops, footpaths, trees, lakes and rivers are all imbued with a meaning for them that no one else quite has.
So next time you think about the types of things that archaeologists do, keep in mind that it is bigger than this. Many archaeologists are looking at landscapes as a whole. This gives an understanding and context to what they see and where it is. But a landscape doesn’t have to be large to benefit from this type of analysis. A landscape can be as simple as a complex of buildings. A homestead, outbuildings and gardens are their own cultural landscape that can tell us more about the people who used it when viewed as a whole.
The symbolic and mythological, mundane and practical all place layers of meaning on the landscape. All you have to do is try to find them.
Also just wanted to shout out to Willie Scott.
Coming up next on Heritage Gest….
AAA just like xXx except without Vin Diesel or any extreme sports.