Sunday, February 24, 2008

Shaping landscapes

I have had the privilege of doing archaeological fieldwork in Jordan since almost a decade ago now, in excellent company. I miss the camaraderie of our team, which I again and again mistakenly took as missing the actual fieldwork. This error resulted in spending five seasons - invariably in late summer which in the Near East tends to be hot - intensively surveying a very small area around a certain mountain. I can claim to have experienced that specific landscape very closely, and in a more embodied way than I would even care (btw, did you know that you can sweat from your eye sockets too?) .

If anything, this experience has made me more doubtful of our capability to understand the perceptions people in the past attached to certain landscapes or places; to put ourselves to the skins of a 1st century Nabataean or a 5th century Christian pilgrim, even less a Neolithic farmer-herder-hunter-gatherer (the last two having apparently been what the Neolithic people were doing in our survey area since they left little traces of themselves). In fact, I think we would be hard pressed even to imagine ourselves as the present-day locals, who can associate every place with a piece of family or clan history - even if we knew that history.

It is a widely accepted view in archaeology that places get meaning through human use and that meaning is deeply rooted in culture and dependent on the group, even the individual. When we went to our survey area for the first time, for us there were no places, only space. The landscape was alien to us before we categorized and labelled it in our own terms: sandstone, limestone, fault line, alluvium, barrage, terrace wall, lithic scatter... Some of the locations in that landscape later became places for us, but they are places of our own making. Such as the places we used to have our tea-breaks in, or the rock that we dubbed "the Indian head" because, from a certain angle, it looks like the profile of a face with stereotypized "Indian" features.


I think this example aptly illustrates that we are 21st century western academics with a scientific mindset and what we are, we are thoroughly. We cannot be anything else. We may learn to walk the paths and we may see the same landforms and monuments or try to reconstruct them in our mind's eye or through the use of our sophisticated technologies. We may try to empathize with the perceptions of past individuals like actors would to a role. And still they will not mean the same things to us. We may get a tantalizing glimpse of meaning through archaeological remains, but our constructions of what past people would have thought rest on our ideas of what they were like and what they should have been feeling and thinking when they perceived something that we, from our own cultural background, consider impressive or important, which probably tells us more about ourselves than them.

(Well, this was supposed to be a rant but ended up more as a musing...)

2 comments:

Mary said...

I very much agree with you here.

By the end of my time studying landscape archaeology I felt that every conclusion I drew said more about me than it did about the landscape I was studying.

When I think about my own landscapes they are so full of personal history and internal thoughts/memories that it is difficult to know if even someone of the same culture and era as me would experience them similarly, let alone someone in the future approaching them academically

Vulpecula said...

Right you are. Remember the time, early on, when we had to write about our significant landscape? I might in fact post that text here...