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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Exploring Past and Place

Bob Trubshaw

The past is in front of us. - Maori saying

So, At the Edge is encumbered with the subtitle (or is it a mission statement?) ‘Exploring new interpretations of past and place in archaeology, folklore and mythology’. While not intended to be read as a manifesto, this article attempts to explain this handle and justify why we’re here.

Few of today’s career-conscious archeaologists would want to justify the theories and interpretations of, say, Glyn Daniels, still less more distant notables such as Gordon Childe. Even within single academic lifetimes it is possible to take disparate broad-views of the subject, as Colin Renfrew has happily shown. By the same criteria the ‘fringe’ contains a legacy that should largely be disregarded.

The non-academic research which, for want of a better label, surfaced under the epithet ‘earth mysteries’ may be considered as an essential antidote to the excessive scientism and hard-line ‘rationalism’ which pervaded academe during the 60s and 70s. The post-modernism of the 80s saw innovative, if somewhat arid, academic adventures into the preconceptions of prehistory, revealing poor theoretical foundations. While the tools of science continue to illuminate once-inaccessible recesses of the archaeological record, in the 90s many once-alternative interpretations of the past have superceded simplistic understanding. Yes, the past is now being ‘interpreted’, some would say ‘invented’, rather than being ‘understood’. Pluralism of approaches has replaced monolithic bigotry. No longer are amateurs left to take the broader views transcending academic pigeon-holing. Myth and folklore are seen as valid (if at times confusing) means of aiding the interpretion of sites. Sites are recognised as part of larger geographical landscapes and landscape archaeology has become a well-recognised sub-discipline. Human lifestyles are seen as being closely connected to the minutae of the landscape and ecology. The rich variety of human culture revealed by ethnography has begun to persuade prehistorians that they cannot project the preconceptions of Western materialistic minds onto our predecessors.

At the Edge might be thought to be a witty way of aluding to ‘fringe’ activities. But ‘fringe’ has negative connotations of unravelled and untidy (despite the fringe often being more interesting than the culturally orthodox, as say at the Edingburgh Festival). The margins in mind are rather those between disciplines. And what happens when there are attempts to build, albeit at times rather perilous, bridges across the chasms? On the basis of recent evidence, ideas emerge which are far more exciting and innovative than we have ever been accustomed to seeing from academe.

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight we can recognise the pioneers of what now would be regarded as the disciplines of social and landscape archaeology, such as the 1970s and 80s studies of the neolithic on Orkney. Around the same time Andrew Fleming also took an interest in the Dartmoor landscape which was to bring about an innovative understanding of prehistoric field systems [1]. Although scarcely considered of little more than arid intellectual interest at the time, even more fruitful seeds were being sown about five to ten years ago. A series of papers and books, mostly by Hodder, Shanks and Tilley, looked at the lack of theroretical underpinning to much of what was happening in archaeological interpretation and provided some radical kicks-to-the-consensus [2].

Within a few years these heated theoretic debates had begun to lead on to new looks at sites; more specifically to looking at groups of sites as constituent parts of a larger whole. Peter Ucko and colleagues in their words ‘reconsidered’ Avebury as a sacred landscape [3]. Dorset came under the spot light quite early, with an important survey of the prehistory of Cranborne Chase which included some open-minded interpretations of the role of the neolithic cursus [4].

At the same time Julian Thomas was rethinking the neolithic and ‘reading’ monuments as complex architecture, again with an emphasis on examples from Wiltshire [5]. Thomas was perhaps the first academic archaeologist of the latest ‘hermeneutic’ schools of thought to openly discuss such concepts as ‘linear’ mounuments, archaeoastronomy and site intervisibility as having spiritual or mythic significance in the neolithic. Perhaps because the ‘fringe’ had become so accustomed to having such approaches pooh-poohed, nobody (myself included) was expecting such insights within a heavyweight study. It is unfortunate that few ‘alternative’ archaeologists have recognised the helpful insights which Thomas provides in Rethinking the Neolithic. He imaginatively re-interpretes well-known sites such as Avebury and Bryn Celli Ddu (Anglesey) and, by the standards of his peers, writes with reasonable clarity if always with a 'post-graduate' level of reader in mind.

This book is many things to different readers as each of the chapters offer a different 'reading' of the material record of the past. These explore the ways in which our predecessor's experience and outlook are determined by their routine experience of place, and with the less-routine experience of rituals which may use place in a 'liminal' manner.

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. - L.P. Hartley

The first book-length work to convince me that this new thinking was not an academic fad was Richard Bradley’s Altering the Earth [6]. Combining a broad scope - the subtitle reads ‘The origins of monuments in Britian and continental Europe’ - with innovative ideas and yet still being entirely readable is a rare acheivement. Bradley takes as his starting point the rich megalithic remains of Mid Argyll around Kilmartin. When visiting such an area, Bradley notes ‘we are confronted with just how different the past was from the present.’ He observes that we tend to create a past in terms that are familiar to us. The main failing of this approach is to overlook the wider significance of place in an unmapped landscape, because we lack the ability to incorporate the unaltered topography into our sense of landscape. This takes Bradley into a topic which he has since developed further, prehistoric rock art. However, the main thrust of Altering the Landscape is to show that, in the author’s opinion, ‘monuments and places worked together to direct and stimulate the experience of prehistoric people.’ Bradley’s examples included an especially perceptive evaluation of the Cranborne Chase cursus as a monument that not only controlled access but also ‘controlled the experience’ of associated barrows. A number of wider issues of looking at prehistoric landscapes emerged all-but-simultaneously in a collection of papers entitled Landscape: Politics and Perspectives [7]. This broke with the hitherto orthodoxy of giving people a ‘hypothetical status’ in the landscapes, as unknown (and, it was implied, all-but-unknow-able) creators of the material evidence. This meant that population levels, climate, land use and settlement had been the furthest one should venture from hard evidence; even suggestions of ‘focal places’ became a controversial topic. By contrast, Julian Thomas’ contribution [8] dealt further with the Avebury monuments, attempting to recreate the personal experience these sites might have been intended to invoke - he specifically sees them as a series of structures, each to be revealed in turn. In a paper that is generally lucidly written, he concludes concisely: ‘Evidently, the intention [at Avebury] was to construct a set of conceptually separate and mutually secluded contexts for action.’

Alongside Thomas’ chapter was an architectural approach to Swedish megalithic tombs by arch-phenomenologist, Christopher Tilley, and an attempt by a geographer, Denis Cosgrove, to look at the ways in which landscapes are mythologised. Some of the other papers were more ‘political’ in perspective, although a seperate publication, Sacred Sites, Sacred Places [9] dealt with the thorny contemporary issues which bring together archaeologists, indigenous peoples and their sacred sites. In the process, these papers demonstrate the variety of ways in which sites are held to be sacred, with informative contributions from as far apart as Arctic Russia, California, Australia and Ireland. Archaeologists were beginning to drop the rag-bag term ‘ritual’ (which, anyway, seemed to be allowed only when all possible utlitarian interpretations had been exhausted). Sites could be sacred again. Sites, sacred and otherwise, were being put into the perspective of landscapes. Above all, people were back in the landscapes.

One of the first book-length surveys to embody some innovative assessements of the siting and functions of sacred sites was Mark Patton’s work on neolithic Brittany [10]. Subtitled ‘monuments and society’, among the surprises within this book is the recognition that decorated menhirs were deliberately reused in later long mounds - one menhir being broken in two and the fragments incorporated in separate mounds. Although not especially accesible to a non-specialist, Patton deals in detail with decorative art in the passage graves such as Gavrinis and even attempts to summarise the social aspects of specific ritual landscapes. So far, the most detailed and innovative assessment of British neolithic sites has come from Christopher Tilley [11]. Building on the work of other researchers, he has taken various groups of neoltihic sites - such as the chamber tombs of Pembrokeshire - and considered their placing in the landscape to be based on intervisibility with specific peaks and hills, such as Carn Ingli. Other sections deal with the Black Mountains in south-east Wales and with Cranborne Chase. Apart from an unfortunate ‘academic-speak’ title, Tilley has succeeded in adopting a reasonably accessible style with just a few lapses. His ethnographic parallels with hunter-gatherers in Canada and cultivators in Melanesia and south-western USA rank as true inter-disciplinary studies. The overwhelming impression that Tilley creates is that it is possible to discuss, in detail, how the landscapes were perceived by the people of the past.

An entirely different approach, but equally effective in its transcending of disciplines, is Aitchinson’s work on the royal centres of medieval Ireland [12]. By looking at the mythological literature and the archaeology ‘back-to-back’ he is able to destroy some long-held preconceptions and, more importantly, to offer a number of new insights into the nature and role of places such as Navan and Tara in the prehistoric and early medieval periods.

The neolithic passage tombs of Co Sligo have benefited from Bergh’s doctorial study where the emphasis is fully revealed by its title: Landscape of the Monuments [13]. Although much of the content is, inevitably, in the nature of a catalogue of surviving remains, he does try to place them within a geographical context, noting their tendency to ‘clustering’ around key sites. Unlike Patton, he stops short of attempting to create a ‘social’ framework. I suspect that a number of studies are currently underway which will repeat Patton and Bergh’s approaches.

Recent issues of Antiquity have included articles which looked at Irish megalithic landscapes from an architect’s outlook [14] and which related the rock art in the Boyne Valley passsage tombs to ‘entoptic’ patterns encountered only under trance states [15] - a topic which was once firmly banished to the fringe. At a different level entirely, the difficult issues of neolithic goddesses, Marija Gimbutas and ‘New Age’ beliefs based on ‘old school’ archaeology were openly discussed [16].

The past exudes legend - Bernard Malamud

There are a number of areas of ‘new thinking’ in academic archaeology which are missing from this resumé. The reason is simply that I have yet to get to grips with the key texts. Those who appear to be in the know report that some of the post-modernist French anthropological philosophers are finding interesting things to say about the nature of space and place. At least two of the main texts have appeared in English: The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre and Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, Marc Auge (1995). Alongside this theorising about place are longer-standing studies of the social production of time. This has been linked largely with the Annales school [17] which can be considered to be studying how history is made and how the past is created.

What is lacking from these resumés is an equivalent opening-up from folklore and mythology. The relevant journals are largely devoted to introspective erudition which offers little to excite non-academic readers. Mythology has produced ground-breaking thinkers, such as Bruce Lincoln [18], but such works have rarely crossed into studies in other disciplines. Only a collection of papers on a wide variety of themes related to liminality [19] has the scope to interest the generalist rather than the specialist.

Towards a sharing of views

According to one sage of the West [20], criticism has to go through these stages:

- It is impossible.
- It is possible, but it is useless.
- It is useful, but I knew about it all the time.

Those of us who have been with ‘alternative’ archaeology long enough might, I hope, be forgiven for recognising the accuracy of this aphorism. Leslie Grinsell was well aware of the second remark - his work on the folklore linked with prehistoric sites [21] was merely a part of a long lifetime’s activities which went against the fashions of the times. Aubrey Burl put people back into Stonehenge as long ago as 1987 [22]. In 1991 Paul Devereux, the long-standing editor of The Ley Hunter, was encouraged by Chris Chippindale to share his observations of intervisibility between West Kennet long barrow, Silbury Hill and Windmill Hill with Antiquity’s readers [23]. The possibilities of a richly symbolic basis for Irish rock art had been pioneered in the early 1980s by Brennan [24]. Ireland’s mythological landscapes have been recently thoroughly re-explored by Michael Dames [25] (who had, many years before, provided an inspirational modern-day mythology for Avebury [26]). Gerry Bracken’s observations of spectacular sunset effets at Croagh Patrick have yet to be fully published, however [27]. Now that sufficient academics ‘knew about these all the time’ we can look forward to some healthy sharing of views. Indeed, a number of academics whose works are cited above have developed effective links with ‘alternative’ researchers. Intellect free from the straitjacket of scholarly convention and the anxieties of career-building reputation can produce high-calibre work. The common interests were made clear by Paul Devereux at the most recent TLH Moot (London, October 1995) when he noted that thinking about place requires both imagination and theoretical constructs. Place and mind are inextricably linked. This in turn means that place is not passive; rather it interacts with human consciousness. Devereux made the suggestion that prehistory can be considered to be equivalent to the unconsciousness mind, whereas history is equivalent to the conscious mind. Modern minds, with the mnemonics of maps, photographs as well as written texts, no longer ‘need’ myths; only traditional societies can still preserve those ‘fossils of consciousness’ that are embodied in pre-literate cultures. As Joseph Campbell recognised (drawing upon Carl Jung), dreams are private myths and myths are public dreams. Mythic consciousness is akin to dreaming with the eyes open. In such a mind-state, monuments are like the dreams we try to remember.

The ability of the modern mind to think of ‘place’ abstractly, rather than as something which is in the mind of the perceiver, has led to savage separations from other physical evidence of the past. The mind is the bridge between past and place. Minds think of place in many ways. We tend to categorise them as various forms of myth, with an ethnocentricity that separates our own world-view as being, by comparison, ‘objective’. It takes little imagination to recongise that modern minds are every bit as redolent with symbolism of place as any ethnographic parallels. Our ‘myths’ embody notions of ownership, environment, beauty, ammenity and the more work-a-day equivalents for the mundane landscapes of industry and suburbia.

Who controls the past controls the future. - George Orwell

There is nothing absolute about our concepts of past and place, rather an effevescent fashionability where the only certainty is change. Yes, once more, we are creating images of other cultures in the image of our own pre-occupations. This time it is change and pluralism which we are projecting on to our predecessors.

Special thanks to Kathryn Denning for helpful comments on an earlier draft.


1: The Dartmoor Reaves, Batsford c.1987
2: Reading the Past Ian Hodder, Cambridge UP 1986 (2nd edition 1991); Re-constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice Michael Shanks and Christopher Tilley, Routledge 1987 (2nd edn 1992).
3: Avebury Reconsidered P. Ucko, M. Hunter, A.J. Clark and A. David, Unwin Hyman 1991
4: Landscape, Monuments and Society: the Prehistory of Cranborne Chase, John C. Barrett, Richard Bradley and Martin Green, Cambridge UP 1991
5: Rethinking the Neolithic Julian Thomas, Cambridge UP 1991
6: Altering the Earth R. Bradley, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 1993
7: Landscape: Politics and Perspectives ed. Barbara Bender, Berg 1993
8: ‘The politics of vision and the archaeologies of landscape’ in Bender, ibid.
9: Sacred Sites, Sacred Places ed. D.L. Carmichael, J. Hubert, B. Reeves and A. Schanche, Routledge 1994
10: Statements in Stone - Monuments and Society in Neolithic Brittany Mark Patton, Routledge 1993
11: A Phenomenology of Landscape - Places, Paths and Monuments Christopher Tilley, Berg 1994
12: Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland N.B. Aitchison, Cruithne 1994
13: Landscape of the Monuments - a Study of the Passage Tombs in the Cúil Irra Region, Co. Sligo. Ireland Stefan Bergh Riksantikvarieämbetet, Arkeologiska undersökningar, Skrifter Nr 6, 1995
14: ‘Forms of power: dimensions of an Irish megalithic landscape’, Jean McMann Antiquity No.68 (1994) p525-44
15: ‘Subjective vision and the source of Irish megalithic art’, Jeremy Dronfield, Antiquity, No.264 Vol.69 (1995) p539-49
16: ‘Goddesses, Gimbutas and “New Age” archaeology’, Lynn Meskell, Antiquity No.262 Vol.69 (1995) p74-86
17: Summarised in The Annales School and Archaeology, ed. John Bintliff, Leicester UP 1994
18: His early work, Emerging from the Chrysalis: Studies of Rituals of Women’s Initiation (Harvard UP 1981) contains an introduction relevant to all studies of ritual; see also Myth, Cosmos and Society - Indo-European Themes of Creation and Destruction, Harvard UP 1986; Death, War and Sacrifice, University of Chicago Press 1991
19: Boundaries and Thresholds ed. Hilda Ellis Davidson, Thimble 1993
20: Attributed to Idries Shah.
21: Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, L.V. Grinsell, David and Charles 1976
22: The Stonehenge People H.A.W. Burl, Dent 1987
23: ‘Three-dimensional aspects of apparent relationships between selected natural and artificial features within the topography of the Avebury complex’, P. Devereux, Antiquity Vol.65 (1991) p894-8
24: The Stars and the Stones, Martin Brennan, Thames and Hudson 1983.
25: Mythic Ireland, M. Dames, Thames and Hudson 1992
26: The Silbury Treasure Thames and Hudson 1976; The Avebury Cycle Thames and Hudson 1977
27: Bracken gave an illustrated lecture at the Northern Earth magazine moot in Bradford, October 1994; a brief account appears as ‘The magic of the rolling Mayo sun’, Michael Viney, Northern Earth, No.63 (1995) p6-9

Originally published in At the Edge No.1 1996.

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