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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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The illusion of landscape

Bob Trubshaw

History is about chaps and geography is about maps. Well, something like that used to be the dictum of school masters. Where does that leave archaeology? Somewhere in the cracks between 'chaps' and 'maps'; more specifically let's say it is to do with how groups of people create their landscapes.

Yes, people create their landscapes. Each culture creates an archetypal landscape myth that in turn shapes the physical landscape. Landscapes may become so much a familiar part of everyday life that they are merely lived in and taken for granted, or they may be more myth than physical reality. Few British people have ever been nearer to Antarctica than seeing David Attenborough's Life in the freezer yet this most inhuman of natural environments has become the setting for one of our characteristic cultural fantasies. The fiasco of Scott's 1912 expedition has made the polar wastes a paradigm of the Boy's own world mentality which shaped the role models for the older generation of upper-echelon British males.

Characteristically the western mind creates landscapes visually - a series of views and vistas. Indeed, the very word 'landscape' came about to express a certain aesthetic approach to Nature. Fundamental to this concept of landscape is the outlook of western materialistic capitalism. Those who coined the word 'landscape' were the landed gentry of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and those who shared their refined and antiquarian aspirations.

This is not to raise the spectre of whether capitalism is or is not a Good Thing but rather to emphasise that 'landscape' (at least as we understand and use the word) is a concept specific to our culture. Our ethnocentricity makes us slow to recognise that our ancestors would necessarily have a different concept of landscape.

Those familiar with the writing of late eighteenth century peasant John Clare will know that the internal tensions of his poetry arise from the emergent elitist view of landscape against the traditional viewpoint of those who directly worked on the land. The Enclosure Acts of the eighteenth century were a change from 'inclusive' community ownership to 'exclusive' individual rights of property.

The word 'landscape' originated as a terminology of painters. In essence, the landscape of the gentry - still our landscape - is seen from a 'viewpoint', in perspective. It manifested in a style of art which depicted the world as realistically as possible - ultimately arriving at the photographic image, which (in both still and moving formats) now ubiquitously pervades our culture.

Nevertheless, the concept of 'realism' is an ideological illusion; albeit an illusion which is carefully perpetrated and which our ethnocentricity rarely challenges. Indeed, it is now almost impossible to think of western culture manifesting without the 'realism' of photography, cinema and video. (Without wishing to over-elaborate this issue, I cannot help but contrast this with traditional islamic cultures that prohibit depictions of people and animals and, by extension, landscape as we understand it; however, this 'abstract austerity' has been subverted by the acceptance of photography.)

The medieval peasant's view was not a vista, but altogether more close-up, more abstracted into its significant functional parts - think of the scenes which make up a Breugel painting. This 'medieval' view is generally shared by the art of traditional peoples worldwide where outward appearances have less importance than impression, 'feel' or culturally-specific significance.

Judging by religious art, the medieval European mind operated with a fundamentally different spatial sense to ours. Their landscape was not something spread out over the surface of the Earth, but rather a more three-dimensional concept where the heavens above and the underworlds in the depths were at least as important and valid as topographical realities.

But landscape is never static. Both the past and the future lay claim on the present. The lowland English farming landscape is a rich palimpsest of settlement and exploitation. Much of the late twentieth century consideration of landscape has its roots clearly in the 1880s when the threat from increasing industrialisation threatened to envelop the whole of the British Isles. The veneration of the countryside can begin to be found in the writings of a number of late Victorian authors and poets as diverse as Oscar Wilde and Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the willows.

As part of this awareness the National Trust was founded in 1895. By the early twentieth century there is a well-developed interest in English landscape, which intensified as the urban working classes were able to take advantage of the independence offered by bicycles.

Simultaneously there is a revival of interest in pagan religion - in the realm of music this is seen distinctively with Wagner and the Ring cycle, or Sibelius and the Kalevala. English novelists of this era took an interest in Pan (a very minor deity to the Classical Greeks) and Gaia. This was 'spiritualised' by early folklorists such as James Frazer and G.L. Gomme. The eventual prodigy was the revival (perhaps more correctly, re-invention) of witchcraft in the post-WWII period, and the Mother Earth spirituality which, if often lacking any real depth, has nevertheless spread into nearly all aspects of modern life [1].

Few known cultures have developed the rich mythological maps which link ancestral inheritance with physical place in the same way as the Australian aborigines. While it would be natural for me to write that this enables the individual to create and maintain their status and identity within the group, this is merely an extension of western cultural egoism which makes the individual more important than the group or clan. For a suitably-initiated aborigine the landscape is inseparable from his ancestral 'clan' inheritance (itself a vastly complex social 'map'). In a manner we find hard to grasp, individuality is simultaneously subservient to 'clan' and landscape. The nett result is that aborigines and european colonists live in and create quite different landscapes - with all the consequent tensions.

To find an example of how the future manifests in the landscape we need only look locally. The energetic disputes over major development schemes - especially those of trunk roads - reveal much about our modern mentality and how it perceives the future. Many people, and no doubt most Mercian Mysteries readers, envisage a future which will still contain a variety of under-developed countryside, with historically important micro-environments and archaeological remains preserved anachronistically. Taken to its extreme, there is probably an argument for 'conserving' just about every part of the British countryside in more or less its present state. We project a future which is a coast-to-coast National Trust-managed enclave of present-day middle class values.

Swiftly sidestepping the counterblast to this reductio ad absurdum, what sort of concepts of landscape might be helpful to archaeologists? Since the 1960s there has been an active concept of 'landscape archaeology' whose proponents have surveyed all manner of 'cultural features' such as deserted villages, early field systems, and the like.

Initially this revealed considerable detail about the medieval period, but some parts of Britain (such as Dartmoor) have proven to reveal detailed (if partial) evidence for prehistoric settlement and farming. While the emphasis of this research has usually been to provide evidence for the environmental impact of human exploitation - very dramatic, in the case of prehistoric Dartmoor - there have been a variety of attempts to consider ritual or symbolic prehistoric landscapes. For instance, Richard Bradley has published a thorough investigation of the Cranbourne Chase area of Dorset [2] and is currently working on the siting of prehistoric 'cup and ring' art. Aubrey Burl has taken on the Stonehenge landscape and, in a different manner, Avebury was given an overview by Peter Ucko and his co-workers [3].
See in particular Julian Thomas' ideas about Avebury.

With the help of such specialists the more modern intrusions can be peeled away to reveal the illusion of a pristine prehistoric past. But what is the reality of the experience? Allow me to quote the response of Christopher Tilley, an archaeologist known for his radical theoretical attitudes:

'Considering megaliths dispassionately, they most usually consist of a few tumbled chunks of unworked stone in a field encircled with brambles, nettles and rank grass. They are frequently difficult to find and unsignposted. The hazards of getting to them may involve braving the dangers of bulls, electric or barbed wire fences, tumbling walls, barking farm dogs, farmers brandishing shot guns and so on. After a strenuous walk the stone, or stones, may, given luck, be encountered. It is almost always raining. The architectural experience of a megalith might be described as minimalist. One unhewn stone rests on another, there is little finesse. After a few minutes, and perhaps a photograph, you have seen that site . . . . What is it that has captured the European imagination in such places, and motivated the innumerable trips of antiquaries, artists, archaeologists, tourists?' [6]

Tilley's tongue-in-cheek irony leads him to compare megalithic remains with contemporary sculpture in the landscape - so-called 'environmental art' or 'landscape art'. Although the 'meaning' will usually be sufficiently diffuse to be a matter of dispute among different viewers, such art embodies a sense of place or belongingness. Is this, in essence, also how we value our prehistoric remains?

The same unstated ironies are ignored en masse when the megaliths are all-too signposted, as with Stonehenge, Newgrange and the like. Tourists are a mixed bunch. The majority are content with sightseeing - a brief look at the more spectacular bits, a photograph, some knickknack from the shop and a chance to use the loos. At another extreme are those who project deeply-held modern day fantasies about the religious significance of such sites, such as Druids and other neo-pagans. In-between are all manner of 'weirdos' and culturally orthodox visitors. The myriad ways in which we can approach the past is a mirror of our pluralistic culture. The resulting conflicts have been discussed at length [7] - and will, no doubt, continue to be unresolved.

In conclusion, our concepts of past provide a rich variety of possible landscapes - although the modern preoccupation with visual 'vistas' and map-like abstraction makes us all-but blind to the different, more functional and non-representational landscapes of our ancestors. Ethnology also opens our minds to potentially more profound mythological landscapes.

We will all continue to live in our familiar, everyday concepts of landscape. As we travel around on field trips and other tourist-type activities we will continue to recreate a variety of landscapes which draw upon a greater-or-lesser awareness of the past. But, by self-consciously standing back from our cultural hand-me-downs, we should be able to extend considerably the variety of possible landscapes.


This article was inspired by reading Landscape - politics and perspectives (ed. Barbara Bender, Berg, 1993) and summarises topics discussed in the following chapters:

Barbara Bender 'Landscape - meaning and action' and 'Stonehenge - contested landscapes' Julian Thomas 'The politics of vision and the archaeologies of landscape' Christopher Tilley 'Art, architecture, landscape (neolithic Sweden)' Denis Cosgrove 'Landscapes and myths, gods and humans'


1: The late nineteenth century veneration of the countryside and the links with pagan revivalism were demonstrated by Dr Ronald Hutton at a lecture at Nottingham University, 8th March 1995.
2: J.C. Barrett, R. Bradley, M. Green, Landscapes, monuments and society, Cambridge UP, 1991; partly summarised in my 'Monuments as ideas', Mercian Mysteries No.21 1994. Similar themes are developed thoroughly in Christopher Tlliey, A phenomenology of landscape, Berg, 1994
3: H.A.W. Burl, The Stonehenge people, Dent, 1987; and P. Ucko, M. Hunter, A.J. Clark and A. David Avebury reconsidered, Unwin Hyman, 1991; see also Thomas cited in following footnote.
4: J.S. Thomas, 'The politics of vision and the archaeologies of landscape', in B. Bender (ed.) Landscape - politics and perspectives, Berg, 1993
5: P. Devereux, 'Three-dimensional aspects of apparent relationships between selected natural and artificial features within the topography of the Avebury complex', Antiquity, No.65, p894-9
6: Tilley in Bender op. cit.
7: C. Chippindale, Who owns Stonehenge?, Batsford 1990

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.24 August 1995.

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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Created April 1996; updated November 2008