Monday, 29 December 2014

From the microscale to landscape

A nice bit of good news for the end of the year - I was recently appointed as assistant editor and social media editor for Landscape Research, the academic journal of the Landscape Research Group, which is published by Routledge. This means that in addition to normal editorial duties (assessing manuscripts, assigning reviewers, encouraging a quality and speedy publication process), I am also responsible for developing the social media profile of the journal. In particular, I hope to build the audience in the archaeological community, and encourage collaborative, interdisciplinary approaches to researching and understanding landscapes.

I blogged recently about how I jump in between disciplinary pigeon-holes, and the study of landscape is an area that falls into many categories. The individual elements of a landscape are from the past and present, the natural and the cultural, the tangible and the intangible. In order to understand the landscape as a whole, we need to investigate the individual components. This may involve archaeologists, historians, environmental scientists, geographers, all working on different aspects, and then the landscape specialist, who can bring it all back together to understand the landscape as a whole.

In my research I think frequently about ideas of scale, and also the integration of scientific methods and understanding the human part of the human past. It may seem strange that someone like myself, who has done so much work on archaeology at the microscale - the individual, invisible traces of human activities in the past - would be interested in the landscape scale, which is the opposite end of the scale spectrum. In reality, what I am really interested in is developing a framework for  connecting these different scales of analysis. It is all dependent on the questions that we want to ask - the scale of analysis needs to vary according to the question. This is something that is not always achieved very well in archaeology, and can have significant impacts on how we interpret and understand the past (but that is a post for another day).

Guelferbytanus A, a palimpsest manuscript (from Wikipedia)
An idea that links the microscale with the landscape is that of the palimpsest. The word palimpsest is traditionally used to describe historical texts, where multiple layers of text are superimposed - so what we see on a single page is actually multiple episodes of writing. It has been argued that much of archaeology is a palimpsest, where the signals of multiple events become superimposed within a layer of soil or sediment. When we look under the microscope the reality of this concept becomes very obvious - what looks to be a single layer in the field may actually contain multiple different layers or events under the microscope. There is no real single context. Many archaeological traces are a combination of different activities and taphonomic processes. Sometimes we can disentangle these if we look very closely under the microscope, sometimes we can't (though we may be able to narrow down the possibilities). Likewise, a landscape is very much a palimpsest. There are layers of time and meaning in the landscape, all present together as a current 'package' of information that can be understood and read in different ways.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Micrograph of the Month: Krotovinas at Çatalhöyük

Did you know that there is a word for an animal burrow that becomes backfilled with soil/sediment? That word is krotovina! At Catalhoyuk, burrowing by small mammals is probably one of the most destructive forms of bioturbation on site. Ground squirrels, or suslik as they are known in Turkey, have a great time digging their way through the nice soft archaeological sediments, mixing up the deposits as they go. When marking out locations for micromorphology sampling we try and avoid these burrows, as we want to look at intact stratigraphy. Every once in a while however, what looks to be undisturbed deposits turns out to have a hidden burrow when the slide is made. It makes the sample almost useless it terms of analysis, but in this case has given a nice example of bioturbated deposits for my teaching reference collection of slides! I have included pictures of the midden section that these micrographs come from, as it is much easier to understand what a krotovina is at the macroscale. The photo on the left highlights the multiple krotovinas in this section, which are distinctly rounded and tunnel-like. It is always important to refer back to field sections when analysing micromorphology slides, as it helps understand the spatial extent of the deposits that are being studied.

In the micrographs below you can see there that there is a lot of white 'space' - these are void areas, that is, area of space within the deposits. These are the result of the mixing that occurs when the suslik digs through the layers, loosening the deposits and kicking them backwards. The mixing can also be seen in the way all the different materials are randomly orientated. The different layers within the slide become homogenised, as if they have been shaken up and redeposited. This can also be seen clearly when we look at the thin section slide above - I have highlighted the V shaped 'burrow' that cuts through the different layers of ash.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The landscape of Stonehenge?

File:Stonehenge with farm carts, c. 1885.jpg
Stonehenge c. 1885. Wikipedia.
10th battalion CEF marching past Stonehenge1914–15 Wikipedia
It was announced earlier today that the A303 road which currently runs past Stonehenge will be re-routed through a tunnel, to remove it from view of the monument. This follows the closing of the A344 earlier last year. Although this is being done for the benefit of visitors who apparently complain about the road, I myself have mixed feelings about it. Which is odd, as I am the sort of person who generally prefers landscapes of trees and 'nature' to one of city skylines and roads. I guess the major thing that bothers me is the definition of a landscape as somehow belonging to Stonehenge. I am assuming we are trying to revert to what the landscape may have been like at the time Stonehenge was in use, by Neolithic people.
 A303 road in 1930 from Stonehenge: a history in photographs
Even if we could provide a truly accurate picture of what the landscape was like at this time, it has had thousands of years of history since then. It has become one part of a larger landscape that includes agriculture and, yes roads! Landscapes are by their very nature palimpsests, we can see the evidence of history, multiple periods superimposed, occurring within the same space, and this is part of what makes them fascinating. Landscape is dynamic, and it has many aspects - it comprises all visible features of an area from the geological and geographical, the mountains, rivers, vegetation, to the anthropogenic, the land use, buildings, electricity pylons, to the transitory and ephemeral, weather, light. Landscape is not just wilderness, it is cultural and constructed, a combination of the natural and physical, overlain by human history, reflecting and defining regional and national identity. Another perspective could be that we are removing Stonehenge from its landscape, detaching it from  the rest of its history and placing it within something artificial, designed to mimic our best guess at what it looked like during the Neolithic. 

It's curious to see how different people perceive the landscape, and what the 'ideal' should be. Helen Ghosh, Director General of the National Trust, is quoted as saying the A303 "the blight of the road that dominates the landscape of Stonehenge" and that the tunnel will create "space for nature and improve the site's tranquillity". The idea just feels very artificial to me, and it is not really going to be tranquil when you are sharing the space with hundreds of other tourists. It is amazing, imposing, inspiring, but the experience is managed, and educational. It is not tranquillity and ruin.

In some ways Stonehenge is similar to the Egyptian Pyramids at Giza - both are frequently portrayed in a very selective manner that places them in a 'natural' wilderness that appears to be free of human activity. Visitors are surprised, and perhaps disappointed, when they are shown the wider context, and find that both are actually part of a wider landscape that is distinctly urban. Even the landscape that we see today, complete with roads, is different to what it was when the land surrounding Stonehenge was given to the National Trust in 1927. Cottages and a World War 1 aerodrome were removed, and nearby there are two memorials to fatal flying accidents. To me, the photos above are a palimpsest of cultural heritage, I love that you can see so many different parts of history together. The road is arguably as much a piece of landscape history as the monument!

Pyramids of Giza and Stonehenge: presentation versus reality (images all from Wikipedia)

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