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.

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