The past in the landscape

Geographical studies have repeatedly made the point that landscapes are not only natural but also very much cultural (e.g. Tuan 1974; Meinig 1979c; Penning-Rowsell and Lowenthal 1986; Cosgrove 1989). In fact, the natural and the cultural, form a unit as the environment in which we live; they cannot be separated from each other (Ingold 1993). The perception and meaning of this unified (natural-cultural) landscape shapes people's experiences of both time and space.

Tumulus near Nipmerow, Kreis Rügen (1995)

Landscapes and life-worlds are always multitemporal. Not only specific memories associated with particular objects of material culture (Friese 1997), but also cultural traces and remains from different ages as well as the erosion of natural features such as mountains create a 'temporal collage' of our surroundings (Lynch 1972: esp. 168-73; Tuan 1964; Williams 1990). The past is omnipresent in the landscape we inhabit. Laurence Olivier (2001: 67) even went as far as claiming that

"From the place where I am standing, the 1990s are invisible on this quiet morning: the present here is not made up of a perspective of late-20th century buildings, with their white-tiled facades, brand-new cars moving along the streets, people walking about in fashionable clothes; one sees this fiction only in museums. Right now, the present here is made up of a series of past durations that makes the present multi-temporal. The past is in the present, it is mainly the present. What will remain from this present instant is possibly an imperceptible layer of things, deposited on the surface of a huge accumulation of past temporalities, some of them relating to the most remote pasts: in the fields around, beside motorways and supermarkets, flakes of flint tools show through the surface, together with fossilised shells; down by the river, dark waters silently roll over rocks that came here millions of years ago. The present here is this imperceptible and continual process of increasing the unbelievable mass of the past."

Maurice Halbwachs argued (1980: chapter 4) that collective memories usually contain a strong spatial dimension and are linked to certain places in the landscape. In the 'Holy Land', many locations of events described in the Bible became sacred places of the collective memory of religious groups, even though the exact places were often later invented rather than accurately remembered (Halbwachs 1992). Other appropriate examples for a past that is 'visible' in space are provided by conceptions of the landscapes among the Páez in Colombia and by those among the Australian Aborigines.

The multitemporality of landscape reflects its long history of becoming, and the complex collective memories of those who inhabit that landscape. Biographies of whole landscapes can be composed out of the 'life-histories' of their material components, such as megaliths or urnfields (Roymans 1995; Fontijn 1996). In some instances, 'ruins' have been created in the landscape as new buildings, for example in landscape parks, or old structures were later imitated, in order to add additional layers of time to the landscape.

[Image]Landscapes, and the ancient monuments, such as megaliths, which they contain, are symbolic and meaningful. They can be interpreted in different ways. In order to understand a landscape it is necessary to understand people's attitudes, meanings, and values, because "any landscape is composed not only of what lies before our eyes but what lies within our heads" (Meinig 1979b: 34; see also Tuan 1979; Craik 1986).

If people 'encode' their ideas about the landscape according to a given cultural code, understanding these ideas implies a process of 'decoding'. We can decode a depicted landscape only if we know the particular cultural context (Cosgrove 1989: 125ff.; cf. Duncan and Duncan 1988). This is especially true for landscape paintings, for example those by Caspar David Friedrich (see also Daniels and Cosgrove 1988).

In this work, I am interested in the meanings of ancient monuments as key places of a landscape in which people lived and live. Yet the mounds of prehistoric tombs and other monuments are not merely forms or containers of archaeological and historical evidence. If we are interested in a "people-centred" and holistic perspective (Fleming and Hamilakis 1997), what matters about ancient sites in the landscape must prominently include "the unity we see, the impressions of our senses rather than the logic of the sciences" (Meinig 1979a: 2). Megaliths and similar monuments are in many cases particularly impressive and evocative features of the landscape: they become timemarks and sites of memory (Evans 1985; Garwood 1991; Bender 1993).

One of the earliest scholars who appreciated remnants from the past was Pausanias in Roman Greece. But in earlier times too, the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians admired old pyramids and other monuments from the past, and the Greeks appreciated Mycenaean tombs and ruins in the landscape. Carla Antonaccio (1994) argued that "Bronze Age sanctuaries, tombs, and habitation sites structured the landscape in certain parts of Greece" (1994: 80) and that certain later activities deliberately referred to the ancient remains at the same location or in their neighbourhood.

All this corresponds well to a view of time that Michel Serres sketched out in a conversation with Bruno Latour (1995: 60):

"If you take a handkerchief and spread it out in order to iron it, you can see in it certain fixed distances and proximities. If you sketch a circle in one area, you can mark out nearby points and measure far-off distances. Then take the same handkerchief and crumple it, by putting it in your pocket. Two distant points suddenly are close, even superimposed. If, further, you tear it in certain places, two points that were close can become very distant. [....] As we experience time [...] it resembles this crumpled version much more than the flat, overly simplified one."


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© Cornelius Holtorf, last updated on 11 January 2007