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This review appeared in Volume 8 (3) of The Semiotic Review of Books.


By Sven Ouzman

A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments. By Christopher Tilley. Oxford: Berg Publishers 1994, xi + 221 pages, 73 figures, 4 tables. ISBN 1-85973-076-0.

The human sciences are in a state of relative openness and susceptibility, with few of the dominant paradigms remaining free from a wave of lay and specialist criticism enabled by new information technologies which have shifted and generalised the locus of knowledge production (e.g., Featherstone et al. 1995). It is from within this fluid context that Christopher TilleyÕs A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments emerges. Tilley alludes to the wider context within which the book is set in his very first sentence in which he characterises the book as a "blurred genre" which contains insights from "philosophy, cultural anthropology, and human geography and recent interpretive work in archaeology" (p. 1). Archaeology, which is the bookÕs dominant discourse, is similarly blurred and occupies an ambiguous position in the human sciences. Historically, archaeology has striven for the acceptance of the hard, empirical "science" of its work. Yet the hub of archaeology -- people -- are very contrary entities who seldom obey or conform to scientific deterministic laws and generalisations. The "blurred" nature of archaeology is simultaneously its greatest strength -- in that it allows a Popperian web of mutually constraining and permitting lines of evidence -- and its greatest weakness -- in that techniques, methods and even theories are often borrowed and are imperfectly understood.

Archaeology is a small field divided into equally small sub-disciplines that utilise a bewildering range of chrono-centric, economically determinist and technicist labels and languages. Terms such as "stone age", "hunter-gatherer" and "14C AMS" are common. The specialised and often idiosyncratic use of archaeological terms satisfy KuhnÕs criterion that true sciences only reach maturity when their operating parlance becomes unintelligible to the lay person. But archaeological language can create significant semantic and practical barriers to the cross-fertilisation of ideas and expertise within the discipline and beyond. Tilley and the loose alliance of similarly-minded "post-processual" archaeologists advocate an archaeology which has a strong presentist social and political flavour which many "processual" or "scientistic" archaeologists find hard to accept. Having pioneered a discourse that excels at criticising and questioning -- particularly positivist, excavation-centric archaeology -- the challenge is to construct alternative but believable discourses that go some way to dissolving barriers within archaeology and assist engagement with society at large.

One such alternative discourse takes a common human theme -- the world in which we live. The study of an humanised landscape (e.g., Bender 1995; but see Clarke 1972), is derived from Human Geography (e.g., Tuan 1974; Cosgrove & Daniels 1988). Landscape studies have an attractive open-endedness that makes them "a frame for discourse that encourages the development of metaphors, which enables the exploration of old topics in new ways and which may provide the framework for the construction of new theories." (Morphy 1995:205).

TilleyÕs A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments is a good exemplar of this genre. The book is divided into two parts, the first of which consists of two introductory chapters.

The first introductory chapter deals with contemporary ontological and epistemological under-standings of inner and outer realities -- or -- the individual and the external world in the Cartesian sense. In particular, HeideggerÕs notion of "Being" and "Being-in-the-world" is used to establish a relationship between not only the person or consciousness and the world, but also between the phenomenolog-ical or sensuous experiences of the person inhering in that world. The question posed is: does "landscape" exist in a material, objective sense, or does "landscape" reside chiefly in the human mind? (pp. 13-14). Though an overstated opposition, Tilley leans toward the latter proposition, convincingly pointing out that geographic loci have had many lives during the course of time which different people have differentially perceived, understood and marked so that people and landscape could formalise their points of attachment and difference. The landscape may thus be understood as a "mind-scape" or an on-going mental construction. In order to consider specificities, this initial introductory chapter goes on to establish two important points.

The first is a very practical but essential definition of "place" and "space" with "place" a geographic and conceptual locus at which human activity is concentrated and often leaves an observable residue of material culture and "space" a less-easily definable entity which nevertheless provides the tonal and textural context for the "places" it surrounds and partially defines (pp. 14-17).

Flowing from this definition is the second important point which is an acknowledgement of the importance of the journey as a metaphor, the experiential manifestation of which is a path along or within which people travel, usually toward a "place" (pp. 29-31). The journey is an archetypal human metaphor and a useful heuristic conceit used to enable an enquiry into the phenomenological experience of how we approach, inhere, leave and define "places". The scale at which the land is experienced from the path is from the perspective of an individual; a nicely particularistic perspective, even if the individual is a generalised representative (see Johnson 1989). In addition, because human activity is concentrated along and governed by the path, though observable material culture is weakly presenced, the path becomes a "place" and not a nebulous "space". The path thus represents those forms of knowledge and discourse that are difficult to define as they oscillate between the margins and centres of understanding (cf. Derrida 1982). Dwelling further on the path metaphor, one comes to realise the way in which we construct our landscapes and mindscapes is overwhelmingly visual in nature, a legacy of post-Enlightenment thinking in which sight is characterised as the omniscient and objective sense of reason. Our four other sensory perceptions, as well as that constellation of feelings and experiences that are not adequately encapsulated by words, compete unsuccessfully with the human gaze -- yet as the Romantic poet William Blake posed: "how do you know but that every bird that cleaves the aerial way is not an immense world of delight closed to your senses five?"

The issue of visual primacy becomes particularly urgent in Part OneÕs second introductory chapter which deals with "The social construction of landscape in small-scale societies" using a generalised Australian Aboriginal community, the Mitassini Cree of Canada, a generalised class of subsistence cultivators in Melanesia and the Tewa of south-western North America as case studies (pp. 35-67). Small-scale societies such as these have ways of apprehending and understanding the world which we find difficult to comprehend. For example, The Tukano of South America categorise the world by smell and speak of and follow the "odour trails" of people, animals and even places (Classen 1993:81), while the Tzotzil Maya of Mexico classify places according to a culturally meaningful set of temperatures (ibid:122-126). Our difficulty in comprehending these world-understandings relates strongly to our understanding of landscape. Large-scale societies physically alter their landscapes, often to conform to an objectified model of land as a possession and expression of power. This model of land, manifest in such things as the anonymity and synonymity of many western cities and shopping malls often makes people feel strangely de-centred and place-less. In contrast, small-scale societies" impact on the landscape is less physical and more conceptual in nature and allows for multiple and even contrasting universes to exist, all of which are equally "real", though context-dependant and of variable access. Furthermore, for small-scale societies the landscape is totally socialised and "culture" and "nature" are meaningless oppositions. In the case of most Australian AboriginalÕs understanding, the physical landscape was not a pre-existing entity but was brought into being by human action as the beings of the Law or Dreaming journeyed not over vast distances; rather, they journeyed in order to create those vast distances. The landscape in total is their mark that provides the basis for subsequent people-landscape relationships (pp.40-43). In this instance "space" as an abstract concept does not exist as it is bound up with the reality of oneÕs immediate landscape and community, beyond which reality effectively ends. In other words, the communityÕs identity is locational and functions as a metonym for all the past and to come landscapes and communities.

It is difficult for people such as ourselves to intellectually, let alone empathetically, understand the world-understandings of small-scale societies. This lack of understanding first became apparent with the 15th century voyages of discovery and the subsequent colonial experiment (e.g., Said 1978). This lack of understanding is also a serious archaeological concern as itchallenges the assumption that re-construction of small-societies" landscapes is possible from a non-emic perspective which is spatially and temporally separated from the archaeological referent. One way around the problem is to make use of ethnographic analogues in which past, unobservable small-scale societies" behaviour and artefacts are explained in terms of present, small-scale societies" behaviour and artefacts in the hope of approaching a goodness of fit or verisimilitude between past and present behaviours, artefacts and hypotheses. Ethnographic analogy is a potentially fraught practice (e.g., Wylie 1989), but even more fraught is studying archaeologically defined societies for whom no direct ethnography exists, as becomes evident in the second and largest part of the book.

This second part devotes its four chapters to a "consideration of prehistoric landscapes" (p.1), specifically the Mesolithic and Neolithic landscapes encountered in parts of what is today the United Kingdom. Briefly, the Mesolithic is the period before very approximately 4 500 years ago in which the population of Europe consisted of transhumant hunter-gatherers. Then, between about 4 500 and 2 500 years ago monumental architecture in the form of cairns, earthworks, embankments, observatories, tombs and so forth appeared on the landscape, manifesting the Neolithic. This "Neolithic" or "new stone age" is a term Tilley no doubt abhors for both its technicism and its emphasis on discontinuity with the Mesolithic because one of the most important contributions Tilley makes is to argue that the Mesolithic and Neolithic have more consonances than dissonances (pp. 86-87). The latter period formalised many of the former timeÕs world-understandings, which were contained and transmitted in a collective "social memory" (p. 27) and expressed in monumental architecture (Chapter 6; see also Bradley 1993; Thomas 1996:123-4).

We have no direct ethnographic information on Mesolithic or Neolithic people and Tilley creates an ethnographic simulacrum by using observable material culture, an internally consistent argument and a universality of landscape experience, all of which are linked together by the metaphor of the path-bound journey:

This perpetually shifting human visual experience of place and landscape encountered in the walk has not altered since the Mesolithic. Things in front of or behind you, within reach or without, things to the left and right of your body, above and below, these most basic of personal spatial experiences, are shared with prehistoric populations in our common biological humanity. They provide tools with which to think and to work. (p. 74).

Here Tilley places us at a cross-roads. We must decide either to momentarily suspend our disbelief and read on, or to dismiss the next 134 pages as an interesting, but ultimately unverifiable truth-claim (cf. Valdˇs 1992:3-19). Tilley applies the ideas developed in the two introductory chapters in Part One to Mesolithic and Neolithic landscape construction in south-western Wales, south-eastern Wales and southern England (pp. 76-201). Using strands of evidence variably embedded in an empirical firmament Tilley argues that the "natural" rock-wild topography of each study area, evocatively described as "The bones of the land" (p. 73), draws attention to the "cultural" monuments on or in it. Alternatively, the "cultural" monuments echo or mimic elements of the "natural" topography. In both instances there appears to have been a genuflective mimetic facility intended to make the monuments inhere in the landscape and vice versa. This mimesis is performed not so that the monuments acquiesce to the landscape, but so that they physically anchor or "domesticate" the symbolic geography contained in the social memory since Mesolithic times (pp. 203, 206; see Hodder 1990 for a related but different understanding). The re-use of certain locales and "antique" material culture supports Mesolithic-Neolithic contiguity and even suggests a form of Neolithic archaeology.

It is at this point that the contiguity is interrupted by two contradictions -- one empirical and acknowledged by Tilley and one theoretical and not acknowledged by Tilley.

The empirical contradiction is that while the monumental character of the Neolithic landscape is discussed at length, the domestic Neolithic landscape of the three study areas is "virtually absent" (p. 71). There is very scant mention of non-monumental domestic places such as campsites, dwellings, fields, processing areas, stock pens and so forth as these places, in which the majority of people would have lived most of the time, have not survived acidic soils -- in contrast to the "upstanding" (ibid.) stone monuments. In other words, it is a monumental orextra-ordinary landscape that we are apprehending with "a major preoccupation in exchange, feasting and ritual" (p. 206). Yet it is in precisely this kind of context that domestic concepts of space, time and agency are toyed with by inversion, suspension and alteration. For example, archaeological research indicates the use of hallucinogens at some Neolithic monuments (Sherratt 1991) as well as the presence of ritual time and primal or ancestral forces and places (e.g., p. 204; see also Bradley 1991; Thomas 1991; Lewis-Williams & Dowson 1993). From this book it is not possible to gauge to what degree the "domestic" and the "monumental" overlap as there is almost no domestic control sample, unlike other parts of Europe which have a better represented and more compelling domestic context (e.g., Tilley 1996). One must ask to what extent the monumental impacted on Neolithic society in the main, especially over 2 000 years and especially in the light of an increasing formality of social and spatial organisation.

Tilley circumvents this concern by resorting to a stock and unsatisfactory post-processual position: we have no secure, objective knowledge about the past and that any understanding of the past owes much of its genesis to the concerns of the present. Therefore all interpretations are ultimately subjective. While in agreement with large parts of this argument there are things we can know about the past such as the existence of children, men, women, third and other genders and that we may be certain -- at least for a while -- of numerous other things such as most rock arts are situated in a religious or symbolic context and that the human body is a primary experiential vehicle. Such hypotheses unavoidably absorb certain of the contemporary ageÕs flavours but these hypotheses do have reference to an archaeological reality represented by material culture and contexts. Though material culture may contain multiple meanings, these meanings are not infinite in number and it is often possible to steer a practicable path between objectivism and relativism (e.g., Wylie 1989). Indeed, it is the study of material culture in a broad sense that is the one feature that unites archaeologists who otherwise live in epistemic isolation. It is therefore surprising that archaeological material culture studies are under-theorised. Stemming from this theoretical lacuna I discern the second, theoretical, contradiction in TilleyÕs understanding of the archaeological record as a text that can be deciphered and read (see also Tilley 1990, 1991). Granted, the textual approach is considerably more complex than "reading" and is more adequately conceived of as a construction or work in progress (e.g., Olsen 1990; Thomas 1996:51-60). The textual approach nevertheless has a debilitating flaw.

Contrary to much post-processualist thought, words are not capable of limitless associations or ambiguities (e.g., Tilley 1991; Thomas 1996:52-54). Texts tend to move from the generalised to the specific and progressively limit the potential meanings of artefacts, compromising their polysemy and lead to limited and standardised understandings (see also Barrett 1988): precisely the opposite of TilleyÕs wish for multiple perspectives. Language is not the only tool that can translate archaeological material culture. A great deal of the power and meaning of archaeological material culture is located within the realm of the symbol. Symbols have multiple and apparently anarchic powers of association and encapsulate meanings that otherwise cannot be distilled into a word, phrase or treatise.

Tilley attempts to bypass the structure imposed by the textual approach by using metonymy, asyndeton and presumably synecdoche. Yet these literary concepts work best because, unlike the formal, rigid structure of the text, the open-ended nature of metonymy and the like do not circumscribe the larger entity alluded to and work by means of indirection rather than encapsulation. More than metonymy it is metaphor that is most important in small-scale societies as metaphor is capable of making unexpected, synergistic connexions between artefacts, people and hypotheses (cf. Fernandez 1974). Text does go some way toward understanding archaeological material culture, but it is not a meta-code. Symbolic, associative logic and textual, ascriptive logic are seldom compatible and it is the relatively unstructured symbolic logic that offers the better hope for the interpretive process performing something "akin to alchemy" (Tilley 1996).

The limitations of the textual approach are made apparent in TilleyÕs valiant but unsuccessful attempt to describe his journey along the Dorset Cursus: a remarkable 10 km long banked ceremonial pathway in southern England (pp. 173-96). The changes in direction and view, the smell of the boggy low points and the texture of being within a monument and linked to othermonuments do sometimes come through. Also, his description of Hambledon Hill (pp. 166-9) as a giant necropolis located on the very edge of socialised monumental space with tens, even hundreds of corpses rotting on its slopes and embankments is extremely evocative with the smell, apprehension of approach and sense of other-worldliness strongly presenced. But for the most part, TilleyÕs description is dry and asexual -- what of the gendered spaces and places that must have existed? -- what of the much debated belief in a mythical Goddess cult? (e.g., Hutton 1997). It is at this point that the previously alluded to poetics of Paul Ricoeur (p. 32) should take over so that not only the act of constructing and transmitting words, but their aural intensity, the rhythm of the sentence and pauses between words are experienced and assist the words in conveying the impact of a very personal journey. It is also here that evocative images could have been placed. Though described as an "extended photographic essay" (see dustjacket), the bookÕs 73 photographs and line drawings just do not work. The grey-scale pictures are unclear and drab and it may have been better to insert a few imaginative artistÕs re-constructions between the photographs to assist the readerÕs imagination in apprehending TilleyÕs conception of the Neolithic landscape. I am not suggesting that Tilley begin story-telling but that he continue more forcefully in his (and othersÕ) endeavour to explore new literary and epistemological genres that are less text-allied and attempt to presence the non-visual and the non-verbal. Inserting some poetic language and imaginative images may help an evocation of sound, smell and texture with which vision would have to compete.

Tilley does seem to acknowledge the limitations of text and much of the strength of this book is in its acknowledgement of the non-visual, especially in relation to the experience of the land as a moral, omniscient force that constrains human action and which is an entity that has to be propitiated and maintained. Consider also that the textual approach and text is limited in another way. The sensuous experience of landscape needs to be disseminated in a widely understandable idiom. Perhaps dry academese will have to (partly) give way to "idiom translators" who translate the textual into more accessible tropes such as audio-video and Virtual Reality.

This second, theoretical contradiction between artefacts as texts and artefacts as symbols is serious as it lies at the heart of the construction and transmission of archaeological knowledge. It will no doubt be robustly debated and will hopefully lead to a better understanding of material culture.

The bookÕs positive, questioning restlessness outweighs its contradictions. Tilley does succeed in "blurring" his work by touching on matters of universal concern which broaden the bookÕs appeal beyond archaeology. For example, the recognition of the path as an entity for research, either as a line of concatenation or as a line of control, is imaginative. Also, the touchstone concept of the "power of place" indicates that certain places have an enduring attraction for people cross-culturally and cross-temporally; suggesting a certain universality in the human construction and marking of landscapes. Certainly the extra-ordinary labour involved in constructing many Neolithic monuments suggests a powerful urge to engage with the landscape and with the people who came before and those yet to come. We may never know in an absolute sense what the Neolithic landscape(s) and mindscape(s) were like, but at a certain stage of archaeological contemplation, intellectual understanding and empathetic experience may approach congruence. As people who are living in an age which seeks to collapse distances, time and even cultures by means of a global culture and information technology -- which like language will minimise diversity and maximise conformity (During 1997) -- we are much less adept at recognising and manipulating "natural" and "cultural" signs than our Neolithic and other predecessors were. In short, this is a dense book containing a multitude of ideas. A great deal of the book is tantalising, yet we are left ultimately unfulfilled. Whether this dissatisfaction is the fault of insufficient hard evidence in the book or whether it is the fault of our current system of knowledge in which we have yet to learn to leave some things unsaid and to sensuously contemplate ourselves and surroundings, is a point worth pondering.


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Sven Ouzman is an archaeologist at the Rock Art Department of the National Museum, South Africa. His interests include hunter-gatherer rock art, shamanism, cross-cultural analyses and issues concerning "landscape" and "time".