Saturday, 26 December 2015

PhD research paper #1. Approaches to the study of landscape archaeology and history

From time to time I will post 'bite size' chunks of the material I am preparing for my PhD thesis: works in progress, but content which I feel may be of interest to a wider audience. All will be very much draft versions, not necessarily - probably not - reflecting the final wording that will eventually appear in the Thesis. In-text references are included but a full bibliography is not. This paper is based on a section of the initial literature review. 

Approaches to the study of landscape archaeology and history

Landscape archaeology in context

Figure 1: A landscape-scale view of medieval strip lynchets flanking an Iron Age hillfort with a post-medieval deer park in the background, Dyrham, Gloucestershire (Author).

In 1998 a collection of papers that examined the contemporary state of landscape archaeology was published in honour of one of the discipline’s key founding figures: Christopher Taylor. In his introductory chapter Tom Williamson (1998, 1) provided a lucid explanation of what archaeological research at a landscape scale encompasses (see Figure 1):

‘It is distinguished, not so much by a coherent body of applied technique or theory, but by subject-matter. In essence, landscape archaeologists are concerned with explaining how what we see today came to look the way it does, and with interpreting the spatial patterns and structures created in the past in terms of social and economic behaviour. In particular, landscape archaeology is characterised by an interest in scales of analysis wider than that of the ‘site’: it focusses on the broader matrices of settlement patterns, field systems, territories and communications. Lastly, its tools tend, for the most part, to be non-destructive – aerial photography, earthwork surveys and field walking’.

To this list we should now add Geographical Information Systems (GIS), remote sensing, satellite imagery and other spatial computing technologies. Williamson goes on to point out that landscape archaeology and landscape history are to some extent interchangeable terms and many researchers who are involved in this area would be hard-pressed to confirm which of the two disciplines they fall into. I will make no distinction here and will use landscape archaeology, with an implied use of physical evidence alongside documentary sources, as short-hand for both terms from now on.     

The academic foundations and historiography of landscape archaeology will be touched on in due course but first it is instructive to briefly turn to the absence of theory touched on in Williamson’s quote. Theoretical context may not be thought to weigh heavily on contemporary landscape archaeology practice but is increasingly ingrained in academic discourse within the field, perhaps emblematical of a widening hinterland of complementary ideas and approaches that have the potential to converge around the concept of landscape. Two books which reflect on and aim to advance the relationship between landscape archaeology and theory provide examples of this.[1]

In the introduction to their edited volume Archaeologies of Landscape: Contemporary Perspectives, Ashmore and Knapp (1999, 1) explicitly identify the move from landscape seen purely as passive backdrop, resource or object of gaze to an emphasis on its ‘socio-symbolic dimensions: landscape is an entity that exists by virtue of its being perceived, experienced, and contextualized by people’. In this sense they are acknowledging the increased importance of social theory in archaeological study of landscape: understanding how people interrelate with and imbue meaning to space and place through time. Foundational to this are the ideas of the pioneering American social geographer, Carl Sauer who first conceptualised the notion of cultural landscape, distinct from but interrelated to the natural landscape (Sauer 1963; Wylie 2007, 19). Building on this theoretical broadening Bender’s influential edited volume, Landscape: Politics and Perspective (1993), sought to bring together archaeological, anthropological and geographical perspectives on the cultural landscape (including phenomenological ideas of landscape as experience discussed later in this chapter), although with an emphasis on urban settlement and specific monuments. Ashmore and Knapp (1999, 4) sought to further embed a cross-cultural approach to the total landscape and therefore include a broad spectrum of contributors, in part to break-down the barriers between different academic traditions (e.g. American and British, processual and post-processual).

Of particular relevance to this Thesis are the ‘terms and themes’ that Ashmore and Knapp (1999, 8-19) identify for landscape. Building on UNESCO’s categorisation of cultural landscapes,[2] they provide a more nuanced triptych of interpretive descriptors: constructed landscapes, conceptualized landscapes, and ideational landscapes (the latter recognising imaginative and emotional ‘insider perspectives’). Within these categories they locate four often overlapping themes. Firstly, landscape as memory, where continuity (e.g. re-use, reinterpretation etc.) becomes an important consideration, and a key theme also examined at length by Shama (1995). Secondly landscape as identity, to help people self-locate the place they most identify with or that identifies them. Thirdly, landscape as social order: the role of place in cultural relationships, encompassing considerations of gender, class, race etc. And finally, landscape as transformation, recognising the interrelatedness of space and time and that: ‘Ancient sites, monuments and even entire landscapes may be transformed and re-used as people encounter and interact with particular places, as they re-create the past’ (Ashmore and Knapp 1999, 19). This will be a useful conceptual framework to return to in the interpretive and discursive sections of this Thesis.

In Ideas of Landscape (2007a) Matthew Johnson adopts a more partisan approach via a clear and stated agenda to deconstruct the empirical English landscape tradition of landscape archaeology, historical geography and local history, as exemplified by the pioneering work of Hoskins, Beresford and others (Hoskins 1955; Beresford 1957; Beresford and St Joseph 1958), and contrasting it with the more theoretically grounded explorations of landscape found in anthropology, cultural geography and post-processual archaeology (see, for example, Bender 1993; Cosgrove 2008; Ucko and Layton 1999, Wylie 2007). Moreover his aim is to promote a new agenda that brings together the best of these different approaches. In contrast to the focus on ancient and prehistoric landscapes in Ashmore and Knapp’s work, Johnson (2007a, 201-2) is keen to advocate a new landscape approach for non-intrusive historical archaeology, a discipline which he feels has been marginalised (or has perhaps always been marginal), particularly in the ‘sharp, critical environments’ of Oxbridge.

Johnson articulates a perceptive description and critique of existing traditions that to some observers (particularly in a lively debate with Andrew Fleming in the pages of the Landscapes journal (Fleming 2007, 2008; Johnson 2007b)) is excessive in its attack on still vital and relevant fieldwork techniques and only sets out a new agenda in brief and rather vague terms (Fleming 2007, 97; Pryor 2010, 748; Rippon 2009, 244-45). However, the author does helpfully articulate a clear delineation (within the UK) between scholars and practitioners engaged in landscape archaeology research and interpretation, and those who consider landscape from a cultural geography perspective. This somewhat fractured approach to landscape study is a recurring theme when reviewing the literature of the past forty years or so and might explain, or be a symptom of, the fact that there is no tradition of a single, unified landscape discipline in British academia. This is an on-going disconnect and there would seem to be significant scope for greater cross-fertilisation of knowledge and ideas (Fairclough 2012; Schofield 2007). Johnson’s underlying call for combined methodologies is reflective of the direction of travel of academic discourse and one that is taken up in this research project.

The development of landscape archaeology

The antecedents of the fieldwork tradition that Johnson critiques and which remains very much part of contemporary British landscape archaeology can be found in antiquarianism but were particularly developed by O.G.S Crawford during his long term of office as Archaeology Officer for the Ordnance Survey in the inter-war period and up to 1946 (Hauser 2007, 155-161; Rippon 2009, 232). His ground-breaking combination of field archaeology, aerial photography and mapping to record and understand the landscape, for instance the distinction between what he termed Celtic fields and later Saxon or medieval field systems, laid the foundations for modern archaeological interpretation on a landscape scale (Bowden 2001, 29; Gardiner et al 2012, 3).[3]

In the early post-war period historical geography and economic history were the disciplines providing the impetus for later developments in landscape archaeology, through local studies (e.g. village plans) and the mapping of historical data at a regional and national scale (Baker 2003, 6-9; Rippon 2009, 230).[4] W.G. Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape (1955) has, of course, to come into the picture here. Hoskins (see Figure 2) was an economic historian by background rather than a landscape archaeologist, and the book is now seen as very much of its time, outdated and open to criticism - for instance, acknowledgment of the role of monasteries in the landscape was limited (Bond 2000, 63; Fleming 2008, 74; Gardiner and Rippon 2007, 1; Jones 2015, 2-4). However, this remains a seminal empirical work that informed and inspired much of the later development of landscape archaeology, as well as setting the template for later widescreen landscape narratives at county, regional and national level.[5]

Figure 2: W.G. Hoskins, author of The Making of the English Landscape in the countryside of his native Devon (

Beresford, Crawford, Hoskins and their contemporaries provided the realisation that archaeology, particularly from the medieval and post-medieval periods, was not just buried in the ground but also all around as relict or still extant features in the modern countryside (Gardiner et al 2011, 4). It was on the shoulders of these pioneers of landscape history that the graduates of the new or expanding archaeology, geography and history departments of the 1960s, and the staff of the Royal Commissions on Ancient and Historical Monuments, helped refine and professionalise a distinctively British practice of landscape archaeology as a modern discipline, both in the field and in academia (Bowden and McOmish 2011, 21; Rippon 2009, 232). Within this tradition comes the large body of research and publications that spans the period from the 1970s up to the early years of this century.[6] Here is a legacy of immensely practical field guides to the analytical techniques of observing, interpreting and recording landscape features that are certainly not overburdened with theory. Innovation was, though, to the fore, for example: integrating New Archaeology agendas of spatial analysis adopted from geography; challenging the previously dominant invasion and migration paradigm to explain landscape development in the early Middle Ages; and placing a greater emphasis on studying the origins of the modern historic landscape and the largely anonymous ordinary lives of those who inhabited the villages, fields and farmsteads (Fowler 1988, 15; Rippon 2009, 233-4). Fowler and others also developed a new landscape-scale research agenda, combining traditional survey with aerial photo analysis, field-walking and paleo-environmental analysis (Rippon 2009, 232).

An important contribution to landscape archaeology from the same generation and one that brought valuable expertise from the fields of botany and ecological history was provided by Oliver Rackham (Rackham 1986; Rippon 2009, 230). His work helped to illuminate the distinction between the Planned and Ancient countryside of different English regions or pays, a general division that seems to have survived successive changes in land-use, settlement development etc. (Jones and Hooke 2011, 41; Rippon 2009, 228),[7] as well as demonstrating that woodland and other natural but managed vegetation could be just as indicative of the history of the landscape as more obviously man-made features (Gardiner et al 2011, 4). More recently, Rippon (Rippon 2012a, 240; Rippon et al 2013) has demonstrated a practical integration of ecological data into landscape archaeology through the use of paleo-environmental sequences from medieval sites (e.g. for preserved cereal remains and animal bones) to help provide evidence of changes in land-use over time.

Contemporary landscape archaeology research

In the context of the historic landscape, a number of key themes have been prominent in recent research activity that together help us understand many of the drivers and processes that saw the British landscape crystallise into the general character we still to a large extent see today (Gardiner and Rippon 2007, 2). Much of the rich and active research on medieval settlement and landscape is clustered around the membership and activities of the Medieval Settlement Research Group (Gardiner et al 2011, 6). A non-exhaustive and greatly simplified, but nevertheless indicative, list would include the following:
  •      Settlement evolution, including debates about the origins and development of the village (perhaps most extensively examined in Roberts and Wrathmell 2002; see also Jones and Page 2006; Lewis et al 2001; and contributions in Christie and Stamper  2011);
  •      Regional distributions of countryside typology, notably Woodland or Ancient and Champion landscapes (see Williamson 2003 for an outline of the different landscape types and debates around this subject; also Rippon 2004a, 2012b);
  •      The origins, development and workings of the manorial system and transition from feudalism to a market-based economy (Dyer 2000; Faith 1997; Johnson 1996);
  •      Elite landscapes of power and other designed landscapes (Creighton 2002, 2013; Finch and Giles 2007; Johnson 1996; Liddiard 2007).

The work of medieval historians such as Dyer has also emphasised the centrality of the activities, needs and interests of the, often unnamed and therefore unheralded, people of town, village and field in the dynamics of shaping the landscape (Dyer 2000, 2009; Whittock 2009). This self-evident relationship between common people and the land has become more embedded in landscape study (see, as illustration, contributions in Turner and Silvester 2012). Whilst much of this research is of relevance to the Welsh Marches landscapes of this study, the importance of regional and local variation also needs to be acknowledged. As Gardiner et al (2011, 7) stress, it is often difficult to discern clear patterns in research outcomes across this plethora of activity, in many ways the picture has become increasingly complex and locally nuanced. The body of research work in Wales (and Scotland) has tended to be less well developed than for many of the English regions with a focus on upland contexts and a reliance on empirical approaches (Austin 2006, 193).[8]

There is much evidence of a broadening of landscape archaeology research techniques and application across a wider spectrum of spatial and temporal contexts in recent years, together with an evolution from the largely descriptive to a focus on interpretation and explanation (Gardiner and Rippon 2007, 8). In Making Sense of an Historic Landscape (2012, 4) Rippon provides a particularly useful synthesis of the approaches that can now be used to study an historic landscape (in this case the Blackdown Hills), integrating traditional landscape archaeology methodologies with the study of other elements that can contribute to the understanding of local and regional landscape character variation, such as how landscape was perceived and the expression of identity through vernacular architecture and naming in the landscape. Other examples would include: the wide application of Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC), witness the county-level HLC’s sponsored by Historic England and other public bodies, though with a different approach adopted in Wales, where the focus has been on landscapes defined as of specific or outstanding interest rather than systematic mapping of the whole landscape (Fairclough 2013a; Rippon 2004a) (see Figure 3); the Whittlewood project applying integrated archaeological and historical research to examine in detail how villages developed (Jones and Page 2006); Partida et al’s (2013) reconstruction and mapping of the medieval landscape of Northamptonshire; the Fields of Britannia Project addressing continuity and discontinuity in the rural landscapes of Roman Britain (Rippon et al 2013); and the EngLaId project analysing mapping and artefact data on a national scale to help calibrate understanding of how the English landscape developed from the Bronze Age until the Domesday survey ( accessed 8/10/15).

Figure 3: The first HLC in England – carried out in Cornwall (© Cornwall County Council 2007 and ©Crown Copyright. All rights reserved. 100019590. 2007).

One important driver for such innovative landscape-framed approaches has been the opportunities presented by new technologies in terms of surveying, remote sensing, satellite imagery, data analysis, mapping and modelling, which is particularly apposite in the context of the harnessing of GIS to develop digital HLC mapping and to digitise modern and historic Ordnance Survey maps and some Historic Environment Records (HERs). Primarily developed to inform the planning process, HLC is not without its critics as comparatively broad-brush and one-dimensional in its reliance on field morphology and lines on the map in conveying landscape character (Rippon 2013, 180; Williamson 2007, 67-70). Nevertheless, its comprehensive application has led to some significant discoveries and provided a large resource of accessible data (Rippon 2009, 242). HLC data can also be integrated with other data layers in GIS as part of a broader process of historic landscape analysis (as espoused in Rippon 2004a). The use of GIS has enabled a move towards larger scale studies both regionally and thematically in the work of bodies such as Historic England’s Survey Team and the Royal Commissions in Scotland and Wales (Rippon 2009, 238). Verhagen (2012) provides further examples of the embedding of innovative practice in mainstream landscape archaeology at an international level (ranging from the detection of new features through the use of LiDAR to digital terrain modelling and the GIS application of cost surface and viewshed analysis), but also explores the challenges arising from the limitations of particular technologies, faddism, keeping pace with technological development and ensuring new tools are used in an appropriate and focussed way.

Connecting with other approaches to landscape

The brief overview provided here has identified that the study of the history of landscape is approached from a number of different traditions (empirical archaeological fieldwork, historical geography, cultural geography and so on). Mention has also been made of the historical lack of a clear body of ingrained and underpinning theoretical concepts within landscape archaeology in Britain. Some have proposed that any relative lack of engagement with theory is strongly counter-weighted by the establishment of well-developed and innovative methodologies for field work and the integration of new technologies (Jones and Hooke 2011, 31-5). Moreover, as Gilchrist (2009, 386, 397) has argued, the dichotomy between scientific, empirical data and theoretical approaches is largely a false one: theory has often reframed the types of research questions and methodologies used within landscape archaeology, theoretical developments across the humanities have been implicitly assimilated and, in any case, all methods of empirical data-collection are socially constructed and therefore intrinsically theoretical (Gardiner and Rippon 2009, 70).

While debates such as the Johnson-Fleming exchange mentioned above are generally a sign of a vibrant and healthy research environment, lack of communication between disciplines is not (Rippon 2009, 245). In part given impetus by pan-European convergences in the wake of the European Landscape Convention, there are perhaps the stirrings of a greater degree of coalescence around the concept of landscape across academic and professional boundaries, as evidenced by the complementary contributions from a wide range of disciplines in Howard et al’s The Routledge Companion to Landscape Studies (2013). An incisive and thought-provoking identification of the opportunities for landscape archaeology to become a central element in an emerging ‘super-discipline’ is provided by Fairclough’s (2012) paper presented at LAC2010, the first international conference devoted to landscape archaeology. Fairclough (2012, 472-5) proposes that landscape archaeology can occupy the middle ground, a bridge between scientific approaches to landscape and cultural geography and social science perspectives, suggesting that ‘the underlying question is whether Landscape Archaeology exists to use the idea of landscape only to study the past (which will mainly interest historical disciplines) or also (or mainly) to use archaeology to study the landscape of the present-day, in both its materiality and mentality, and thus to connect to all landscape disciplines and to a wider public’. This idea of connectivity with approaches from other branches of landscape study will be explored further in my next PhD research post.

[1] Muir (1999) has also provided a more conventional historiographical perspective, exploring the key concepts, theories and philosophies of landscape study and surveying the various strands that encompass the landscape corpus in Western thought.

[2]Clearly defined’, ‘Organically evolved’ and ‘Associative cultural’.

[3] Work that was brought to a wider audience with the publication in 1953 of his book Archaeology in the Field (Johnson 2007, 55; Muir 1999, 33).

[4] In particular, the regional Domesday Geography and Agrarian History of England and Wales series’. The historical geography tradition has also continued to be closely aligned with landscape archaeology, through the work of Darby, Hooke (see, for instance, her edited volume Landscape: The Richest Historical Resource (2000)), Thirsk and others (Baker 2003; Thirsk 2000).

[5] See, for instance: Hodder and Stoughton’s The Making of county series of the late 1960s and early 1970s; Collins England’s Landscape regional guides (2006-7); and Pryor (2010).

[6] Key examples include: Aston and Rowley’s Landscape Archaeology: An introduction to Fieldwork Techniques on Post-Roman Landscapes (1974); Aston’s Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape Archaeology in Local Studies (1985); Brown’s Fieldwork for Archaeologists and Local Historians (1987); The New Reading the Landscape (2000) and Landscape Encyclopaedia: A Reference Guide to the Historic Landscape (2004) by Muir; Fowler’s Archaeology and the Landscape (1972) and Landscape Plotted and Pieced: Landscape History and Local Archaeology in Fyfield and Overton, Wiltshire (2000) and the prodigious output of Taylor, including his handbook on Fieldwork in Medieval Archaeology (1974).

[7] A pattern also reflected in other categorisations of landscape character, such as the Highland and Lowland Zones identified in Fox’s Identity of Britain as far back as 1932, Roberts and Wrathmell’s (2002) settlement research, Phythian-Adams (1999) Cultural Provinces and HLC mapping.

[8] Volumes edited by Edwards (1997) and Roberts (2006) provide a useful overview, see also Leighton and Silvester (2003). 


  1. You say that the top picture shows mediaeval strip lynchets. May well be, but how do you know?

    I'm one of a group looking at the Valley of Stones, Portesham, W Dorset. We have some features like these, but a half a mile away there are similar things that look more like ancient beaches

    Peter Laurie

  2. Peter, They may well be strip lynchets, but I have discovered over the years that the interpretation can be pretty dubious. It is a 'classic' interpretation for a lot of similar looking things, a 'catch all' as one might say. What is important, as with much of landscape archaeology, is evaluating the features within the local context and not necessarily prescribing a wider typology.


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