Geologies, Topographies, Identities

Christopher Tilley

Left Coast Press, 2012. Pbk, 526pp. £33.50. 978 1 59874 375 3

Tilley is one of those archaeologists whose approach, I feel, is most cogently linked to NE’s ‘new antiquarian’ perspective, an opinion I have held since I reviewed his A Phenomenology of Landscape in these pages nearly 20 years ago, and recommended as essential – if difficult – reading. His is an archaeology that seeks a kind of empathy with the past – not an archaeology of artefacts and sites so much as one of contexts and connections. His workplace is not a lab or computer desk, nor excavations, but amidst the physical geography of sites – contexts that demonstrate, perhaps more in Britain than elsewhere, that “no predictive model based on one landscape works for another” (p460). That means no grand schemes of geometry, celestial preference, symbolic horizon or whatever – but local monuments for local people with their own local priorities.

Here Tilley puts that approach into extensive practice, linking together various research projects that take the reader on a tour from Wessex to the SW, via the familiar landscapes of Stonehenge to the less-regarded barrows and cross-dykes to beach-pebbled hilltops, the sandstones and slates of Devon and Exmoor that evoked such different responses among site-builders, to Cornwall’s granite environs that seem to have invoked a supernatural negotiation between land and people from the start. As he tours, he walks, and looks, and reflects on what the site-builders will have seen and how they might have construed their surroundings into the visible traces they have left (his method is described at length pp38-40). He doesn’t neglect the detail of individual site descriptions, though it might well be these sections that many readers will skip to get to his almost Holmes-ian deductions. So what we get is almost a sense of a guided walk or quest in this book, with attention paid to the kind of sites like round barrows and cross-dykes, even Exmoor’s stone groupings, that are so low-key and impassive that they are often overlooked in favour of more impressive sites; and our guide’s reflections on how they pattern the landscape and what that patterning may imply not only sheds light on the past, but also on how we see our world today. Landscape is a framework for lifeworlds. His fieldwork, feet-on rather than hands-on, produces insights elusive “without personal physical experience and knowledge of place… impossible just using a map” (p100). Site(not sight)-seeing is of limited value: “Monuments and places are within landscapes, but these landscapes are part of them… Past actions, events, myths and stories are embedded in landscapes” (p39). Keywords are metaphor, mimesis and mnemonic.

As well as the temptation to see constructed places as individual entities, a common contemporary perceptual trap is to unconsciously imagine that the prehistoric landscape sprang fully formed into the hands of the mapmakers. But it is of course sequential, layered and self-referencing throughout history; a barrow makes reference not only to the land and the society that constructs it, but also to pre-existing remains, perhaps of other societies with radically different world-views, to create an evolving palimpsest. At the very least, this makes a tumulus more interesting.

There are many fascinating inquisitions in this book, and space allows just one example, involving the E Devon pebblebeds (Ch.6) – a natural curiosity in that riverine pebbles occur on hilltops. Metaphorically, this is as obvious today as it was in prehistory, as an inversion of the natural order, but I suspect we may be less amenable today to seeing it as a meaningful basis for insight. Tilley, however, chases out an observation of colour, sensory perception archaeological sites, archaeo-astronomy and mythological inference. In so doing the subtly visible landscape becomes the visionary landscape.

It’s easy for empirical commentators to decry Tilley’s method and conclusions, arguing that deduction about bygone perceptions in the absence of material evidence is immune to external verification and tantamount to elevating imagination to research. Certainly, landscapes change, monuments decay, artefacts perish, and we have no quantifiable evidence on what symbolically motivated the construction of sites. But Tilley argues that one thing has not changed significantly over the last several thousand years – the human brain and its sense-making apparatus. If we are sensitive to metaphor today, then we were in prehistory, and it is through engagement with metaphor that we can seek understanding of ritual landscapes. For many, of course, metaphor has less empirical quantifiability than the wind. I suspect that NE readers will have already passed the point of no return as regards explicit materialist perspectives, yet will also feel frustration with some of the more spontaneous or whimsical interpretations of meaning we find out here on the fringes.

The phenomenological approach (a key part of what NE understands by psychogeography) offers a homeopathic antidote to both empiricist sterility and spiritual wonderment. It is a horizontal engagement, as contrasted with the vertical layered approach of excavation; and also mobile, itinerant, rather than static – negotiation rather than investigation (thereby invoking a dialectical socio-political inference). The approaches are complementary, not competitive, and each better with an ear inclined to the other.

It’s not always easy reading (but you can skim), and for those in other parts of the country the detail of observation to SW complexes might seem remote, and one question left largely unaddressed is perhaps why the sites themselves took the forms they did – except in Exmoor, where they may represent hunting teams, or the Men-an-Tol and Penwith dolmens. In this last case a key issue is that sites may ‘call in’ or ‘borrow’ ancestral landscapes for community use – mimesis aiding the mnemonic – which again emphasises how land and people engage in a meaningful dialogue rather than a one-way objective perception.

A number of issues are raised in this work, far more than can be addressed in a review, as I have already suggested; issues of sensory perception and transmutation in the consciousness which are, to my mind, key in our own understandings of prehistoric landscapes, and implicitly in the sense we make of our own personal interactions with place. But one point is emphasised throughout and cannot be over-emphasised, for those with the ability to realise it – to appreciate the full complexity of dialogue with place, past and present, one must be there, present, in that place. [John Billingsley]



  1. One thing that does change, however, is that further discoveries at a site may require an update of the discussion, and this may apply here particularly with reference to the Stonehenge landscape in the opening chapter, in the light of the intense and revealing archaeological focus on this area in recent years.


Northern Earth 143, December 2015, pp28-29

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