What is Landscape Archaeology?

This is an excerpt from a quite recent paper I wrote for a class, would appreciate very much your thoughts and ideas:

   Landscape archaeology is a certain discipline within archaeology that focus on the study of landscape. According to Chapman, “landscape archaeology is a term commonly used to characterise those areas of archaeological research and interpretation that consider the landscape as opposed to the site, the interrelationship between sites and the physical spaces separating them” (Chapman 2009: 11). The branch incorporates a wide arrange of methods from many other disciplines and is not entirely easy to define. Chapman divides landscape archaeology into three separate branches, using different methods. The first one has tried to trace the history of a landscape by removing later “layers” and using methods such as field morphology and cartography in order to “see the landscape as it was”. Data from aerial photography and field surveys have also been incorporated. The second branch have focused on using methods from natural sciences to reconstruct past landscapes. This includes paleobothanic studies, macrofossil samples etc. The most recent branch in landscape archaeology, according to Chapman, is the study of the qualitative aspects of landscape (Chapman 2009: 11-14):


The approach has focus focused on elements of experience, the point of departure being that maps and plans of a landscape are an abstraction of the world and consequently cannot be relied upon alone when attempting to interpret what it is to be within a landscape.

(Chapman 2009: 14).


  Because landscape archaeology is engaged in the study of “landscape”, one of the central questions within the discipline is: “What is landscape and how should it be described?”

   Traditional archaeology thought of the landscape merely as the backdrop for archaeological sites and remains. Landscape was therefore considered a passive force in the formation of human societies. Today this has changed, and the landscape is viewed as a more active entity where apart from studies of its economic dimensions also the socio-symbolic meanings of landscape is important and central to modern interpretations.

   According to Johnson (2007), two main themes dominate the western perception of landscape:


1.        The “land” itself, however defined: the humanly created features that exist “objectively” across space, and their natural context. Landscape archaeology in this sense is a very simple term to define: it is about what lies beyond the site, or the edge of the excavation.

2.        How “the land” is viewed – how we, and people in the past, came to apprehend and understand the landscape, and what those systems of apprehension and understanding are, the cognitive systems and processes of perception.

(Johnson 2007: 3-4).


   This in many ways illustrate what Chapman and Dell'Unto describes as the more traditional and the “recent” approach to landscape archaeology. In Johnsons book however, it seems like the phenomenological landscape archaeology at least in the historical English tradition have been present since the birth of the discipline, where men such as W.G. Hoskins emphasised the need to study the physical landscape through “real experience”. The people of the past were directly connected (the ancestors) to the present day people and therefore through using “common sense”, the landscape could be read and understood. Johnson instead argues for a more anthropological approach to phenomenological interpretation where we recognise the fact that past people might have had a very different set of ideas than ours (Johnson 2007).

   According to me, landscape archaeology is the archaeology mainly concerned with creating larger scale interpretations, putting archaeological remains into their context. Landscape is a perspective, a sort of scale that does not focus merely on a single site or excavation, but on a larger area. This includes both human and natural geographical phenomena that might have made an impact on the object of study. It is also interesting, I believe, that landscape archaeology have been so devoid of theoretical thinking and argumentation. Most of times, it is assumed that if you have the right “knowledge”, the landscape speaks for itself. Johnson argues that it is this anti-theoretical thinking that for example led Richard Muir to assume that “The academic study of the relationship between landscape and human behaviour is in its infancy (Johnson 2007: 2)”. Muir was apparently not aware of the extensive studies of this subject by phenomenologists such as Heidegger and Gadamer (Johnson 2007: 2). This in my opinion leads to problems, as landscape can not be disconnected from either theory or practice. Theoretical thought can lead us towards new ways of thinking, and especially makes us more self-aware and critical, possibly guiding us towards more “valid” interpretations. 


Chapman, H. (2009). Landscape Archaeology and GIS. Tempus Publishing: Didcot.

Johnson, M. (2007). Ideas of Landscape. Blackwell Publishing: Oxford.

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