Landscapes of the mind

Landscape - The Anthropology of Landscape - Digging through Darkness - Moctezuma's Mexico - Tripolitana - The Sounds and Colors of Power - Life and Death in the Templo Mayor - Theoretical Archaeology - Lukurmata - The Art of Benin - The Hunter's Vision - To Weave for the Sun - Mask Arts of Mexico - Landscape of the Monuments - Provincial Power in the Inka Empire
December 8, 1995

In seeking to make sense of the past, archaeology has always embraced a diversity of disciplines, borrowing and adapting from history, anthropology, geography and mathematics to mention a few. Despite this interdisciplinary tradition, and the fact that Unesco's World Heritage Convention allows whole areas to be regarded as a site, only relatively recently have archaeologists turned their attention to the investigation of landscape. Once this process had begun, the idea of landscape as a geological "given" soon faded, and new more challenging views emerged.

The Anthropology of Landscape, a wideranging collection of ethnographic essays, presents a fine-grained analysis of landscape of great potential value to archaeologists. Coeditor Erich Hirsch's introduction pulls together the diversity of evidence. Denying the static view of human geographers, where landscape is seen as a cultural image symbolising surroundings, he argues instead that landscape should be defined as a cultural process.

The complexities of this approach are well illustrated by Peter Gow's chapter on the Amazonian Piro, for whom social reproduction, food sharing, vegetation patterns and empty spaces are intricately entwined. While every chapter raises thought-provoking issues, Tom Selwyn's account of the centrality of landscape to Israeli ideas of nationhood is a timely and impressive illustration of how landscape is and always was embedded in the matrices of culture. Reinforcing this view of landscape as culturally negotiated and contested, is Landscape: Politics and Perspectives. Its chapters range from the study of 20-year militarisation of Belfast, through recent attempts to commodify Stonehenge, to the role of landscape as memory in the emergence of a political economy in Melanesia.

Barbara Bender's introduction too seeks to broaden the scope of inquiry, not least in her analysis of V. S. Naipaul's autobiographical novel, The Enigma of Arrival. The point is well made that while Trinidad was Naipaul's birthplace, his interest in his family's Indian origins made it a personally experienced but rootless landscape. In its exploration of the palimpsest of meaning, where geography, experience, and emotion intersect, this is a stimulating collection of papers.

Similarly instructive of the way in which culture informs landscape is "cosmovision" - the term used to describe Pre-Columbian Aztec ideas about their universe. Two recent books explore the dazzling richness and philosophical interconnectedness of the Aztec worldview, where landscape, skyscape, fauna, flora, religious ritual and myth are integrated into a seamless fabric of belief and action. Moctezuma's Mexico: Visions of the Aztec World is a beautifully illustrated, coffee-table format book, which ties together the imagery of Aztec art with five expert essays on such topics as creation mythology, astronomy, calendrical rituals and the sacred architecture of the Great Aztec Temple.

For the Aztecs, the Great Temple was the axis mundi, the symbolic heart of the universe, where earth, sky and underworld met. It is this ideological relationship which is explored in Life and Death in the Templo Mayor. The temple and its two summit shrines were architectural representations of two sacred hills which symbolised the twin mythical sources of Aztec power - the birthplace of their patron deity Huitzilopochtli, and the source of rain and food associated with the god Tlaloc. As the locus of state-sponsored rituals and human sacrifice, the Great Temple articulated Aztec ideas of warfare tribute and water agriculture, thereby linking cultural identity with the tectonically active Valley of Mexico.

More traditionally archaeological in approach, Landscape of the Monuments nevertheless also recognises that landscape is as much artefactual as geological. Stefan Bergh's study area - the Cuil Irra region, Co. Sligo, in western Ireland - is more densely packed with morphologically variable megalithic monuments than any other. In the language of such monographs these monuments are said to have combined the functions of burial site, ceremonial place, territorial marker and symbols of authority. More meaningfully, they incorporated the dead with the earth in a way which, by changing the appearance of landscape, served to shape perceptions, create memories, and reinforce social, religious and political ties.

Equally valuable is Tripolitania, a thorough and insightful study of the Roman frontier province that extended over what is now north-west Libya and southern Tunisia. The author's achievement stems in part from his sensitivity to a concept of landscape which subsumes the cultural as well as the geographical. This approach, complemented by innumerable maps and diagrams, makes for an impressive book whose value extends well beyond its classical subject.

The imperial Roman transformation of the Mediterranean landscape was paralleled in many ways by the Inca in Andean South America. The methods by which successive Inca administrations expanded, controlled and extracted the wealth of subject peoples and areas is explored in Provincial Power in the Inka Empire. By focusing on land settlement, storage, and the logistics of moving goods along some 30,000 km of Inca roads, Terence D'Altroy has produced a key study, which provides also a framework for the comparative analysis of the evolution of empires.

At the other end of the scale of archaeological investigations is Lukurmata: Household Archaeology in Prehispanic Bolivia. Here, Marc Bermann assesses these historically structured, and culturally meaningful buildings, to throw light on social change and cultural evolution in the southern Andes. The key point arising from the author's excavations at Lukurmata, on the southern shore of Lake Titicaca, is that the pre-Inca Tiwanaku state (c. ad 400-1200) mobilised surplus production in the same way as the later Inca yet without leaving "diagnostic traces", such as large storage sites and specialised architecture. This is an important book, whose sensitivity to local and regional perspectives is an overdue corrective to many previous views.

A number of important books have also recently been published which deal with ancient art. Peter Garlake, in The Hunter's Vision, calls the prehistoric art of Zimbabwe one of the world's last and greatest undiscovered artistic and cultural treasures. Over the past two decades the analysis of prehistoric rock art has relied less on description and more on the use of ethnographic analogy to elucidate its possible meaning. In his analysis of the stunning array of animal, human, and human-animal painted scenes, the author has been influenced by recent work on the art of the South African San bushmen. This suggests that such art represents shamanistic trance images, rather than a mere recording of real or imagined events. Garlake stresses the greater age and variety of Zimbabwe's rock art yet believes it belonged to the same tradition and cognitive system as that of the San. This well-illustrated book places Zimbabwe's rock paintings in a meaningful African and world context.

A similarly concise and beautifully illustrated account of one of Africa's artistic traditions is The Art of Benin. Under the patronage of successive kings, human and animal figures were carved in ivory or cast in brass, and played a central role in representing ideas of kingship, warfare, and magical human-animal transformation. Ancestral commemorative brass heads, life-like ivory leopards, and an array of ornaments and ceremonial staffs are just part of this art style which, ironically, first became known in the West after a British punitive expedition grabbed many masterpieces in 1897. What makes Benin art particularly interesting is that it assimilated other African, and even European influences, without losing its own distinctive character.

Another tradition that owes much to the nature of European influence is represented in Mask Arts of Mexico. Here we find a curious but compelling blend of Pre-Columbian ideas with resonances of the Spanish conquest of 1519-21. Alongside images of deer, alligators, and the snarling jaguar, are stranger and more intriguing representations of European origin. The most startling are the overly pink faces of 16th-century Spanish men and women whose cataclysmic role in the conquest is now enshrined in folk art. Mask making is a living tradition in Mexico, and in their complex interweaving of images we get a unique insight into the receptive and creative nature of the indigenous Mexican mind.

This creativity had a long Pre-Columbian pedigree. In To Weave for the Sun: Ancient Andean Textiles, we have a lavishly illustrated account of the wealth of Pre-Columbian and Colonial period Andean textiles, mainly from Peru. Five scholarly essays explore the achievements of these ancient weavers who, for example on one tunic from the Wari culture, used between six and nine miles of coloured thread interlocked a million and a half times.

Textiles preceded pottery in South America and perhaps as a result they had a deeply rooted social and religious significance. Made from cotton and fibre from Llama, Alpaca and Vicuna, they were the prized possessions of the Inca and a ritually charged measure of wealth. Made into hats, temple hangings, clothing and mummy wrappings, textiles were woven, embroidered and painted, and then adorned with feathers and gold applique in an extraordinary display of artistic expression. Nevertheless, while we can now appreciate the cultural significance and technical virtuosity of prehispanic textiles, it was always gold which most excited the western imagination. The extraordinary creations of Pre-Columbian metalsmiths are explored in The Sounds and Colors of Power.

Metalworking began in South America c. 1500 bc, and only gradually diffused northwards. Dorothy Hosler argues that maritime trade with Ecuador and Colombia accounts for the early if selective adoption of metal objects and techniques in western Mexico. This is a convincing technological and archaeological study of a complex cultural situation, but it is the final anthropological chapter which marks its innovatory approach. Here we see the indigenous values ascribed to shiny metals, the sounds of golden bells symbolising rain, thunder, and the rattlesnake. The notion of "sacred brilliance" reminds us how different are late 20th-century ideas from those of ancient America.

Lying together the diversity of archaeological perspectives in archaeology is a daunting task, but one which has seen dramatic progress in recent years with an explosion of books on archaeological theory. In Theoretical Archaeology, we have a refreshing change from the usual multi-editor, multi-contributor volume. Unlike many recent titles, K. R. Dark offers no "new" insights (other than contextual clarity) but rather has produced an erudite and cohesive introductory text. This allows the nonspecialist to navigate what might otherwise appear as a mish-mash of ideas and theories which change with disconcerting rapidity. Thoughtfully organised, this is surely a book whose time has come.

Finally, mention should also be made of the excellent Digging Through Darkness. The author is a native white South African, and this is her intensely personal account of a lifetime's work on the archaeology of colonialism in South Africa and Australia. Her painstaking excavations of the Oudepost sites of Saldanha Bay north of Capetown and her study of the relationship between 17th-century Dutch traders and the indigenous Khoikhoi or Hottentots, form the professional backdrop for a wider assessment of colonialism. Written with style, insight, and deep sensitivity, this book sets a high standard for the sensitising of archaeology.

Nicholas J. Saunders teaches archaeology at Southampton University and cultural geography at the Chichester Institute.

Landscape: Politics and Perspectives

Editor - Barbara Bender
ISBN - 0 85496 373 1
Publisher - Berg
Price - £17.95
Pages - 351

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