Exploring the Agency of Landscape

Foggy November

Foggy November English landscape – animals graze with trees and hedges, historic features of the English landscape, overlooked by those modern icons, the National Grid power lines

The symposium

The second symposium organised by the EngLaID project will be held on Wednesday 12th June at Keble College Oxford. The call for paper for this symposium is open till May 3rd with abstracts to be sent Dr Laura Morley.

The call is as follows:

In recent archaeological thinking, it is widely accepted that objects and artefacts are invested with agency, but this understanding is not commonly extended to landscapes; rather any notion of ‘agency of landscape’ is often regarded as synonymous with environmental determinism. This symposium seeks to redress the balance and investigate how landscape can be invested with agency without being environmentally deterministic.

While this one-day symposium is organised in the context of the English Landscapes and  Identities (EngLaId) project, which investigates the development of English landscapes from the middle of the Bronze Age, when the first extensive field systems were laid out, to the Domesday period, when the foundations of the modern agricultural landscape were in place, contributions are encouraged from any archaeological, geographical or other relevant disciplinary perspectives. We also welcome contributions that consider different
parts of the world and different time periods.

Abstracts for 20 min papers and poster presentations are invited that address this tension between cultural choices and the structuring influence of the landscape itself.

The project

The EngLaID (English Landscape and Identities) project is a highly ambitious project being run by the University of Oxford. It is indeed the first time anyone has attempted anything like this (collating all the disparate data for the country) and whilst such an approach has its limitations, being a snapshot in time and all, the research potential for the compiled data is enormous. I am keeping an eye on it for developments in the Linked Data arena in particular.

It is described thus on the project website:

The EngLaId (‘English Landscape and Identities’) project analyses change and continuity in the English landscape from the middle Bronze Age (c. 1500 BC) to the Domesday survey (c. 1086 AD). Funded by the European Research Council (ERC) at the University Oxford, the project started in October 2011 and will continue for 5 years. Working in close partnership with English Heritage (EH), the British Museum (BM), the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), Historic Environment Records (HERs) and the Archaeological Data Service (ADS), the project combines a mass of existing artefactual and mapping data from – amongst others – EH’s National
 Mapping Programme (NMP), the PAS, the ADS and county HERs (Historic Environment Records).  This is the first time that landscape and archaeological features, together with finds, will be analysed on such a comprehensive scale over such an extended time period. It provides an excellent opportunity to understand the development of the English landscape and the identities of the people who inhabited it over a long-term perspective.

Archaeological Data

An observation in a recent blog post sums up one of the key issues with the way in which the archaeological record in the UK is managed, mirroring my own experience on massive projects of a similar nature such as Rapid Coastal Zone Assessments (RCZAS). When discussing trend surfaces produced from the source data, the observation is made by Chris Green that:

The second (possibly more dominant?) is the variation in recording methods used across the country.  Even where the same software is used, different HERs catalogue their data somewhat differently: some like to split everything up into individual periods and types, others like to collate into multi-period sites; some cast their nets wide to include as much data as possible (e.g. PAS data, MORPH data), others like to only include sites of certain and clear provenance.  This means that the density of data across the country is as much about modern practice as it is about activity in the ancient past.

Unfortunately, this is most definitely true and I would argue this is indeed the primary source of variation in the data. And that is before thorny issues such as recording negative evidence or time based exclusions (some HERs cease to record anything past a certain date). The many and varied ways in which archaeological records have been historically and continue to be created and managed results in highly complex datasets where even basic questions asked of the data are influenced by considerable recording bias. Even basics such as how many sites/monuments are fraught as fundamentally, there are multiple interpretations of what comprises a ‘site’ or a ‘monument’ compounded by different recording practices. This is where some of the geosemantic tools I and others are working on offer potential above and beyond more traditional representations of heritage data but we still some way off from having an infrastructure capable of delivering comprehensive Linked Datasets suitably representative of our combined archaeological knowledge. But we are certainly heading in the right direction and the results from EngLaID should be revealing to say the least.