Exploring landscape agency: a report on our 2nd symposium

This week saw the second of our annual project symposia. This year’s theme was the agency of landscape, which provoked some lively debate about the nature of non-human agency and the use of rhetoric in archaeology. As well as the formal presentation of papers, Dan Stansbie displayed a poster on his current thinking about his PhD on food and identity and Miranda Creswell exhibited two pieces of art: ‘Four Days in Port Meadow’ and ‘Layered Notes’.

Anwen introduces the project and our aims for the day.
Anwen introduces the project and our aims for the day.
Chris Green explaining our mapping of national trends.
Chris Green explains our mapping of national trends.

The project team kicked off the day with an overview of what we have achieved since the beginning of the project (‘EngLaID at 18 months: learning to walk’) presented by Anwen and Chris Green, followed by an exploration of landscape agency in my Somerset case study area. Gary Lock and John Pouncett (University of Oxford) then grappled with how GIS might reconcile landscape as data with landscape as narrative, suggesting that scalar approaches must be central to attain a qualitative understanding of quantitative data.

Gary Lock presenting on GIS and agency.
Gary Lock presenting on GIS and agency.
Musing about Somerset
Musing on agency in Somerset.

The papers after lunch picked up on these themes and explored how one might best apply ideas of landscape agency in different sectors of British archaeology. David Roberts (University of York) developed an interesting theoretical framework for landscape agency demonstrated through examples from Roman Gaul and Britain that highlighted the materiality of landscape agency in an effort to bridge humanistic and scientific accounts of landscape. The pinning down of the nature of landscape agency continued into Jonathan Last’s (English Heritage) paper, who took a different stance arguing that human agency needed to be central to our thought both as heritage practitioners and as academics. Gwilym Williams (John Moore Heritage Services) also pursued the link between theory and practice in a thoughtful account of how we create archaeological narratives. With reference to fieldwork at Nevendon Washlands in Essex, Gwilym suggested that instead of constructing linear ‘a to b’ reports, we might consider taking an alternative approach that highlights ruptures and punctuated equilibria in the development of landscapes.

David Roberts discusses theoretical frameworks for landscape agency.
David Roberts discusses theoretical frameworks for landscape agency.
Jonathan Last: a landscape view from English Heritage.
Gwilym Williams encourages us towards lateral reporting.

Our final session of the day took a slightly different tack, looking at the relationships of art, both past and present, and landscape. Richard Bradley (University of Reading) presented a compelling argument about the importance of the nature of the rocks influencing human activity on Ben Lawers in Scotland. Simon Callery rounded the day off by presenting a painter’s view of archaeological landscapes that focused on his works Pit Paintings and Wallspines. Both of these papers brought the importance of movement, texture and light to the fore.

Simon Callery introduces us to the idea of landscape as model.
Richard Bradley discusses Ben Lawers
Richard Bradley discussing Ben Lawers

Overall, the day was extremely enjoyable and sparked off numerous ideas for us to follow and explore as a project. Although some members of the audience remained unpersuaded by the idea of landscape agency, the majority agreed that if used cautiously it may prove a useful tool for analysis that gives some space for thinking about how and why humans have responded in particular ways to past landscapes. Other themes that came out strongly were whether past perceptions of landscape were shared or contested and how the study of past landscapes relates to who is doing the studying.

Roger Thomas, Richard Bradley and Chris Gosden deep in discussion.
Roger Thomas, Richard Bradley and Chris Gosden deep in discussion.

We would like to thank all the speakers, the chair people and the audience for creating such a stimulating symposium!