Saturday, 29 August 2009

Stone Worlds

[A book review recently published in the journal American Antiquity. Cite this paper as Hicks, D. 2009. Review of B. Bender et al. Stone Worlds: narrative and reflexivity in landscape archaeology. American Antiquity 74(3): 590-591.]

image: spreads of clitter at Leskernick, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

Stone Worlds: narrative and reflexivity in landscape archaeology. Barbara Bender, Sue Hamilton and Chris Tilley, with Ed Anderson, Stephan Harrison, Peter Herring, Martyn Waller, Tony Williams and Mike Wilmore. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press. 2007. ISBN: 978-1-59874-218-3 (hardcover); 978-1-59874-219-0 (paperback).

Stone Worlds documents an experimental, collaborative field project at Leskernick, a small hill on Bodmin Moor in northern Cornwall. The project was directed by two social anthropologists with interests in archaeology (Barbara Bender and Chris Tilley) and an archaeologist (Sue Hamilton), all of whom are based at University College London. The book is co-authored by these directors in partnership with six further named authors, and is punctuated by many other voices, drawn mainly from the excavation team. This unusual format derives from the book’s main purpose: to attempt to deliver a multivocal account of an archaeological project, which is concerned more with interpretive process, narrative and reflexivity than with outcome:

‘by highlighting the processes involved, we have tried to create a counterpoint to the spurious fixedness of excavation reports or of archival material including context sheets that provide minimal space for the recording of interpretative processes and strategies’ (p. 25).

The fieldwork, conducted between 1995 and 1999, focused on the late Neolithic and Bronze Age landscape of Leskernick. The book begins with a detailed account of the prehistoric archaeological sequence as derived from landscape survey and excavation: from the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age monumental landscape – stone circles and a stone row (Chapter 4) – to the construction of around 50 house circles and associated enclosures on the southern and western sides of the hill during the middle Bronze Age (Chapters 5-6), and a complex sequence of abandonment and re-occupation of these houses, and various changes to the enclosures, during the late Bronze Age (Chapter 7). Much of this sequence involved people moving and reconfiguring the spreads of ‘clitter’ (glacially deposited boulders and stones) that lie across this upland landscape. In Chapter 9, the authors consider the different perspectives of geomorphologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists upon the study of ‘Nature, Culture, Clitter’. They conclude that ‘the people of Leskernick Hill regarded the stones as animate sentient beings, the very opposite of a modernist belief system in which the stones are regarded as inanimate objects to be exploited at will’ (p. 225).

This last contention hints at the least satisfactory element of the book. The authors adopt a hyper-interpretive approach, based on the belief that ‘although there is a “real” world out there, we can only access it through our concepts, words, and metaphors’ (p. 26). This combines with a form of New Age romanticism for the prehistoric past. The constant breaking-up of the text with diary entries, snatches of conversation or personal reflections, the poems about the stones, the phenomenological photo-essay about ‘moving in procession’ across the landscape, and the descriptions of ‘offerings of joss sticks and a corn sheaf… on the eve of the summer solstice’ at a large stone named by the excavators ‘the Shrine Stone’ (p. 203), combine to produce the disconcerting feeling of listening to a progressive rock concept album, rather than reading a book about Cornish prehistory and heritage.

This ‘art rock’ aesthetic is most visible in the suggestion that some of the fieldwork might constitute a kind of ‘archaeological artistic practice’ (p. 314). Inspired by the contrasting practices of Christo, American environmental artists, and Andy Goldsworthy, the project team wrapped up stones in clingfilm and painted them in primary colours, and erected Tibetan-style prayer flags across the moor. Are such actions ‘invalidated because the person producing the art has training in archaeology rather than the art academy?’ the authors ask. (ibid)

The clingfilmed stones and poster paint do not succeed completely in distracting the reader from the more successful and serious moments in the book. These relate to the reflections upon the “Stoneworld’ exhibition of the results of the project (Chapters 14-15), the integrated account of ‘movement across the moor’ in the Bronze Age (Chapter 16), and the studies of the sociological studies of archaeological field practice by Tony Williams and Mike Wilmore (Chapters 10-12). The study of the diverse situations and practices from which archaeological knowledge of the past emerges is a major current field of enquiry in archaeology, as recently demonstrated in the excellent work that has developed since Gavin Lucas' landmark 'Critical Approaches to Fieldwork' (Lucas 2001), especially that of Matt Edgeworth, Tom Yarrow and Adrian Chadwick (Chadwick 2003, Edgeworth 2006, Yarrow 2003). Insofar as it contributes an extended case study to these debates, Stone Worlds is an important book.

Although the medieval and post-medieval sequence is omitted from the study, we do learn about the prehistoric archaeological sequence in this upland West Country landscape, and about the challenges of presenting the results of landscape archaeology to the public. However the book is too often stuck in a circular argument that has characterized much post-processual thinking: defining archaeology as ‘interpretive’, and then pointing out how many possible interpretations there might be since ‘all interpretations are subjective’ (p. 26). In practice, a particular landscape aesthetic that strives to look beyond modernity tightly frames the range of possible interpretations: for example, ‘for the people who lived both on and off the moors…the stones were the ancestors or the ancestral beings or the work of the ancestral beings’ (p. 31).

In the late 1970s the overblown musical excesses of progressive rock were quickly swept away. ‘Never’, artist Jamie Reid famously warned, ‘trust a hippie’. Today, the free-floating, counter-modern aesthetic of British interpretive archaeology, caught up in metaphor and narrative, attracted to landscapes as far away as possible from modern life, and skeptical about the generation of new archaeological knowledge of the past, is similarly tired.

Stone Worlds is a brave and ambitious book, but its effect is to call further into question the credibility and contemporary relevance of ‘interpretive archaeology’.


Chadwick, A. 2003. Post-processualism, professionalization and archaeological methodologies. Towards reflective and radical practice. Archaeological Dialogues 10(1): 97-117.

Edgeworth, M. (ed.) 2006. Ethnographies of Archaeological Practice: Cultural Encounters, Material Transformations. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Lucas, G. 2001. Critical Approaches to Fieldwork: contemporary and historical archaeological practice. London: Routledge.

Yarrow, T. 2003. Artefactual persons: the relational capacities of persons and things in the practice of excavation. Norwegian Archaeological Review 36: 65-73.

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