Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Landscape Archaeology and the Future of the Recent Past

[Between 2004 and 2007 I was part of an English Heritage working group, with my colleagues Janet Miller and Andrea Bradley at WS Atkins, Victor Buchli at UCL, and Graham Fairclough and John Schofield at English Heritage, that explored the challenges of the definition and management of archaeological landscapes formed between 1950 and 2000. This initiative led to a number of outputs: a discussion document called 'Change and Creation' (2004), a special issue of Conservation Bulletin on the theme of 'Modern Times', and a popular book called 'Images of Change' which was published in 2007 (edited by Sefryn Penrose). This is the unedited versiom of my brief contribution to that book - 'Further Reading'.

Cite this paper as Hicks, D. 2007. Further Reading. In S. Penrose (ed.) Images of Change: an archaeology of England's contemporary landscape. Swindon: English Heritage.

Images of Change was an attempt to communicate the potential of the archaeological study of the recent past to a broad public audience. Stephen McClarence reviewed it for The Times, and Owen Hatherley wrote a very insightful review of the challenges raised by the book in the New Statesman last year.

Meanwhile British Archaeology reviewed it in the most recent issue (Sept/Oct 09), concluding with the words, "A thoughtful and very clever argument for a particular way of experiencing and seeing history in the landscape. Buy it."]

Published in the closing years of the 19th century, legal historian F.W. Maitland’s seminal study Domesday Book and Beyond famously described the six-inch Ordnance Survey map series as a ‘marvellous palimpsest’ (Maitland 1988[1897]: 15). During the 20th century, this image of the map of England as a parchment on which the text has been continually scratched over and written across was extended by archaeologists and landscape historians - from O.G.S. Crawford to W.G. Hoskins - to describe the English landscape itself as a kind of layered document

Since the Second World War this idea of likening the English landscape itself, rather than our maps of it, to a historical document has had two consequences for the direction of landscape archaeology and landscape history. On the one hand, it has encouraged the idea that the English landscape requires a trained ‘reading’ in the field. On the other hand, it has instilled the view the post-war processes of development and change in the landscape in strongly negative terms, gradually eroding precious sources of information. These two sets of attitudes are united by a view of the archaeological as distanced from everyday life. Classic studies such as Richard Muir’s Shell Guide to Reading the Landscape or Mick Aston’s Interpreting the Landscape encouraged the reader to undertake site visits away from the city by car or by landrover, to reveal traces of the past through local history and parish surveys. Archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes’ contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain evoked a damaged British landscape that ‘shows in its ravaged face that husbandry has been replaced by exploitation - an exploitation designed to satisfy man’s vanity, his greed and possessiveness, his wish for domination’. Still more vividly, W.G. Hoskins, in his 1954 study of the Devon landscape, described the Luftwaffe pilots who had bombed Portsmouth as ‘missionaries of 20th-century civilisation’ (Hawkes 1951: 177, Hoskins 1954: 456; quoted by Muir 1998: 73). Archaeologists came to view their contemporary landscapes as something to be escaped from, or to be opposed.

Images of Change presents a number of challenges to this bundle of attitudes. Through their sustained application of archaeological thinking to England’s most recent landscapes, the essays in the book challenge the idea of bounding off archaeological landscapes from the contemporary world. Of course, taking stock of the sheer quantities and diversity of the remains of the most recent past does not require us to deny the importance of the protection, designation or recording of archaeological sites and monuments. But it does require that we develop an appreciation of change as a central part of all archaeological landscapes as they were lived in the past, and as they are lived today. Rather than being purely destructive, new places emerged through the processes of later 20th-century landscape change, and old places were altered. These places are remembered, experienced and lived by people across the country in many different ways. Some are despised, some simply go unnoticed, some matter to people a great deal, and many attract conflicting emotions. But in all cases they represent a kind of heritage, and a place for dialogue. Images of Change challenges us to take stock of the diversity of material heritage that exists all around us in the English landscape.

The book’s firmly archaeological approach - identifying, describing and characterising - allows it not only to present a preliminary account of the material remains of landscape change in the later 20th century - a crucial and overdue task - but also to evoke the everyday nature of the sites and landscapes described. Any attempt to define or assess their character or value will quickly bring many different, and often conflicting, answers in many different places Thus, any effort to ‘read’ or ‘interpret’ them very quickly reveals that their potential meanings are limitless. And any field trip to the landscapes described are as likely to involve a bus ride as a Landrover journey. Many stories are waiting to be told at the - often very ordinary - places highlighted by the present book: from the heritage of multicultural landscapes in towns and cities across the country, or the changing roles of women in the home and the workplace, or the uneven processes of social mobility in post-war England, to personal memories of and attachments to particular locales.

By extending the archaeologists’ view of landscapes into the world that they inhabit themselves, the essays stay true to Maitland’s image of the continual layered changes in the English landscape. They encourage us to move beyond a conception of heritage as existing only in special places where it is valued, bounded off from everyday life. They also reveal that recent heritage is not simply intangible, like memories or values, but comprises very many different places that are concrete (often literally so!) and survive in the same ways as any other historical landscape (albeit in overwhelming quantities). The essays reveal how the landscapes of the later 20th century represent not only a significant dimension of English heritage that must be taken seriously in its own right, but also places in which local, political and personal conceptions of heritage can be explored in many different ways. As places for dialogue, the landscapes of recent heritage reveal how the value of what we define as heritage is never fixed or static. In this way, Images of Change makes a point that can be applied to archaeological landscapes of any period: that any choice to assign value to this particular place, or to that, is a contemporary choice. It serves to highlight certain stories, and to silence others. In other words, it is a political choice, and one that requires accountability.

The reader wanting to explore the material introduced in this book further could explore a range of further reading. Many geographers and architectural historians have engaged with such material: most notably Dolores Hayden’s Field Guide to Sprawl, with aerial photographs by Jim Wark, which provides a stunning, alphabetical journey around the built environment of later 20th-century America, and David Matless’ landmark study of Landscape and Englishness in the 20th century. Equally, the number of archaeological studies of the recent past has grown markedly in recent years, both in the United Kingdom and around the world (Hicks 2007, Rowley 2006). In industrial archaeology, for example, professional and avocational archaeologists have for four decades examined aspects of the landscapes of the 20th century. A good introduction here is Michael Stratton and Barrie Trinder’s book Twentieth Century Industrial Archaeology. In historical archaeology, a range of studies of the 20th century have been carried out in Australia and the United States over the past 30 years, most notably in William Hampton Adams’ excavations of the town of Silcott in Washington State during the 1970s (Adams 1977). The growing range of different archaeological approaches to the recent past have been summarised in Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas’ collection Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, and more recently in The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology. Beyond archaeology, sociologists, scientists, artists, writers and many others have engaged with the material remains of the recent past in many different ways.

But the central challenges for the reader of this book of landscapes - some of which might feel intimate and personal, others distant or cold – mean that any advice on further reading is open ended. This is because the book challenges us to think through the idea of treating these landscapes as heritage. To seek them out and explore and study them. To debate their values as archaeological and historical resources. And to consider how they can reorient our vision of ‘English heritage’.In beginning this task, Images of Change underlines how the value of the material remains of England’s recent past - perhaps like all archaeological heritage - lies in their role contemporary places from which we can tell a diversity of stories.


Adams, W.H. 1977.Silcott, Washington: Ethnoarchaeology of a rural American community.. Pullman, WA: Laboratory of Archaeology, Washington State University (Reports of Investigations 54).

Buchli, V. and G. Lucas (eds) 2001. Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past. London: Routledge.

Cossons, N. (ed.) 2000. Perspectives on Industrial Archaeology. London: Science Museum.

Hawkes, J. 1951. A Land. London: Cresset Press.

Hayden, D. 2004. A Field Guide to Sprawl. New York: W.W. Norton.

Hicks, D. and M.C. Beaudry 2006. The Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hicks, D. 2007. Historical Archaeology in Britain. In D. Pearsall (ed.) Encyclopedia of Archaeology. Elsevier.

Jones, D (ed), 2002. 20th century heritage: our recent cultural legacy. Proceedings of the Australia ICOMOS National Conference 2001 School of Architecture, Landscape Architecture and Urban Design, University of Adelaide, and Australia ICOMOS Secretariat.

Maitland, F.W. 1988 [1897]. Domesday Book and Beyond: three essays in the early history of England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Matless, D. 1998. Landscape and Englishness. London: Reaktion.

Muir, R. 1981. The Shell Guide to Reading the Landscape. London: Michael Joseph.

Muir, R. 1998. Reading the Landscape, Rejecting the Present. Landscape Research 23(1): 71-82.

Rowley, T. 2006. The English Landscape in the 20th Century. London: Hambledon Continuum.

Stratton, M. and B. Trinder 2000. Twentieth Century Industrial Archaeology. London: Spon Press.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. Archeological Heritage is a fascinating field of study!