Review of ‘Inscribed Landscapes: Marking and Making Place’ edited by Bruno David and Meredith Wilson

01st June 2006

Slack and Fullagar BR coverInscribed Landscapes: Marking and Making Place edited by Bruno David and Meredith Wilson. University of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu, 2002, viii+303 pp., ISBN 0824824725 (pbk).

Michael Slack and Richard Fullagar

Department of Archaeology, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry, Building A14, University of Sydney NSW 2006, Australia

This edited volume of papers examines the making of place through ‘physical and metaphorical marking’ (p.1), and is much more than a book about rock art. David and Wilson’s volume covers an extremely diverse subject matter, but with similar theoretical underpinnings. Inscribed Landscapes is unsurprisingly postmodern, and for those already convinced of the multiple readings of the archaeological record, an excellent read. Others may struggle to see links between archaeology, Foi poetry and Federation Square in Melbourne.

Comprised of three parts, the collection of 18 papers varies in time and space, with themes jumping from prehistoric Malta (Stoddart) to Aztec Central America (Umberger) in just a few pages. Written by a range of established authors on each particular region, papers are generally linked by the theoretical theme of approaches to landscapes through experience and the processes of inscription. These processes are seen to depend on human engagement with the landscape and how ‘landscapes are meaningfully, socially constructed places involving bodily and cognitive experience’ (p.6). In this way a seemingly disparate group of authors and themes find their common ground.

Two particular themes are proposed in the introduction of the volume: landscapes of social participation and of resistance, upon which the subsequent papers are said to relate. These concepts are useful, although archaeological manifestations may be impossible or difficult to disentangle if not practically invisible.

There are three parts to Inscribed Landscapes – art, monuments and a sectioned termed ‘beyond the mark’ (p.217). Of these, many archaeologists will find most relevance in the first section, an interesting synthesis of approaches to rock art studies and a collection of three Australian studies (McNiven and Russell, David and Wilson, Rosenfeld). The monuments section presents an interesting but very disparate group of papers, but concentrates mostly on European megaliths. The third section – the miscellaneous ‘flaked piece’ category of marking places – is the most uneven.

Part 1 of the volume consists of eight papers and centers on rock art. Ballard discusses engravings found in Papua associated with paramilitary activities near the Freeport mine site. Very much in the tradition of anthropologist Michael Tausig, Ballard sees this landscape as one of a culture of terror and notes spaces of death in terms of the topographic arrangement of inscriptions on the landscape. Three layers of violence are imposed on this landscape: destruction of the known landscape, a replacement with a ‘topography of the dead’ (pp.13–14), and visual reminders of violence. Ballard introduces the idea of resistance through a study of graffiti at the site. Although this theme implies an archaeological problem because the rock art comprises graffiti of oppressors rather than resistance (which is not expressed by marking places).

McNiven and Russell provide a summary of the current state of Australian contact archaeology as a part of postcolonial discourse. Rock art is discussed in terms of the production of non-secular responses to the frontier dynamic, and the authors urge for research aimed at understanding the dynamics of intercultural encounters rather than the old ‘chestnuts’ of hidden or missing histories. Specific rock art examples include sorcery, and burials with increased visibility to claim territory in the contact period. McNiven and Russell draw heavily on research by Frederick (2000) who drew attention to the problematic nature of contact art when it is only defined by presence of contact motifs. References to Henry Reynold’s work feature in discussions of contact history, but authors such as McGrath, Attwood, Elder, May and Fels seem a little relegated to the background. Discussions of Kimberley point trade cite Akerman, but see also the recent work of Rodney Harrison and papers in Torrence and Clarke (2000).

David and Wilson’s own paper uses the concept of graffiti as a means by which people effectively write themselves into a landscape. They assert that graffiti offer insight into the complex relationships between inscription, inscriber, and wider societal power relations. This paper presents the concept of a landscape of resistance extremely well. The authors use the case study of Wardaman art (a focus of research for both for some time now) to illustrate territorial resistance and mobilisation of territoriality. This perspective is very interesting and along with David’s Landscapes, Rock-Art and the Dreaming (2002) provides examples of the potentially exciting directions that rock art research can take us.

Rosenfeld provides a synthesis of the rock art of Central Australia with particular emphasis given to the sites of Lilla, Puritjarra, Ewaninga and Wallace Rock Hole. She asserts the existence of regional variations, but also specific within-region variation in the western Central Ranges based on formality of motifs. It is the level of formality that Rosenfeld suggests alludes to site function, as for example those places with formally controlled designs are considered ‘mythologically powerful places’ (p. 76).

Lee is also interested in rock art, specifically engravings but with a focus on the mass of instances and beautiful designs on the main island of Hawai’i. Similar to Rosenfeld, Lee believes that variation in motif is related to site type, function and spatial structure of the socio-cultural organisation of the creators. Lee also charts the development of an increasing complexity in petrogylph designs over time, and their importance to aspects of life, such as the ‘piko’ (pp.83-84) cupules associated with marking births. Lee draws primarily on ethnography to argue that rock art expresses and perpetuates a world order.

Still with petroglyphs, Rainbird challenges the reader to an exploration of ‘sensual archaeologies’ (p.95) (think sound, smell and taste, and not sex). Taking the seemingly disparate case studies of Pohnpaid, at Pohnpei on the Caroline Islands in Micronesia, and Ilkley Moor, England, he attempts to demonstrate that there is much more to these sites than the visual. Rainbird argues that much of the social significance of such places might lie in their production and particularly through transmitted sounds. This is not as whacky as it sounds. Recent research by Steven Mithen (2005) echoes the point, and argues that such sounds and music in general have been crucial to hominid evolution.

Darnell examines inscriptions along roads adjacent to the Qena bend of the Nile in the Western desert. ‘Furrows in the earth … mark experience of space’ (p.114) and these inscriptions are said to link places along a spine of the landscape. Inscriptions along these paths were marked and assert ‘political control, social rhythms, military tactics, religious observances, and economic endeavours’ (p.114).

Part 1 of Inscribed Landscapes concludes with Taçon’s review of the relationship between rock art and landscapes. He suggests that 13 kinds of dichotomous relationships supposedly make such research more meaningful, and discusses six that have been recently applied (early vs recent, simple vs complex, figurative vs non-figurative, marking vs mapping, economic vs symbolic and secular vs sacred). However, no example or analysis based on any single dichotomy (it’s A or it’s B) really provides a satisfactory explanation of anything cultural or natural (another false dichotomy), and this paper reminds us that rock art will always be amenable to multiple readings.

Part 2 of Inscribed Landscapes consists of five papers and focuses on monuments and the landscape. The first two papers of the five are focused on the megalith landscapes of western Europe. Allen and Gardiner present a simple paper on the archaeological visibility of the spiritual landscape of the Mesolithic through happenstance findings (cut features and post holes) in association with Neolithic monumental landscapes. The important assertion of the paper is the idea that you don’t necessarily have to be a sedentary population to create such a monumental landscape, and that hunter-gatherer populations who also mark landscape, may have done so in complex ways in Britain. Allen and Gardiner suggest cultural continuity with monument construction by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers prior to Stonehenge and Neolithic settlements.

Scarre’s paper concerning the rich monumental landscape of Gree de Cojoux in Brittanny, France, attempts to make connections between the natural and monumental landscape. He creates links between local artefactual deposits and quartz quarries with the standing stones of the summit of the Gree de Cojoux. Scarre identifies three phases of construction, each marked by change with respect to funerary activities, settlement and ritual zones.

Stoddart writes of the monumental landscape of the islands of Malta, seeing it as a prehistoric landscape of inscription. Charting the changes to monumental building over time and the effects of changes to populations and interaction with external forces, he describes approaches to material display that reflect the dominant ideologies of the Maltese, through broad phases: initial more or less permanent agricultural settlement, mortuary complexes, temples, iconoclasm/abandonment/re-use, intensive agricultural/defensive and Phoenician state intervention.

In a geographic leap, the concluding two papers focus on the western hemisphere. Umberger examines the monumental landscape of Aztec Mexico, through links between rulers and gods with the natural landscape. She describes how natural features were brought into urban centers as built structures and the relocation of people to dynastic mountain sites, and inscription on the rocks surrounding them – all revealing Aztec expansion and powers of local cult sites.

Adler examines the changes to settlement and land-use patterns of the American southwest Pueblo peoples in the creation of the immense civic kiva monuments. They were used, as Adler argues, to create and reproduce social boundaries. This is somewhat of a novel approach to such sites, whereas others have argued that ceremonial kivas were used rather to bring people together in a more egalitarian way. Adler concludes that ‘community, then, is a group based risk buffering strategy that establishes and reproduces access to resources, social identities, territorial boundaries, and interdependent relationships on a local level … but social communities do not always live together as an architecturally identifiable settlement (p.203, original emphasis).

Part 3 of David and Wilson’s volume consists of five papers and is more of a consideration of alternative historical and contemporary ways in which inscription is used. Three Australian and two southeast Asian papers complete the volume. Pulvirenti examines the ways in which home ownership of Italian-born people act to ‘anchor their subjectivities’ (p.221). The act of making a home is read as making an inscription on a host landscape through the act of ‘systemazione’ (settling down). Although interesting, it is a shame that no mention is made of the actual physical aspects of this type of inscription; that is how the Italian community make their own sense of place within Australian suburbs through cultural similarities or indeed differences with Italy.

Carter presents an essay that both charts the political aspects of the construction of the Federation Square civic complex in Melbourne, whilst at the same time showing how the nature of contemporary inscriptions in very public spaces can be negotiated. This negotiation takes place by looking at various perceived pasts and the future, through the act of renegotiating political territory, particularly through the act of naming. It would have been enlightening to have more detailed reference to the actual inscriptions which feature prominently at the site, and in the accompanying figures, and Carter’s reasoning behind them.

A similar theme of tension over landscape is discussed by Yea who details how a Sarawak cultural village tourist site has been used to represent a national identity that doesn’t really exist. Whilst the Malay government effectively promote a romanticised depiction of the past they concurrently exploit the same Indigenous groups and their region for industrial development. The Iban are in reality marginalised, sitting uncomfortably between the past and present, struggling to assert their identity and land rights.

Langton’s paper on the Bama Native Title Claimants of Cape York shows how Aboriginal connections to the landscape stem from their own being and engagement with place, and through the inscription of senses, rather than through material monuments. Inscription of the landscape takes place by emplacement of power, which resides in places by virtue of the presence of ‘Old People’ (pp.266-267). She shows how central the role of elders is to this process as they mediate between the living and the dead, and that their presence emplaces the spiritual power of places. This is illustrated by Langton’s explanation of processes such as ‘singing out’ (p.262) and ‘giving smell’ by the elders.

Weiner’s paper follows themes raised by Langton, and examines inscription of the landscape through poetry, a medium that leaves no material trace. He looks at song poems about deceased men, composed by women making sago. They are then arranged and performed by men. The song poems contrast movement (life) and stillness (death) in journeys through the landscape, but are eventually forgotten, leaving no enduring physical marks. Weiner sees this process as a means by which the Foi landscape is ‘confirmed as at once known and experienced, marked not only through physical alteration, but also in memorialisation through poeticisation’ (p.282).

Inscribed Landscapes is generally a very interesting volume, with a variety of methodological and theoretical approaches all aimed at inspiring archaeological research away from the purely visual aspects of ‘inscribed landscapes’. It is well-written and illustrated. The approach to landscape is not particularlya new one, as anthropological and ethnographic themes have been incorporated into ‘archaeological’ research for some time.

Michael Slack and Richard Fullagar
Review of ‘Inscribed Landscapes: Marking and Making Place’ edited by Bruno David and Meredith Wilson
June 2006
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