Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Cerne Abbas Giant

In what ways can landscape archaeology be considered a form of landscape art?  Matthew Johnson's Ideas of Landscape (2007) traces the roots of the discipline (at least in its English version) to Romanticism and draws parallels between W.G. Hoskins (whose The Making of the English Landscape I've mentioned here before) and Wordsworth.  They were both solitary walkers, interested in the local (the genius loci) and the national, combining direct bodily experience with intuitive understanding, traveling in imagination into the past, gazing on the landscape from a social and physical distance and with a degree of expert knowledge, viewing the landscape aesthetically and translating it into text.

Johnson argues that landscape archaeologists working on prehistoric (rather than historic) sites have tended to operate more objectively and certainly in the US have been more open to theory.  One could perhaps draw parallels here with English and American land artists - Richard Long shares many of the Romantic characteristics listed above, in contrast to, say, Robert Smithson.   Johnson discusses some of the tools of landscape archaeology - maps, aerial photography and the hachured plan.  Ostensibly objective and empirical, they are 'complicit in a Romantic view of the world - each invites the observer to gaze down on the landscape like Wordsworth in the Lakes.'  Land artists have used photographs and maps extensively to document their earthworks but this book made me think there's some untapped potential in hachured plans...

In contrasting the attitudes of archaeologists to history and prehistory, Johnson discusses the Cerne Abbas Giant.  This mysterious work of art in the landscape has been taken to be prehistoric, since it could not be linked to Christian imagery and there were no historic documents relating to its creation.  But neither of these factors precludes a later date - 'Ronald Hutton (1999) has argued convincingly that it in fact sits longside a 17th century landscape of politics and conflict between king and Parliament.'  A third view has been put forward by Barbara Bender (an academic who, fifty years ago, was a college friend of my mother's.)  She suggests that the specific date of origin does not matter - 'the Giant has to be scoured and re-scoured every generation; it takes its place, and its historical importance, as part of a continuing tradition that links the past to the present.'

The Cerne Abbas Giant
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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