5 The frog perspective: phenomenological method

The last direction of past landscape research that is described and discussed in this article is phenomenology. Although it was the most popular in the 1990s, some attempts on using it are still made. It has been argued against in many works (e.g., Brück, 2005; Fleming, 2005; Barrett and Ko, 2009), however, the author of this article believes that the philosophy of historical phenomenology can help researchers to have an insight into the past time.

Phenomenology means first and foremost a method, which was created by members of a philosophical school: Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Viik, 2009). In the 1990s, this methodology was adopted in archaeology – every archaeologist who has taken interest in phenomenology is probably acquainted with A Phenomenology of Landscape by Tilley (1994*) or The Hermeneutics of Megalithic Space by Thomas (1993). Some of the articles and books mentioned earlier in this article partly depict the phenomenological method (Gosden and Lock, 1998*; Bradley, 2000*), however, it is clear that by phenomenology only it is not possible to reconstruct a landscape, but it certainly takes closer to the final aim of animatedness.

Basically, phenomenological method includes perceiving the minds of the past people, who inhabited a landscape, in order to find out how they could have interpreted it. However, the perceiving is the problem that has given a reason to argument against this method. Thus, the question is if it is possible to understand what the people, who lived a thousand and more years ago, actually thought, and how it can be achieved. Historical phenomenology in connection with theories of corporeality might help closer to understanding the past world as the contemporary people did it.

Namely, Carr (2012) has argued that memory and experience are the keys to reach the past. Past, present and future form a horizon where present is highlighted, but it is also given meanings by the past and the future. A sole event cannot be experienced, but the field of past-present-future is experienced and perceived along with this event – this way the past is closely connected to the experience of the present.

This theory supports the theory of Gumbrecht (2013) of chronotopes or how the past is perceived by the present people (see also Bakhtin, 1981). Namely, he claims that the chronotope changed after the World War II and now it is possible to say that the present is inundated by pastness and the past is latent – something that cannot quite be left behind but is always with us in the present. This idea can be coincided with the idea of Torop (2012) that every era has its own past, which is created by academics but also artists, writers, composers, etc. All of those pasts must integrate and thus form a collective cultural identity and common understanding of history.

Furthermore, phenomenological method is closely connected to bodily experience. People are corporeal beings, they relate to nature and past, range in scale of corporeal attitudes and gestures to overall social practice. Each living body is space and has its space, meaning that it produces itself in space at the same time as it produces that space. External space is perceived through orientation and demarcation, the former of which replicates the body by projecting pairs of determinants, such as left and right, into the world, and the latter of which adds directions which are not only guidance to the world but also make it meaningful (Simonsen, 2005, 2–4).

People have always been and are corporeal beings and their perception of the world is somewhat similar in all ages. However, the pastness in every epoch is different, which really does make it difficult to understand the interpretation of the people who lived some thousand years ago. An answer to this problem might be approaching from micro-level and trying to understand the pastness of the people who inhabited the area of interest later. Understanding may be possible through, i.e., folklore about the same natural object that has been there earlier and later. To make an example, let us talk about a lake that has been used for thousands of years for different purposes. The period of interest is prehistory, but there are no more sources than scarce archaeological finds from that era. Then it is possible to turn to a later community who had a similar economical base than the prehistoric society, and who also therefore used the lake. The later community, however, has much folklore about the lake, which is a good source to understand their perception of this landscape, and it is very possible that the prehistoric people also had similar perceptions than the later community, because their ways of using the lake were similar, and this fact is evident in archaeological material (Karro, 2013b).

Furthermore, it is possible to detect the past in the present physical landscape and read it out from there. This idea is also supported by the article of Vedru (2009) on layers of landscape, where she argues that landscape is temporally layered and it is still possible to see the layers of the past in the contemporary landscape (Figure 1*; see also the conception of palimpsest Vervloet, 1984). However, this assumes that landscapes, as well as life-stories of people, are narratives, and narratives of landscapes are formed of individual and collective life-stories of the inhabitants (Duncan, 1990; Karro, 2013a). Thus, to use this kind of methodological approach, it is necessary to connect the narratives of the landscape and the people who could function as mediators to the more far-away past.

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Figure 1: Temporal dimensions in the landscape of Alatskivi, Kodavere parish, eastern Estonia. There is a prehistoric hillfort dating to 150 BC – 1100 AD on the southern shore of the ancient River Alatskivi, and the Medieval (from ca the 13th century onwards) estate / centre of the area is located on the northern shore. The photograph has been taken from the site of the early modern estate / manor (first mentioned in 1601). The river has been widened to design the manor park also in the 17th century, and is now a combination of two lakes.

Human perception and perspective is central in phenomenological method, and in combination with understanding that landscape is human creation and lies, first and foremost, in human mind, it is possible to analyze why the physical landscape was designed the way it was. The human-centered perspective gives landscapes the livelihood emphasized above.

The human-centeredness is very well represented in Vedru’s works, e.g., her Ph.D. thesis Archaeological landscapes of North-Estonia (Vedru, 2010), where she discusses, for example, sights from one archaeological object to another. This dwells on the concept that in erecting a certain object, for example, a stone grave, it was important to see another site from that object, be that a boulder or a lake, because those sites together formed a religious or ideological landscape. Different heights of landforms and sights from them were also probably important to the past people (Vedru, 2013). All in all, in creating their landscape, people engaged their natural surroundings into their landscape which they created and re-created by living there, and phenomenological method strives for finding out why, and what they exactly used.

The connection between natural or human-made objects by roads and paths has been already discussed by British archaeologists in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s (e.g., Tilley, 1994, 2004, but also Bradley, 2000), and Vedru’s works are a kind of revival of this methodology in Estonia.

To conclude this section, it can be said that phenomenology as an approach in the research of past landscapes has been and is criticized a lot, but it keeps coming back. Possibly, the reason is that it is an alternative perspective and methodology to harder sciences like artefact research, geo-archaeology, written source analysis, etc. In a good past landscape study it is necessary to have another approach as well, because it gives artefacts to people who use them in their everyday life, and face and feelings to those people whose story the landscapes are actually trying to narrate. In other words, phenomenological approach helps to animate landscapes, or to turn back to the statement by Gosden and Lock (1998) statement, helps to restore the heat and urgency in them.

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