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Current Issues in Archaeological Theory

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Published: 8th Feb 2020 in Archaeology

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Option 2: Both the articles listed below have a similar aim (to provide a largely cognitive explanation for the placement of monuments within a landscape), but they adopt very different theoretical perspectives. Explain whether and, if so, how these different theoretical perspectives are reflected in the actual methods used by the authors


 ”To truly understand the significance of landscape, either in the past or in the present, requires an insider’s knowledge of the significance of place in relation to the wider landscape which is precisely that — to be inside it, to identify oneself with it, to belong to it… to understand [it] through personal bodily experience and encounter.” (Tilley 2004, 185)

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 “The principal aim of this paper is to show that within the context of GIS analysis it is possible to state testable hypotheses clearly… The combination of testing of well-stated hypotheses within a GIS analytical framework and using robust statistical methods is essential in GIS applications to site location analysis in general and in archaeology in particular.” (Fisher et al., 1997, 584)


Christopher Tilley’s article ‘Round Barrows and Dykes as Landscape Metaphors’, aims to create a particular understanding of the distribution of round barrows and dykes through analysis of their inter-relational connections (i.e. inter-visibility) and their viewscapes. From this analysis, Tilley makes a series of hypotheses on both their inter-relational significance as well as their metaphorical significance. Central to Tilley’s hypothesis is the phenomenological concept that by walking through and personally experiencing the landscape one can come to truly understand its past and present significance (Tilley, 2004, 185). Proceeding from this perspective Tilley provides a series of descriptive and almost poetic narratives of his own experiences walking the landscape of the Ebble-Nadder ridge and its surrounding barrows and dykes. He observes the inter-visibility of the monuments, noting whether certain views seem intension intentionally or purposefully obfuscated, and considers their distribution in relation to topographic features and his bodily experience with those features. He argues that, as the landscape remains unchanged and human perception is uniform, this form of physical emersion immersion and experience within the landscape with provides insight into how past individuals both experienced and interpreted the landscape. He concludes that the barrows were purposefully placed to form relationships between themselves, each barrow was viewed in terms of the other, whilst also establishing a connection with important topographical features. Therefore the location, viewscapes and material of the monuments association to topographical features are connected and form a systematic whole which references possible cosmological significance interpreted by Tilley as the journey between life and death (Tilley, 2004, 196).

In Fisher et al’sSpatial Analysis from the Bronze Age Cairns of Mull“, Fisher also delves into the subject of visibility and interconnectivity, however, his approach to the subject diverges greatly both methodologically and theoretically from Tilley’s.  Fisher’s paper is focused on arguing how geographical information systems in conjunction with robust statistical methods can be applied to formulate clear and testable hypotheses for visibility and site location analysis. Early forms of GIS visibility analysis lacked the inferential strategy advocated by Fisher, relying more heavily on common sense interpretations. Due to its lack of inferential thoroughness, systematic fieldwork sampling had been preferred over GIS as it was seen as analytically superior. Fisher examines a number of early studies done with GIS, thoroughly outlining where and how they fell short of the necessary standard.  For instance, the study of the Roman towers of Hvar has claimed that both towers were inter-visible and therefore the location had been chosen from a need of inter-visibility. However, this study didn’t take into account the possibility that the inter-visibility between both towers had occurred by chance alone. Fisher notes that it is possible to distinguish between cause and causation and operationalized this distinction in his study of the Bronze Age Cairns (Lake et al., 2003, 7). He argues that through the use of a combination of source code programming, spatial statistics and GIS packages one can successfully answer such theoretical questions as association and causation.

Armed with this theoretical perspective, Fisher attempts to identify similarities in the visible areas from the cairns in order to determine whether these visual communities are a merely unintentional association or whether these views exerted causal influence on the placement of the cairns (Fisher et al., 1997, 581). In short, were the cairns intentionally placed due to their particular vantage points or were these visual similarities coincidental?  In order to answer this question, Fisher constructs a variety of different hypotheses testing, each using random site generation within a Monte Carlo Framework. By comparing the visible areas of the cairns with those of the random locations obtained through random and stratified random sampling, Fisher is able to demonstrate that the sea occupies a large enough proportion of the cairns viewsheds so as to rule out the possibility that they had been placed there by chance.  Therefore, Fisher concludes that this must indicate that the cairns were purposefully placed at their respective locations due to a desire for them to overlook the sea, which perhaps held a practical or symbolic importance for the Bronze Age inhabitants.


Though there are great similarities between the goals and aims of both papers, namely to construct a comprehensive explanation of the placement of landscape monuments within a spatial context, there is little overlap in their theoretical and methodological approaches.

Tilley’s paper demonstrates some cognitive-processual interest in cognition and ideology, but Tilley places a greater importance on the phenomenological methodology that emerged from post-processualism.  The post-processual interest in phenomenology and its emphasis on the significance of issues such as symbolism, meaning and human subjectivity are all apparent in Tilley’s paper.  It is undeniable that archaeologists must consider these issues to reach a thorough understanding of archaeological landscapes, however, the phenomenological interpretation upon which Tilley bases his research is flawed. Tilley asserts that through physical immersion and by personally experiencing a site an individual is able to view it from a similar perspective as its ancient inhabitants. Key to this theory is the assumption of a commonality of the human condition, that the human body and physical landscape are constants and therefore impose the same constraints and limitations today as they did 1000 years ago (Bruck 2005, 54).  Though it may be true that humans and most landscapes have remained physically unchanged for a considerable amount of time, this concept assumes a homogeneous bodily experience, and disregards the anthropological understanding of human experience as being heavily influenced by culture and gender.  Tilley assumption of the universality of human experience undermines the heterogeneity of human experience and unintentionally foregrounds the perspective of the individual researcher/ archaeologist/ professional, in most cases a White European male.

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If these assumptions were to be true then, Tilley’s finding and interpretations should be similar to others replicating his landscape walks. However, it is unsurprising that this is generally not the case for most phenomenological interpretations. Scholars have recognized the inherent problems with the concept of the human body and experience as being universal.  Humans undeniably possess different and varying physical characteristics; young, old, strong, infirm, and therefore will logically experience the material world in ways which reflect their own personal limitations and strengths. As has been previously noted, Tilley’s belief of the universal experience overlooks the influence one’s cultural and ethnic background and physical characteristics have on shaping individuals’ perspectives and how they perceive the material world.

Tilley assumes not only a commonality between individuals’ experiences but also a similarity of past and present landscapes. He argues that though the vegetation has changed the “‘bones’ of the land, the lines and forms of the coombes and the ridges” (Tilley 2004, 201) had remained almost invariable since the Bronze Age. To him, the landscape itself exerts its own agency on individual’s experiences and perceptions of it (Tilley 2004, 185). Therefore as the landscape has remained unchanged it will exert the same agency on how an individual from the Neolithic experiences and perceives it as it would on Tilley’s modern perceptions.  Given this, Tilley’s phenomenological approach suggests that through embodied engagement with the landscape in the present, archaeologists can gain insight and access not only to past experiences but to past interpretations (Bruck, 2005, 55). Tilley, therefore, puts forth a series of claims on the symbolic meanings of particular landscape features thus using phenomenology as not only a theoretical framework for how physical and natural constraints mediate individuals perceptions of the landscape but as a methodology for inferring symbolic and metaphoric significance.

Perhaps influenced by ideas derived from ethnography, Tilley uses metaphors as one of his key analytical tools; something that is reminiscent of ethnographical work. Tilley’s main argument that the locations of round barrows and dykes were both significant in themselves as well important in their relationship to their immediate and distant surroundings (Tilley, 2004, 186) is predicated on the notion that humans’ concepts of space are linked with both their orientation and physical movement and therefore to a bodily experience which is invariant. The metaphoric significance of the importance of the location of the barrows is therefore subject to the varying bodily experiences of individuals. Furthermore, the concept that symbolic, religious, political, etc. associations with material forms (material metaphors) are derived by reference to bodily experience and therefore grounded in the body also assumes the non-subjective interpretation of bodily experience (Coward, 2010, 48). Inherent in this thought is the idea that perception will also be shared as the perception of the psychical properties of forms and materials will remain unchanged as they bear fixed observable characteristics e.g. the deep “interiorized worlds of the coombes” (Tilley, 204, 196) and the ‘exterior’ world of the ridge top. For Tilley, the mysterious and damp coombes were seen as dangerous places associated with spirits and the underworld. However, this seems to be an entirely arbitrary interpretation of the metaphorical significance of the coombes. Archaeologist Andrew Flemming argues that this type of hyper-interpretation is free of any form of empirical evaluation. Therefore it is equally plausible to argue that the coombes could have been viewed as the safe purlieu of benevolent wood-sprites, sun traps or as an occasional source of water (Flemming, 2006, 274).

Fisher’s methodological analysis on the subject of visibility is almost antithetical to Tilley’s phenomenological rhetoric. While Fisher struggles to detach himself from subjectivity, by constructing his hypothesis around statistical data, cartographic representations and simulations, Tilley would argue that these representations fail at fully understanding the landscape as they do not convey the bodily understanding of the site which comes with personally experiencing the landscape. Results obtained through GIS are largely determined by landscape topography and other environmental elements rather than the sensory and interpretive factors upon which phenomenological research is founded (Hacıguzeller, 2012, 250).  Fisher’s perspective correlates things such landscape, materials and the environment with objectivity (take out are) while things such as culture, symbolism, and meaning are seen as subjective. He, therefore, accords greater importance to that what he sees as objective. This disregard of the subjective perspective of the landscape in GIS studies is often why these methods have been critiqued as being restricted by a processual functionalist framework of explanation (Wheatley, 1993, 135). 

 Another possible issue with Fisher’s work is the possibility of methodological determinism. For instance, the methodological possibilities of the GIS are responsible for the results of the multiple viewshed analysis rather than archaeological theory (Lake et al. 2003, 8). In addition, GIS visibility studies suffer from a number of methodological problems. For example, GIS functions which produce the viewshed are often inaccurate in regards to algorithmic precision as well being sensitive to view inhibiting environmental factors which effect object recognition (e.g. light, atmospheric conditions, contrasts).  The implements employed in GIS studies are also perceptually constrained as they cannot mimic human agency. In other words, human perception is subjective and influenced by cultural preconceptions and these preconceptions will influence where an individual’s attention/gaze is drawn towards (Lake et al. 2003, 9). Therefore, visibility is subjective and cannot be replicated by a model which is based on completely objective information.

There clearly is a lack of any confluence between processualist and post-processualist approach in either article. Not once does Tilley allude to GIS and its potential benefits, though its application in his work could provide the scientific rigour and data that it lacks. Though Fisher does make mention of the importance of phenomenological interpretation it plays no active role in his methodology nor does it affect in anyway his results.  The gap between the two theories should be bridged and archaeologists should strive for inclusiveness rather than dismissing the work of others from their studies. No landscape can be interpreted completely or with one hundred percent accuracy, be it by walking and experiencing the landscape or by collecting spatial data. Each approach has what the other lacks, therefore no method should be excluded from the archaeological study.


  • Bruck, J., 2005. Experiencing the past? The development of a phenomenological archaeology in British prehistory. Archaeological Dialogues, 12(1), pp.45–72.
  • Coward, F. and Gamble, C. (2010). Metaphor and Materiality in Earliest Prehistory. [online] Eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk. Available at: http://eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk/20595/3/Coward%20%26%20Gamble%202010%20metaphor.pdf [Accessed 25 Nov. 2018].
  • Fisher, P.F., Farrelly, C., Maddocks, A. and Ruggles, C. 1997. Spatial analysis of visible areas from the Bronze Age cairns of Mull. Journal of Archaeological Science 24:581-92.
  • Fleming, A., 2006. Post-processual Landscape Archaeology a Critique. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 16(3), pp.267–280
  • Hacιgüzeller, P. (2012) ‘GIS, critique, representation and beyond’, Journal of Social Archaeology, 12(2), pp. 245–263. doi: 10.1177/1469605312439139.
  • Lake, M.W. & Woodman, P.E., 2003. Visibility Studies in Archaeology: A Review and Case Study. Environment and Planning B: Planning and Design, 30(5), pp.689–707.
  • Llobera, M., 2012. Life on a Pixel: Challenges in the Development of Digital Methods Within an “Interpretive” Landscape Archaeology Framework. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 19(4), pp.495–509.
  • Tilley, C. 2004. Round barrows and dykes as landscape metaphors. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 14:185-203.
  • Wheatley, D.,1993. Going over Old Ground: GIS, Archaeological Theory and the Act of Perception.


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