Archaeology and perceptions of landscape

A few weeks ago I talked to someone, who – apart from some time away to study – has always lived in this part of Switzerland. What struck me, is how he said: “Yes, I have always lived under this mountain.” There was no question, which mountain “this mountain” is. It is prominent in this area, not only because it sits as an outcrop between the more gentle hills and the high alpine environment, but also due to its distinctive shape. Several restaurants in the area are named after it, and even the football stadium is known by its name. The mountain is a presence for the locals here and is not just a piece of rock that does not allow settlement at certain points or casts long shadows in winter.


But for decades in archaeological research, the meaning of landscapes was totally disregarded. The environment was, of course, important. It was seen as the main determinant of human adaptation. Complex theories of survival strategies in different environments were postulated. The spread of cultures, as defined by typical artefacts, was mapped and complex lists of migration and descent were produced and debated. People of the past were “faceless blobs”, which produced the “real” material, the artefacts (a position taken to its extreme by evolutionary archaeolgy – but that’s for another day).

Although landscape archaeology is a very diverse approach, overall it is part of the movement to recognize past humans more as ideational actors, people who did not act as automatons, but rather within certain worldviews. The natural environment is not just the backdrop to which humans carry on with their lives. Rather landscape denotes the external world mediated through subjective human experience. Humans give meaning to the world they live in and interact with it.

In some theories that projection of meaning onto the external world has eclipsed any notion of the impact this world has quite directly on local lifeways. I would contend that the approaches have to be held in balance and the interaction between humans and their environment sensibly taken into account.

One aspect that has helped to bring renewed focus on the relationship of landscape and humans is – somewhat paradoxically – the arrival of better computer technology. Geographic information systems allow the collection and overview of more data. They allow seeing patterns on a wider scale. For example, the study of viewsheds, what ancient people may have seen from various perspectives, has also given impetus to investigate views that are still very prominent in the modern landscape. In other words, because computers allowed the study of complex situations, we were reminded that fairly obvious situations also need to be taken into account. We should not disregard the mountain that is directly before us.
Similarly, computer visualization has allowed past views to be reconstructed. For example, we can now see how a temple would have looked from different angles.

Another trend that has contributed towards seeing the interaction between landscapes and humans in archaeology is the greater assertiveness of native groups in some areas of the world to have a say in how their heritage is treated. Archaeologists had to realize that these people attach significance to places, often associated with stories, but also continued practices. There is a good case to be made that such an association was also present in the past, a case that can be strengthened in the Old World, for example, through reference to written sources.

However, putting those aspects together and being able to give a good account of past people in their environment is difficult and not uncontested. Where possible, it does use old texts or traditions to be able to sketch the meaning in a world that was just as impressive then as it is now.


In the world of Ancient Israel, we do know that mountains did play a role in the worldview of the people. For example, Mount Hermon – here a photo of its lower flanks in summer – not only was seen as a significant geographical feature, and therefore sometimes as a boundary marker, but also with its snow and height at times had notions of the divine abode. Its prominence ensured that it also occurred in stories told far to its south. Clearly, the mountain would have a different significance for the farmer working the fields on its lower flanks to the shepherd in Judah, who had never seen the mountain, but only heard of it. And yet, both people would have referred to the same geographical location, not so much to inform their supposed “survival strategy” but to make meaning of the world around them.

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