The Aims of Landscape Archaeology

Firstly, it is important to be clear that the Landscape of which we speak, is not the landscape of artists, but the original landschap of the Dutch, denoting human occupation (Schama 1996: 10). It is not that the two are separate but beauty, for once, is not the object in view.

Aston and Rowley (1974 :14) describe the landscape we see today as a palimpsest of the uses to which humans have put the land, sometimes destroying, sometimes creating, but with the evidence writ plain for those who take care to read it.

An early proponent of this reading of the landscape, was Hoskins ( 2005) who advocated a blend of human geography and empirical observation of the landscape to produce a narrative. Johnson (2009: 197) criticises this approach as being too anecdotal but the Landscape Archaeology today blends techniques based on Hoskins’ work but adds in any scientific technique that promises to offer enlightenment.

The techniques employed in Landscape Archaeology are primarily concerned with the tangible aspects of the landscape: the physical evidence we can still detect and measure, and the wider patterns we can discern when working at the landscape scale. Landscape Archaeology is the process of understanding the landscape: attempting to define and describe how the landscape functioned and was experienced (Darvill, 2003).

On the other side of the spectrum from the scientific observations, David and Thomas (2008 : 38-9) argue that Landscape Archaeology needs to move toward an archaeology of Landscape, to consider the human aspects as well as the practical in order to bring a more rounded approach to the discipline. It is not enough to describe what would logically have made sense in terms of land-use, we must allow places to have meaning (Thomas, 1998).

As yet, remote sensing technology is not yet mature enough to eliminate all need for intrusive investigation; therefore, there is a limit to the extent to which Landscape Archaeology can determine the nature of features found and any hypothesis must be tested (Aston & Rowley 1974 : 49).

It must also be acknowledged that not all of man’s activities leave a discernable trace. For instance, transhumance would not necessarily leave evidence in the landscape (Witcher 1999 :17). Therefore it is important to consider what is missing from our data as well as what we can physically discern, and not to dwell too much on site density and distribution maps. Too much emphasis on spatial arrangement can lead to geographical determinism and interpretations biased towards logical, calculable factors to the deprecation of the consideration of more irrational, human characteristics (Witcher 1999 : 15).

The strength of Landscape Archaeology comes with the broader, multidisciplinary,  perspective it brings : rather than using a narrow range of techniques, we deploy any that seem appropriate for the situation; we do not deal with an individual site such as a single monument, but have the freedom to explore the places between what has been traditionally classified as ‘an archaeological site’. This allows us to recognise that sites are connected and related, and in this more holistic approach, produce a synthesis that is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is this very scale that influences, and determines the success of, the range of methodologies and techniques deployed for data acquisition; the detailed and painstaking approach of excavation is utterly inappropriate when considering an area of several hectares for reasons both of logistics and cost. Therefore, we turn to techniques that can cover larger areas but still attempt to answer the questions we have about the landscape.

Methods and Techniques

Aerial Photography

Aerial photography plays an important role in Landscape Archaeology, as it not only provides a means of discovering evidence of activity in the landscape, but using transcription techniques, also provides a means of taking that evidence and plotting it on a map, or into a GIS for further analytical work.


The primary strength of aerial photographic analysis is that it gives a view of a landscape in a form that is recognisable as being what one could see (Wilson 2000 : 24) and allows the recognition of sites and their possible interrelationships (Campana, 2009 :11) However, if there is little contrast between earthworks and their surroundings, they may be invisible in a vertical photo.


Whilst it is true that a camera can only capture what the human eye can physically see, the use of infrared filters and hyperspectral sensing techniques can enhance the image captured and bring out detail that otherwise might be missed, for example highlighting cropmarks  which are more visible in near-infrared (Campana, 2009 :18).


Allows large areas to be covered

Provides material for transcribing – transcriptions can be used to map an area, instead of detailed survey, if the subject area is too large to make that practical (Fowler 2000 : 34).

Some features can only be comprehended when seen as a whole

Shows up crop and soilmarks that may not be visible from the ground, or may not appear significant as the whole cannot be seen

Allows work to be done on landscapes where access on foot may be difficult as it does not require access to the physical location.

historic photos allow comparisons of condition of monuments, to assess deterioration



Can only see what the human eye can see, although filters may improve what is captured

Care must be taken when transcribing oblique photographs as perspective will be skewed

Not all soils and crops show crop and soilmarks so sites can be missed owing to wrong conditions

Only really useful at certain times of year e.g. winter when the vegetation has died down, after ploughing, in the summer to show parchmarks.

If the weather is too dry, the marks can appear reversed and be misleading e.g. ditches look like walls (Drewett 2011 : 37)

Earthwork Survey

Earthwork survey is good for delineating features that may otherwise not be apparent from the ground; a series of vague humps can become, when systematically plotted, a clear plan of recognizable features.

Earthwork survey can help to determine relative dating for a site, by observing which earthworks overlay or slight other features, and which are, in turn cut by further features. What it cannot do is provide absolute dating. Nor can it, alone, positively enable the classification of the site. Aston gives a good example of the pitfalls of using morphology alone as a basis for identification, with his extensive list of the possibilities represented by a round mound in the landscape (Aston, 1985).

Surface Collection

EU influence on farming policy has led to the abatement of deep-ploughing in agriculture, which in turn has lessened the frequency with which subterranean deposits are dredged from deep in the soil (Campana, 2009 : 8). We are therefore probably only finding fairly shallow deposits.

Environmental Archaeology and Geoarchaeology

Pollen is preserved extremely well in conditions such as those found in peat bogs: waterlogged and acidic. However care must be taken as not all species produce large amounts of pollen and may be under-represented in a sample (Muir 2000 : 1).

Environmental evidence tends to provide sequences rather than dating, but is useful to show the type of plants and microfauna that were present in an area .

Using environmental evidence is an important part of understanding the positioning and aspect of monuments in the landscape. For example, it has been shown that Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure was constructed in an area that was predominantly woodland (Pollard & Reynolds, 2002 : 55).

Geoarchaeological information such as soil structure and composition can also play a part in helping to reconstruct the use of the land for agriculture and may help to explain use or disuse of tracts of land over time (Denham, 2008 : 470).

Although environmental and pedological evidence can be enlightening, the work is typically done by specialists, making it expensive and limiting the scale at which it can reasonably be applied.


In the main, the techniques above are useful for describing the state of what remains, but perhaps fall short of describing what was. Edmonds (1999: 7 ) considers the landscape to be experienced on both a practical and a sensual basis: not as a backdrop to daily life but as a lived experience. This bodily participation in what is now an extinct landscape is difficult to recreate, although a lot of attempts are being made (Fleming, 2006).

Whilst the evidence garnered in the above techniques is ideally subjected to a degree of interpretation to form a coherent narrative that forms a plausible explanation for the results, the danger with this is that an explanation becomes the explanation, when the interpretation we are making is formed through the lens of our modern understanding and assumptions (Johnson 2009: 106; Edmonds 1999 : 9). In reality, the aim of wholly understanding the human motivations and behaviours, discernible only through physical remains, must remain forever elusive, and scientific approaches cannot hope to answer all the questions of the past (Thomas 1998 : 88-9).

Archaeology, at best, can provide a framework of physical descriptions upon which to test theories about the past, and Landscape Archaeology is no less subject to this limitation than any other branch of the discipline.  We must not be fooled by our ability to exactly measure and describe a relict of the past, into believing that to exactly describe is to understand, and to measure scientifically is to know the measure of something.



Aston, M. (1985). Interpreting the Landscape: Landscape, Archaeology and Local History (1st ed., p. 168). London: Routledge.

Aston, M., & Rowley, T. (1974). Landscape Archaeology: An Introduction to Fieldwork Techniques on Post-Roman Landscapes. Vancouver, BC Canada: Douglas David & Charles Limited.

Campana, S. (2009). Archaeological site detection and mapping: Some thoughts on differing scales of detail and archaeological “non-visibility.” In S. Campana & S. Piro (Eds.), Seeing the Unseen: Geophysics and Landscape Archaeology (pp. 5-26). Leiden: CRC Press/Balkema.

Darvill, T. (2003). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology (2nd ed., p. 528). Oxford University Press.

David, B., & Thomas, J. (2008). Landscape Archaeology: Introduction. In B. David & J. Thomas (Eds.), Handbook of Landscape Archaeology (pp. 27-43). Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press Inc.

Denham, T. (2008). Interpreting Practices-in-the-Landscape through Geoarchaeology. In B. David & J. Thomas (Eds.), Handbook of Landscape Archaeology (pp. 468-481). Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press Inc.

Drewett, P. (2011). Field archaeology: an introduction (2nd ed., p. 208). Routledge.

Edmonds, M. (1999). Ancestral Geographies of the Neolithic: Landscapes, Monuments and Memory (1st ed., p. 192). Routledge.

Fleming, A. (2006). Post-processual Landscape Archaeology: a Critique. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 16(03), 267. doi:10.1017/S0959774306000163

Fowler, P. J. (2000). Landscape Plotted and Pieced: Landscape History and Local Archaeology in Fyfield and Overton, Wiltshire (p. 325). London: Society of Antiquaries of London.

Hoskins, W. G. (2005). Making of the English Landscape (p. 274). Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

Johnson, M. (2009). Archaeological Theory: An Introduction (2nd ed., p. 328). Wiley-Blackwell.

Muir, R. (2000). The New Reading the Landscape: Fieldwork in Landscape History (p. 272). University of Exeter Press.

Pollard, J., & Reynolds, A. (2002). Avebury: Biography of a Landscape (illustrate., p. 176). The History Press Ltd.

Schama, S. (1996). Landscape and Memory (Reprint., p. 672). Vintage Books USA.

Thomas, J. (1998). Time, Culture and Identity: An Interpretative Archaeology (1st ed., p. 288). Routledge.

Wilson, D. R. (2000). Air Photo Interpretation for Archaeologists (2nd ed., p. 240). The History Press Ltd.

Witcher, R. E. (1999). GIS and Landscapes of Perception. In M. Gillings, D. Mattingly, & J. van Dalen (Eds.), Geographical Information Systems and Landscape Archaeology (pp. 13-22). Oxford.


Written on May 15th, 2011 , Essays

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