Archaeology into Art

The Leskernick project is an interdisciplinary piece of field research which began in the summer of 1995 and is projected to run until 1999. It is an attempt to provide an interpretative understanding of a late Neolithic/early Bronze Age settlement on Leskernick Hill in its landscape setting involving archaeological excavation and field survey, geological and environmental research. The project also involves an anthropological study of the team carrying out these investigations and the production of installation art works. During the three years the project has run the goals and scope of the project have considerably broadened in response to the problems we encountered in the field and the types of questions we started to ask.

Leskernick is a lowish, oval, stone-covered hill in the middle of Bodmin Moor (pdf location map of Bodmin Moor). Amongst the stones are two settlements consisting of clusters of circular houses on the western and southern slopes of the hill. The houses are surrounded by compounds and an accumulation of stone walls. In and amongst the fields and walls there are large numbers of small stone cairns. Just below the hill, on flat moorland, there is a ceremonial complex consisting of a stone row, two stone circles, and a larger cairn (pdf map of Leskernick Hill & vicinity). Leskernick is an insular, private arena for our work, being far from roads and tracks and enclosed on all sides by hills which are higher than it. On the western side of Leskernick these hills are rugged and spinal with dramatic granite outcrops (Tors) breaching the skyline. What struck us during the first year of excavation and surface survey were, first, the nested nature of the landscape: the lived space of the settlements, the stone row and stone circles beyond, a space of ceremony, memory and legend. And beyond again, the cairns and tors, reminders of the larger geographies and genealogies of the moors. Second, the intense relationship between these people and their stone world: the way the doorways of their houses were orientated to distant tors, the placement, or incorportation, of large stones in the back walls of the houses opposite the entrances, and of shrine stones within the walls and fields, walls that lurched from outcrop to outcrop and between clitter (tumbled stone) spreads (see Bender, Hamilton and Tilley 1997).

The landscape that we were recording, when considered through an aesthetic lens, is already a cultural 'sculptural' form marked and transformed through thousands of years of human activity. The most striking topographic features of the landscape on Bodmin Moor are the dramatic rocky tors. These have been a constant source of fascination, awe and wonder from the past to the present: rock sculptures marking the land, orientation points, sources of myths and stories (Tilley 1995; 1996). Leskernick Hill while lacking dramatic tors is covered with stones many of which have unusual and interesting shapes and deep weathering lines: 'sculpted' monuments with specific densities, masses, forms, surface textures constantly altering with the qualities of the light and angles of view. The prehistoric inhabitants of the hill incorporated some of these natural stone sculptures into the walls of their houses, usually up-slope and opposite the single entrance down-slope. Others are linked, or incorporated, within the field boundaries and compound walls. Free-standing stones are sometimes emphasized by having stones cleared away from them or, alternatively, heaped around them. We can easily recognize aesthetic effects and 'artistic' qualities in the arrangements of stones within the houses and boundary walls: different shapes, sizes, masses, textures, juxtapositions and superpositions. On a broader scale the positions of the houses on the hill and the snaking of the boundary walls from clitter mass to clitter mass have their own aesthetics of form. We move from the concept of a nested landscape to that of nested art in the landscape.

We conceive our work at Leskernick as being as much about process as product. Archaeologically we wanted to record the process of interpretation both at the excavation sites and on the surface survey in written personal, trench and site diaries, and in photographic documentation. In the third year of the project the artifical community carrying out the investigations on the hill was the subject of a detailed anthropological study through participant observation. Since the past is not only a creation of the present but a creation of particular sets of social relationships and values in the present we felt that an investigation of the contemporary community on the hill to be as important a part of the project as any attempt to reconstruct the lifeways of the Bronze Age peoples. As part of the process of documenting the hill, and our work, we wanted to experiment with various forms of visual representation from maps to plans to sections to photos to paintings to etchings to drawings to 'art'. Our concern is both with the poetics and the aesthetics of a study of the past.