The Materiality of Stone; Explorations in landscapes of phenomenology: 1, by CHRISTOPHER TILLEY with the assistance of WAYNE BENNETT
This book is the first of a projected trilogy by which aims to address the phenomenology of prehistoric landscapes. In this volume Chris Tilley seeks to explore the many different ways in which prehistoric social identities were created, sustained, reproduced or transformed, through the agency of stones. The book is divided into five chapters. The introduction sets down the theoretical and methodological perspectives, while the following three chapters each explore a different study area in relation to the over-riding theme of the materiality of stone. A short concluding chapter sums up all the observations made during the course of the book. Although united under this common subject matter, the book is quite eclectic and employs case studies from western Europe (Brittany), the central Mediterranean (Malta) and Scandinavia (southern Sweden).
In the introductory chapter Tilley draws on the work of many philosophers, particularly Merleau-Ponty. The theoretical issues follow on from Tilley’s previous works in a more developed form (eg. A Phenomenology of Landscape and Metaphor and Material Culture). While occasionally heavy-going, this chapter is worth the concentration since it contains some deeply insightful thought-provoking ideas. The main thrust is that understanding the landscape requires a more holistic approach. The body is the medium through which place is experienced and landscapes can only be encountered and understood through a fusion of all of the senses.
Chapter two on the Breton menhirs demonstrates that Tilley has undertaken some very detailed and exhaustive fieldwork. His geographical and chronological span is impressive –an analysis of 95% of all menhirs from Finistère, dating between c. 5000 and 2500BC. In his study of these stones and their location within the landscape, he focuses on the individuality of each menhir, and the fact that each would offer a sense of social identify for the people who erected and lived with them. Tilley provides a detailed description of each menhir and its situation within the landscape to support his arguments, studying the micro-characteristics of each stone with respect to stone type, shape, weathering, colour, profile, cracks, texture etc. Some of the stones appear to be growing out of the land and take on natural shapes while others take on anthropomorphic forms or have axes carved on them and have been shaped and transformed into cultural symbols. All of these are linked to ideas of fertility and human reproduction, with the shaped forms acting as metaphors for the transformation of the landscape.
One criticism of this chapter is that he divides the stones into different regional zones that are based on modern political boundaries – eg. the Haut Léon and Les Montagnes Noires. It may have been more meaningful to define geographical zones on the basis of natural features such as rivers or mountain chains rather than artificial constructs. The fluidity of the prose also suffers slightly from Tilley’s over-attentiveness to detail in his portrayal of the stones. Perhaps this could have been summarised more succinctly in an appendix or tables rather than being in the main body of the narrative. Finally after ploughing through all of all of this detailed description, the reader is left a little deflated by the conclusions in the chapter since Tilley does not make much of regional connections, comparisons and contrasts amongst the different menhir groups.
Chapter three is a study of the Maltese temples that were constructed on this island from c. 3600BC onwards. Tilley’s tenet is that the temples were built in order to ‘relate architectural order to the ordering of the landscape beyond’. The temples were all constructed from limestone but the earlier temples were made from grey gnarled honeycomb limestone while the later temples were built from smoother softer yellow limestone. He draws out a series of structural dichotomies between these two forms of limestone which are sensually very different, and relates these to the ways in which the temple exteriors imitate features of the surrounding landscape. Tilley describes the intimate bodily and sensory experiences of encountering and moving through these temples, from narrow confined dark corridors that open up into large lighter rooms. He focuses on three temple complexes – Ggantija on Gozo and Mnajdra and Hajar Qim on Malta. Occasionally his text can be a little dense with the odd slip into estate agent terminology when describing the various rooms within the temples. He pursues the idea that the temples try to do everything at once – integrate geographical, social and cosmological spaces. He introduces some powerful and interesting ideas concerning these temples, and through so doing, generates a highly imaginative narrative.
In chapter four, Tilley aims to provide a fresh interpretative account of the relationship of southern Swedish rock carving sites with one another and their association with Bronze Age barrows within the wider landscape. He wants to evoke the experience of encountering these three-dimensional rocks in the landscape with all their cracks, contours, colours, textures etc. He does this rather successfully, and integrates this with a meaningful interpretation of the various motifs carved on to them. For example, his metaphor of the rippled Cambrian sandstone as fossilised waves is highly emotive, as is his idea that boats symbolised society as a whole. Since each boat symbol is unique, and boats contain groups of people rather than individuals, the differing style of the boats may represent distinctions between various social units.
One small grievance with this chapter concerns the graphics. Several of the figures are placed poorly in relationship to the text describing them, hence breaking up the smooth flow for the reader with constant flicking back and forth of pages. Many of the line drawings are so reduced to fit the page that it can be difficult to identify the individual motifs on rock surfaces. Personally, I feel that some of interpretations of the motifs are subjective, and examples include the ‘swimmer’ on panel C at Jarrestaad and conjoined shoe soles that could also be interpreted as wheels or circular crosses.
Tilley states in his conclusions that archaeologists have problems in theorising about material culture properly because they tend to follow the approach of binary dualisms. However, many of Tilley’s ideas and theories presented in this book also follow a structuralist line of inquiry. In discussing the Maltese temples, he draws out a series of dichotomies between the two limestone types used in their construction and how they relate to the wider world. Likewise, he employs a sequence of oppositions in his interpretation of the rock art. For Tilley, dualism and opposition is everywhere, and it relates to wild and domestic, nature and culture, old and new and death and regeneration of life. While this approach works well in many areas, Tilley’s three tier structuring of cosmological practices in Bronze Age Scandinavia into underworld, land and sky is grounded slightly shakily on assumption, and he does not convince me that these social groups also held these beliefs.
This is an eclectic and ambitious book. Tilley seeks to find the invisible from the visible, and the intangible from the tangible. But the question is whether he is successful in his goals. He does an excellent job of writing beautifully and articulately about the landscape settings and dynamics of these various stone monuments, and the diverse sensory experiences one has on encountering them. However on two levels, I feel that the images he conjures up are still not fully three-dimensional. Firstly, Tilley’s writings are concerned with one small facet of the landscape – the monumental, the ritual, the remarkable, the unusual. The big question that still remains is how do all these components articulate with the everyday components of the landscape, in other words the settlements? In this respect there is a bit of dislocation and he himself is guilty of dichotomising through removing the stones from the settled inhabited landscape. Tilley only looks at visible and tangible remains within the landscape and while it is very nice to know that no archaeological sites were harmed in the writing of this book, it must be questioned how representative of the past such a data set is.
Secondly, the themes addressed by Tilley really call for a visual encounter and unfortunately, despite the large number of figures in this book, the black and white grainy images and the occasional poor quality line drawings do not do the prose justice. He takes us on a compelling sensory journey, but he leaves us stumbling behind at times with dense and turgid description. Although he argues that the written word is the key to disseminating these ideas, I feel that his book could have benefited from a CD-ROM attachment containing video clips and colour digital photographs to add an extra dimension of understanding to his observations.
Tilley himself admits that the subject matter he discusses in his book cannot be properly understood from books and images as there can be no substitute for the human experience of actually being there. His reason for writing this book then is to provide a starting point for re-evaluation by others who can further this understanding by visiting and experiencing these landscapes themselves. This is a fresh and innovative approach to engaging with our past, for which Tilley should be applauded. However, if he really intends for us to go out and experience these monuments for ourselves, then perhaps an appendix at the back of the book providing details, co-ordinates, maps and guides for finding the various sites would have been handy.
Review Submitted: November 2005
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