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Wednesday, 13 October 2010

On Ritual Landscapes

Bronze Age Ritual Cairn on the flank of Carningli?  Erm -- actually, no.  It's a clearance cairn dating from around 1840, when somebody tried (unsuccessfully) to clear a piece of rough land on the edge of the common for agriculture.....

Came across this sentence in a report of the latest Stonehenge-like discovery in the Caucasus:
"Russian and Soviet historians have found several Bronze Age structures in Russia and Central Asia that were used as calendars and were surrounded by ritual landscapes".  The discoveries are "unique and unparallelled" etc etc..... and they seem to have only one thing in common with Stonehenge, namely a circular arrangement of stones in the ground.  So seen in that way,  I suppose every stone circle in Europe is "Stonehenge-like".  And of course, using the word "Stonehenge" guarantees media coverage that the poor archaeologists might otherwise not have got.

But on to "ritual landscapes" -- the author John Robb says this: "The early 1980s saw the emergence of the term 'ritual landscape' in British archaeology. This concept departs from more conventional studies of monuments and sites concerned with classification, dating and political territories. It concerns extensive 'sacred' tracts which were seemingly dedicated to ceremonial purposes by an ascendant ritual authority in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age (roughly 3500-1800 BC). In these 'ritual landscapes' the evidence for contemporary settlement is often sparse or absent, but that for non-utilitarian structures and deposits is abundant."  As we all know, Stonehenge is renowned across the world for being a focal point in an extensive "ritual landscape" in which things like the Cursus and the Avenue are deemed to be ritual features because there is no apparent utilitarian purpose for them.  But where do utilitarian purposes end and where to ritual purposes begin?  Is a burial mound a utilitarian or a ritual feature?

On the flanks of Carningli there is an extensive area of small stone cairns which I have seen labelled as "ritual features" -- thereby allowing the whole landscape to be labelled as a ritual landscape.  But to me these piles of stones are strictly utilitarian -- made by families trying to clear stony ground so as to make animal grazing and maybe cultivation easier.  Exactly the same thing happened on the other side of the mountain in the 1830's, in a short-lived attempt to colonise the edges of the common, on land that was really too stony and exposed for successful agriculture.

It would be nice if the term "ritual landscape" could be banned -- I suspect it has led archaeologists up a vast number of blind alleys,  and because of the popularity of the concept it has encouraged a fashion for fanciful and even crazy explanations for quite simple things, when  utilitarian explanations will probably do.

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