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An archaeologist's landscape

Graham Fairclough
Head of the agency's Historic Landscape Characterisation programme, English Heritage

Landscape draws on many ways of appreciation. For some, landscape is a question of beauty or of biodiversity. There are other ways of looking at it, however. With my archaeologist's perspective, I would say that a 'good' landscape is an interesting one, one in which history remains 'legible' so that the marks left by the work and lives of hundreds of generations of our predecessors can still be recognised.

The past is inescapable in landscape. Its physical remains, from the grandest buildings to the humblest hedge, explain landscape and create its rich character. Landscape seen as an aspect of material culture (as archaeologists see it, landscape as an artefact) helps to answer the biggest question, the one we ask as children and should never stop asking - why?

We can use all the senses of sight, sound, taste, smell and touch to experience landscape, but archaeology, with history, offers a sixth sense, that of cognition. Knowledge is inevitably incorporate into a perception of landscape even where 'invisible' heritage is concerned. Some of links in the long chain of cause and effects that stretches between past and present are hidden, or lost, but even these can form part of our understanding of the evolution of the land ad thus influence the landscape that we perceive. Emotions invoked in seeing, for example, a field (or a stretch of water) beneath which we know there are the remains of past peoples' lives are different to those in looking at a 'blank' piece of land of which we can only say 'it is species-rich grassland'.

Archaeologists can offer various 'narratives' of landscape that complement the traditional painterly 'view' or the words of writers and poets. They can write a 'biography', or life history, of landscape. They can describe landscape through the concept of 'place', anchored by its history and its archaeological sites, cultural monuments and historic buildings. They can use the metaphor of 'journey' to link time to space, sometimes literally where past journeys survive as historic roads and tracks. Landscape is a pathway to and from the past.

But, what of the future? Paradoxically, studying the landscape's past leads our gaze forwards rather than backwards. The more we know about humanly-led change in the past, we more we realise that change is not just something that happens to landscape; it is also very firmly part a crucial part of landscape's character. Recognising the time element of landscape makes us more conscious of the essentially provisional and intermediate nature of today's landscape. It tells us that no landscape is ever finished. After all, "The story so far" and "What happens next?" are both powerful narrative devices in fiction and so they are in landscape.

We cannot stop change. If the processes that created landscape (or something with the same effects) cannot be maintained, the landscape will change despite our best efforts to protect it. We can however aim to influence what type of change happens. Some people wish to create 'natural' landscapes for non-human species, thus supplanting an aesthetic of cultural landscape with one of biodiversity or wilderness. But landscape, defined as perception, is first of all the daily context for the lives of people. It seems unavoidable that the future landscape of many Europeans' lives will be urbanised to some degree so should not urban rather than rural landscapes be our priority? But whether urban or rural, and whether we claim landscape as cultural or think it is natural, the future direction of landscape change needs to be seen in the context of understanding its past. Today's landscape is constructed as much by past human actions as it is from present day cultural perceptions. Graham Fairclough Archaeologist working for English Heritage, the national agency for understanding, managing and presenting the historic environment. He is in charge of the agency's Historic landscape Characterisation programme, and a frequent participant at Landscape Convention conferences and workshops. He is also a Board member of the European Association of Archaeologists, and an External Adviser to the Le:Notre network.

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