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Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology



Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology & the Ancient World
Brown University
Box 1837 / 60 George Street
Providence, RI 02912
Telephone: (401) 863-3188
Fax: (401) 863-9423
[email protected]

As some of us in the class have discussed, the concept of place has an inherent reciprocal nature to it. The landscape (please excuse my vagueness) and people (as well as tools, animals, etc.) come together in a way that induces place. Neither preexist the other, as such, but both reciprocate the other’s ‘being’. The sense of this is that people don’t just hover placeless, waiting to give meaning to an otherwise meaningless location, but they are involved in the enduring negotiation between themselves in locations. This definition seems to be an ontological one, and differs quite markedly from the definitions that communities give to their places – at least some of the time. Communities, it can be grossly overstated, emphasize elements of value and significance that an ontological emphasis of place production can never really achieve on its own. Thus, we (archaeologists) can get at how/where communities find significance in a landscape and articulate something along the lines of cosmologies or ideologies about places.

One issue pertinent to this, however, is that structures of cultural production, such as cosmologies and ideologies, a) come from somewhere and b) are capable of producing divisions within the world that might not be upheld from the ontological position. (Obviously, this is not so cut and dry that nuance and overlap aren’t allowed, and the ontological and cultural don’t form two mutually exclusive categories.) One example from our contemporary period is the fervor over UNESCO’s adoption of both Cultural Landscapes and Natural Landscapes as categories for the nomination process for site protection. UNESCO now allows room for both categories to exist in one location, but the division between the two suggests that sites can take on significance for a population, to the point that they want to preserve it, without also being of cultural significance. This, it seems, is verging on the absurd.

For this reason, an archaeology of natural places is somewhat hard to justify as a self-contained project without an explicit understanding that to do so deals less with ‘place’ as a thing and more with ‘place’ as a communally derived concept. The reading from this past week that this speaks most to is by Boivin and Owoc (2004), who present a collection that speaks to the more “cultural” side of place. In this respect, many of the papers in the edited volume want to address why societies procure resources from great distance rather than use those that are most ready to hand. Obviously, they are thus concerned with things like the value of materials from specific natural places at a distance. The natural is, through this construct, afforded a sort of power that draws people to certain locations. However, the chapters that I was able to read did not address two critical things: why do people settle on specific locations and what happens in between? In other words, places of significance – the ‘source’ and the site of application of the material – are fundamentally separated from each other. The distance is privileged to such an extreme that the lived experience of movement between sites, and the specific activities that occur at them and along the paths between, suddenly lose significance. The value attached to something far away wins out over the experience of going somewhere far away.

One further way that this is meaningful to our discussion of natural places is to consider these notions of movement and engagement with the landscape along the way as fundamentally placing them. They cease to be solely things that came from a distance, but get implicated in the actions that reciprocally engage with what it is to emplace something. Places appear all along the way, and extend the relationship between object and location to include the interactions that bring about the movement of material.