Friday, August 1, 2008

Landscape Archaeology: A Useful Method for Interpretation of Sites

The topic I have chosen for discussion in this article relates to the importance of cultural landscapes. This is a topic that typically goes unnoticed, but major implications are indicated by observing historical sites through a holistic perspective. Take for instance, any of the rural farmsteads or plantations located right here in Lincoln County. The typical perspective of one of these sites is one of minimal visualization and focuses on the “Big House” where the landowners lived during the past. What types of questions can arise from this perspective? Several can be asked in relation to income level, method of economic subsistence, and the stories of the people who lived in the house, and so on. Now step back and observe the entire property from a bird’s eye view. This simple process has a fundamental relationship to observing the property through landscape. This very type of observation is a comparatively new way of looking at cultural landscapes, and is termed a sub-discipline of the field of archaeology known as landscape archaeology.

In using the method of landscape archaeology, it completely widens the scope of observation on a site. The once noticed plantation house can now be seen in conjunction with surrounding outbuildings, fields, plantings and property boundaries. In a concise moment the archaeologist, architectural historian, geographer, or any public viewer can start to see interaction on the landscape. It is then possible to ask more questions in relation to socioeconomic stratification on the landscape between class levels and race, gender differentiation, and the ways that the people manipulated the landscape around them such a long time ago. In addition, it is possible to go a step further and look at the ways that not only the people influenced the landscape, but how the landscape influenced them from the initial time of settlement. The people traveling into the area of Lincoln County in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were not entering the same context as those in coastal areas. This was a heavily wooded landscape inhabited by the Catawba and Cherokee tribes in the eighteenth century, so conflict and a very rural setting posed there own difficulties. What do you think it would have been like, and how would you have created your own home in such a strange and seemingly uninhabitable place? These are the types of questions that archaeologists try to ask and interpret about the actual people of the past of all time periods.

The use of landscape archaeology in exploring a site is part of my personal research methodology and its use has great potential as a tool for exploring archaeological sites in Lincoln County. Instead of just looking at whether a particular house, structure, or even cemetery is significant, we need to step back and try to take a second look at the place of examination as an “artifact” in itself. This will allow more information to present itself and allow for a more authentic “sense of place” to be illustrated and interpreted.

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