“They walk”

In my last blog post, I argued that our faith in technology in archaeology was – or could be – a problem, since there was no magical technological bullet that could solve our interpretive dilemmas. That was a reaction to the excessive (to my mind) criticism of GIS that I’ve seen in archaeological literature.

The flip side to this problem would be the overstating of the value of new technologies. Here too, I think that the same article by Elaine Sullivan provides an example of what I’m talking about. In what is a balanced and nuanced discussion, Sullivan claims that

by utilizing a 4D model of a site incorporating architecture and environmental factors not present todaya new form of phenomenological study can be attempted. The 3D Saqqara model allows the researcher to simulate human viewpoints within the cemetery, examining how specific visual and spatial relationships between people and monuments impacted the meaning of that place.
That seemed to me like quite a strong claim. What Sullivan actually concludes from her use of the 4D model is the following:
It is only with the advent of Dynasty 3 and the construction of the step pyramid at
Saqqara that there is a clear shift in conceptualization of the landscape. Netjerykhet (Djoser) and his successors conceived of a new form of primeval mound, the pyramid, intended to be witnessed from the floodplain. This is a stark break with tradition and leads directly to a new type of royal engagement with the Memphite landscape; one where the burial mound of the king now permanently dominates. It is at this point that the kings of the unified Egyptian state begin to monopolize visible space as a means to materially express their growing individual power and authority.
This is a useful conclusion, no doubt, and one aided by the use of this new technology, but it’s not what I think of as a phenomenological study of the meaning of place. What I had expected was something like the kind of contrast drawn by Michel de Certeau in The Practice of Everyday Life in the chapter “Walking in the City,” where he contrasts the panoptic view of New York City from the World Trade Center to the experience of walking the city’s streets:
The ordinary practitions of the city live “down below,” below the thresholds at which visibility begins. They walk–an elementary form this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban “text” they write without being able to read it. These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms. The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility.

And so on. That is to say, the experience of place and of moving through a landscape, urban or not, is profoundly physical.

I started thinking about this issue some more after reading over the break a wonderful book by Shannon Lee Dawdy, Patina: A Profane Archaeology (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Among other things, Patina made me want to get to know New Orleans better. It evokes New Orleans not so much through visual descriptions and representations of buildings, but through a thick description of the feel of the city and its many parts, the patinated aesthetic that suffuses the city.

But what about non-urban landscapes? Certainly three years of fieldwork in the Western Argolid have encouraged me to understand that particular landscape from the perspective of a walker. I’m constantly noting what can and can’t be seen from different places, especially famous and conspicuous sites like the castle of the Larissa that hangs above Argos or the Bronze Age citadel of Mycenae. But I wouldn’t say that my experience of place in the Western Argolid is primarily a function of vision. On our project’s blog, we talk about what we can see, but also about bodily and haptic experiences: the feel of the wetness on (and in) our boots from an overnight rain that’s still adhering to grass in agricultural fields that haven’t been recently plowed, the difficulty of walking through prickly oak and dried-out wild sage and thistles, the ache of knees and ankles and feet at the top of a slope covered with cobbles, the heat of the Greek summer, the impossible-to-photograph glow of olive trees in the afternoon light, the trauma of cutting up your leg badly and getting fleas in a single field day, the sounds of the landscape (church bells and tractors and human voices), our allergies, spiders (of course), and the feel of different types of fields under your boots. And that’s just the beginning: there’s the wonderful pleasure of a breeze kicking up on a hot afternoon, the sound of the tall trees rustling just before the wind hits your skin, and the way the leaves of the olives trees glint and change their color as they turn from side to side in the air. And there are all of the other things that give us a sense of place, too: the field where a kind farmer made us cold(-ish) instant coffees, the dirt road where you got laughed at (with literally knee-slapping) by an old shepherd when you told him how you got fleas, the bit of shade where you once had a great rest and ate sweet Oreos and salty potato chips (as the archaeology gods intended).

That is to say, there is no sense of space or place without movement, without experience, and without interaction. Certainly tools like 4D GIS can force us to reorient ourselves to that scale and perspective of that experience and they can act as a kind of substitute for it. They can, as Sullivan’s article makes clear, provoke new perspectives. As she puts it:
these 3D environments allow modern viewers to experience elements of each lost landscape, seeing what an ancient person potentially saw, virtually moving at human eye level through and around a place, providing a perspective unattainable through 2D media. Again, this can never be a full recovery project, only a partial remediation of disappeared spaces. But it is through this more human-centred representation that we can find fresh perspectives, ‘the point of view that allows us to discern patterns among the events that have occurred.’
While 4D GIS is undoubtedly useful, then, it is still a very, very poor substitute for experience. In fact, I would hesitate to use the word “experience” at all. What kind of experience is it, really? Not one that fully engages any of the senses other than perhaps sight, not one with risk or feeling or emotion, or one that will make memories. I wonder if these attempts to simulate experience can actually make things more difficult for us, by allowing us to pretend that we are getting closer to something human while in fact we are inching away from it, by confusing technical sophistication with embodied experience.

3 thoughts on ““They walk”

  1. Pingback: Friday Varia and Quick Hits | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

  2. Hugh Mason

    Thanks Dimitri for the evocation of walking in Greece, both city and countryside. In Athens and Corinth, I constantly orient myself by looking up to where the Akropolis ans Akrokorinth are. But most of all for the feel of walking through undergrowth and being befriended by choriates and shepherds. Not a professional evaluation of your blog but a reminder of shared experience

  3. Pingback: Convergence: Punk, Slow, and Care in a Digital World | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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