Living with the past

‘… history made solid in the landscape.’ Malachy Tallack 60 Degrees North

We are living with the past. Each and every one of us. Our houses, our streets, our countryside have been created, shaped and formed in and by the past. And that past, that ‘history made solid’, affects our encounters, our very experience of the present. But while Malachy Tallack was referring to remote landscapes and features like forts, brochs, field walls and croft houses, the solidification of the past encompasses more than that. It is visible in our city streets, in the orientation of roads and paths, in the locations and forms of our dwelling places, villages and towns, in the plan and outline of our fields and the form of our moorland. As well as the crumbling field walls, castles and forts, standing stones and abandoned houses. Past activities have shaped the active, living landscape too. And that past, that history made solid, that archaeology, mediates the way in which we experience the present.

For in daily life we walk along orientations laid out long ago, we live in locations often chosen in the distant past. City dwellers move along city streets, many of which were laid out in the 19th century, some even earlier. Some streets and orientations reflect prior landscape divisions or property boundaries; still others echo medieval plans and layouts. Others reflect routeways whose antiquity may stretch to hundreds, if not more, in age. Parks tell of large country houses and estates, avenues of trees of driveways and garden layouts long gone, waste ground of former industry and commerce. Outside the city, roads and pathways follow lines first followed tens of years, centuries or even millennia ago. Field and land boundaries laid out in the 18th or 19th centuries divide the landscape, other land divisions may be centuries old.

street

 

Some decisions, some shaping forces, extend into deep prehistory. Like the decision to farm rather than hunt, a choice that continues to resonate today, shaping so much more than our landscape. Or the choice to build a settlement by that river, or a defended site on that hilltop. The very location of our settlements may reflect choices made in deep prehistory. Many of the influences on the landscape, the solidified histories, are undocumented and unrecognised, or so ubiquitous as to be unremarked.

But as much as the past has shaped and continues to shape our surroundings, it shapes us too. In essence, the past mediates the way in which we experience the present.

For the past has given our surroundings its shape and form. That pattern and structure influencing and dictating the way I hold my body, how I encounter place. City streets and bounding buildings influence my bodily orientation, affecting the way I experience my present. To make progress through this landscape I must hold myself in a particular way, face in certain directions, walk along defined routes. Even in the more open spaces of parks and green spaces, urban furniture, pathways, planting and conventions affect my bodily encounter, albeit with a little more latitude. In less constrained space outside the city, my movements, orientations and encounters are still influenced by the choices of the past, through the orientation of roads and paths, field boundaries, walls and fences (most probably first laid out in the 19th century), plantations of trees (likely planted sometime in the 20th century), the location and form of villages and towns. Even open moorland is not untouched and, should I choose to make my way across it, my progress and orientation is affected by drainage, influenced by vegetation and tracks.

map

This geography of the everyday affects the way in which I encounter and understand the world. It places constraints upon me, dictating the way in which the world is revealed to me, affecting what I see and perceive and how I encounter it. At all times, my bodily orientation, my very encounter and experience of the world is affected and influenced by the form and shape of my surrounding geography. A geography formed and created through the multiple, complex and entangled actions of the past. And a past that helps to form and shape us, making us who we are. I live with the past; we all do.

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How much then, did the decision to build monuments or construct settlements affect the way in which past peoples encountered their world. How much did it change them forever? I think of the construction of monuments for the first time at the beginning of the Neolithic period, the period when we first recognise farming. Did that transformation of place and space also transform those who built and encountered these structures? I suspect this to be the case. The building of monuments, the clearance of trees, changed the way in which places could be encountered, changed the bodily encounters of people with place. How much did that affect these people and those who came after, how much did it alter the way they thought about their world and their place in it? And how much of that is still felt by us today? To what extent have those encounters in deep prehistory led to the landscape we live within and the people and society of today?

Bannockburn

Reconstruction drawing of a cursus monument, based on a timber cursus excavated at Bannockburn © Kirsty Millican.

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