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Landscape archaeology

From Academic Kids

Landscape archaeology is a body of method and theory for the study of the material traces of past peoples within the context of their interactions in the wider (typically regional) social and natural environment they inhabited. The landscape may be large, such as a wide marshy river delta or small, like a back garden; the key feature that distinguishes landscape archaeology from (e.g.) site-based approaches is that there is an explicit emphasis on the study of the relationships between archaeological data (e.g. between sites and/or cultural modifications to landscapes such as ditches, burial mounds, field systems, roads, etc.), and between such cultural phenomena and their natural setting or environment. The origins of a specific body of theory dealing with these questions can be traced to at least the 1950s and 1960s in archaeology. Techniques used in landscape archaeology, principally archaeological field survey and associated technologies, are often practised in cultural resources management to identify vulnerable sites.

Landscape archaeology has challenged some traditional concepts in archaeology. For example, the question of what exactly constitutes an archaeological site has been discussed at length by generations of archaeologists. By adopting a landscape archaeology viewpoint, the concept of a discrete 'site' becomes less important. Areas of investigation are not limited to the boundaries of an excavation but can instead stretch for many miles. Excavation is usually impractical on such a scale and landscape archaeologists focus on the visible features that can be identified and recorded on the ground surface to create a picture of human activity across a region.

Archaeological features buried just below the surface often leave tell-tale 'lumps and bumps', plough action in fields can lift archaeological material to the surface, in areas of limited human activity, worked flint scatters can survive untouched for many centuries and standing buildings and field boundaries can be of great antiquity yet archaeologically unexamined. Survey of these sorts of features across large areas, through measured walkovers or via analysis of aerial photography, can produce a new perspective on the archaeological record and identify areas requiring better management or areas where excavation could be beneficial. Such survey is usually accompanied by documentary and historic research to better inform the findings.

Advances in survey technology have permitted the rapid and accurate analysis of wide areas by relatively untrained personnel making the process an efficient way of learning more about the historic environment. GIS, GPS, remote sensing, geophysical survey, Total stations and digital photography have helped reduce the time and cost involved in such work.

Closely examining areas using archaeological techniques has resulted in large numbers of new archaeological sites being discovered. Landscape archaeology has also been adopted on a smaller scale in parks and gardens for example where relatively modern planting and landscaping have been surveyed to provide information on the historic form of gardens. Hedges have been shown to preserve the lines of medieval boundaries and prehistoric ritual landscapes have been identified, apparently separate from more day-to-day areas of past activity.

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