Both Art and Archaeology
The Landscape and Perception project is aimed at making a multidisciplinary, detailed study of selected prehistoric landscapes involving not only visual and acoustic factors but whole other subject areas, especially archaeology, within its arts-based context. This is particularly evident in the project’s Pilot Study, which is examining the source area of the Stonehenge bluestones on Mynydd Preseli in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
Landscape and Perception: the Project
Primary Audio-Visual Aspects of Selected Ancient Landscapes
The parameters of the planned full project as a whole are, in brief, as follows.
In today’s digital maelstrom we are experiencing de-contextualised information processing, diminishing attention spans, and increasing removal from unencumbered sensory experience of natural surroundings. This project aims to counter these tendencies by acoustically and visually mapping parts of the Welsh Preseli hills (source of the Stonehenge bluestones) and the Neolithic complex of Avebury in Wiltshire, attempting to look and listen as if with Stone Age eyes and ears. Digital field data collected in the process will then be used for “re-contextualised” studio and research applications. Implications will emerge for archaeological interpretation, audiovisual practice, heritage management, and various cognitive studies.
Today’s rapidly developing digitised information processing is leading to lack of knowledge or even interest in the provenance of information, and decreasing primary, non-digital sensory experience. Neurobiologist Susan Greenfield notes that “there is no robust conceptual framework” anymore, and reports that neuronal firing patterns are actually changing as a result of digital technology. This in turn is leading to the increasingly specialised character of human knowledge – the sense that the range of what we understand and experience is becoming progressively restricted or pre-programmed. With the ever-increasing use of mobile phones and iPods, dramatically developing digital entertainment multi-platforms, and digital navigation devices, there is a danger of the culture becoming increasingly abstracted from its primary sensory environment.
Project Aims and Objectives
To provide students, practitioners and consumers of audio-visual culture with a sensory visit to pre-modern perception, in order to provide a contrast with contemporary sensibilities, therefore contextualising them. The corollary of this is to indicate ways usage of digital media can reconnect with primary and contextualised sensory experience.
To make a forensic-like study of the audio-visual perception of two iconic prehistoric landscapes – Preseli in Wales, Avebury in Wiltshire – and collecting raw audiovisual field data.
(a) To further phenomenological insights into pre-modern modes of perception, specifically hearing and vision. (b) To explore effects of monumental acoustics on the human brain, furthering preliminary research indications. Both (a) and (b) to have application to recent methodological developments in cognitive archaeology.
To process the collected data for creative, pedagogical and further research purposes.
Utilising multifarious dissemination channels.
(i) Recording the seasonal locational sounds of both landscapes – wind, birdsong, etc.
(ii) Identifying other natural acoustical phenomena that prehistoric people may have found magically significant. For instance, some rocks on Preseli have curious resonant properties. (A clue is given in the name of the Preseli village, Maenclochog -- “ringing stones”.) Was it this characteristic that made the bluestones special, explaining why some were taken to Stonehenge?
(iii) Acoustically examining the Preseli bluestones now in situ at Stonehenge.
(iv) Determining the primary resonant frequency of the stone chamber within West Kennet Long Barrow, Avebury, extending an earlier acoustic survey in which the investigators took part.
(v) Testing inter-monument audibility and other acoustic phenomena.
(vi) Neuro-acoustical investigation: EEG recording of brain activity at West Kennet Long Barrow and possibly other monuments while resonant audio frequencies are being generated.
(i) Study of sightlines, intervisibility, orientation and other visual relationships between natural and monumental features, including night work using powerful light sources to test critical instances of intervisibility. The field information will be plotted onto maps of 1:25,000 scale or larger.
(ii) Identifying any topographical “simulacra” (the likeness of natural features to cultural forms), a visual reflex imbued with significance in ancient cultures.
(iii) Basic notation of diurnal and calendrical sunrise/set skyline points from appropriate sites.
Desk and Studio Work
Ongoing literature research. Organisation of collected data. Archiving of all field material – digital audio and photo, slides, maps, paperwork, notes, EEG recordings, etc.
(ii) Collation of material preparatory to further processing.
Processing of collected data
(i) Creative: presenting an archive of landscape photography and sound recordings for exhibition
(ii) Research: in conjunction with expert consultants, utilisation of soundfield technology to recreate monument chamber resonant frequencies to further examine effects on the brain.
(iii) Archaeological: studying the interpretational implications of the collected data in conjunction with expert consultants.
(iv) Pedagogical: Development of collected and collated material for lectures, workshops, audiovisual studio sessions, and public presentations and exhibitions.
Output and Dissemination
Production of audio-visual creative pieces.
Preparation of raw source material for audio-visual practitioners and students.
Pedagogical provision (including fieldtrips and workshops).
Refereed journal papers and conference presentations.
Popular publication articles.
Interpretive data for archaeologists.
Unique information for heritage management.
Unique neurophysiological and cognitive data for further study.
TV and other media content.
Carrying out the full project brief will depend on the necessary resources being made available, but the pilot study has been instigated through the auspices of the Royal College of Art’s Research Department so that at least a range of field data can be collected and some output commenced. It will also demonstrate that the concept of the full project as a whole is not some abstract whimsy but a serious and practical proposal with achievable aims and objectives, given the required support.
Because it has by definition limited resources, the pilot study has focused on just the Mynydd Preseli area. This is a wild, natural landscape with a deep time profile, thus ideal for the project’s aims; also, it is part of one of the prehistoric landscapes selected for study by the planned full project.
Strumble-Preseli Ancient Communities and Environment Study
The directors of this archaeological survey are Geoffrey Wainwright and Professor Timothy Darvill, Director of the Centre for Archaeology, Anthropology and Heritage at Bournemouth University, England. Darvill is the archaeological consultant to the Pilot Study, and one of the partners for the planned full project. It is most fortuitous that the Pilot Study was able to commence while this new archaeological investigation of Preseli was under way.
Although there is a deep mystery as to why the bluestones were taken from Preseli to be erected at the site of Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain well over two hundred miles away, an astonishing fact is that remarkably little archaeological research has taken place on Preseli. There was some early work by Professor Grimes, and some important work by Peter Drewett, but the Royal Commission had never surveyed the area, for example, and there were no excavations to speak of in the area. So Darvill and Wainright decided start exploring the source of the bluestones rather than the place where they were deployed, which is what everyone has focused on in the past.
What they and their teams found early on was that the whole hilltop of Mynydd Preseli was covered with archaeology – they have now recorded approximately three hundred sites in the area now, altogether. They saw that the most distinctive bluestones, the spotted dolerites, outcrop best in the central area of Carn Menyn which had some sort of structure defining it and enclosing it. All around that area they found pillars which had been detached from the outcrops yet abandoned for various reasons – some of them broken.
As with the Landscape and Perception project, S.P.A.C.E.S. hopes that art and archaeology will be working in tandem and a useful and even unique resource of primary audio-visual material will be achieved.
nb: Darvill gives a full interview in the journal Time & Mind (issue 2, July 2008). It is at quite an early stage in its survey and there is much more work to do – for instance, it intends to conduct excavations on the Preseli over the next few years. Click here to access the article on www.ingentaconnect.com
UPDATE: In April 2008, our Pilot Study consultant, Professor Timothy Darvill, and his S.P.A.C.E.S. co-director, Geoffrey Wainwright, obtained extremely rare permission to excavate within the Stonehenge monument itself in order to explore a section of the bluestones settings. It is hoped this investigation will reveal exactly when the bluestones were erected at the site, and perhaps more. See these links: