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2.2 Verbing the landscape

The interpretation of landscape is greatly affected by how we write. Technology, argues Dobres, is best seen as 'a verb of action and interaction rather than a noun of possession' (2000, 128; cf. Mitchell 2002, 1). The same applies to writing about a landscape or survey data. It is all too easy just to ascribe nouns:

This is a site; we defined its boundaries; the pottery functions are storage, food production and table ware; there is a broad manuring scatter round it; it is a centre of agricultural production; it is a settlement.

These nouns are all bounded, exclusive categories, created in the present and imposed on the reader. They also serve to hide the writers' uncertainties, and have the ultimate effect of obscuring the experiences and relationships of real humans in the past. Verbs, by contrast, can stimulate the reader to think about activities, agents and relationships:

People were storing food, cooking, serving and eating; they discarded rubbish and manured their fields; they ploughed and reaped and threshed; they lived, slept, worked together, made families and interacted.

Verbs can be ascriptions and over-generalisations just as much as nouns, of course. But as a means of communication they encourage both writer and reader to think about what people were doing in the past, how they related to each other, and where in the landscape all these activities and relationships happened.

GIS maps and databases tend to do the same thing as nouns, imposing bounded, non-negotiable categories on the fluidities of past relationships. This inevitably excludes the reader from the interpretative process. Online publication offers the opportunity of producing a more data-rich and nuanced presentation, which aims to open out the interpretation rather than closing it down (Cherry 2003, 151; Hodder 1999, 178-87).

Interactive GIS helps to remove the sense of closure and non-negotiable definition that static maps carry. Viewers can explore more activities and make broader connections, detect more complex relationships, have new ideas, and make new interpretations. Maps, like the landscape, need more verbs.


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