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10.0 The significance of visibility

The GIS analysis has clarified some of the existing ambiguities surrounding visibility from tells. The viewshed maps give a sense of the morphology of the visible areas, and through GIS reporting the areal coverage can measured. Higuchi and Directional enrichments introduce some quality into these conceptions. But what is there beyond this? How do we interpret this visibility from a landscape perspective which sees monuments as meaningfully located with respect to visible cultural and natural phenomena in the locale?

Previous studies into archaeological landscape have been conducted in locales featuring high concentrations of monuments, such as the downs of southern England, or among dynamic topographies, such as the Black Mountains of Wales. The Romanian Plain is different. It is a flat, monotonous, undulating expanse, only occasionally interrupted by wide river valleys. It is without eye-catching topographic features one may suspect as having mythological significance in the past (see note 5), and there are no visible upstanding monuments from earlier periods to provide visual referents.

I suggest a more holistic approach to visibility is therefore appropriate. A suitable perspective is one which considers visibility as a practical act on behalf of subjects situated in, and engaging with an environment. As Bender suggested in 1998, the Phenomenological approach should be more 'about being-in-the-world than simply looking' (Bender 1998).

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, in his study on the nature of being, considered embodied subjects as fundamentally existing in terms of their relationship with practical entities in the environment. Heidegger names these 'relations of concern', and being-in-the-world is to be bound up in these relations of concern. Particularly interesting is what happens to space in this conceptualisation. In practical concern, distance become de-geometricised, it stretches and contracts. To Heidegger, practical concern comes before geometry and other rationalisations (Collins and Selina 1998, 62). It is this concept which is helpful in understanding the disposition of the viewer simulated through viewshed analysis. Objects in the visual field magnify in relevance, above those that are out of view, even if they are closer in geometric terms.

In a similar manner, the psychologist James Gibson considered a viewing organism, be it a human or animal, to be at the centre of an ambient optical array which actively seeks out meaningful properties in the environment (Gibson 1979, 55). Wheatley and Gillings have suggested that the most relevant aspect of the Gibson approach in relation to viewshed studies is the concept of affordances (Wheatley and Gillings 2000). Depending on the nature of the activity in which the perceiver is engaged, they will be attuned to picking up certain types of information in the environment. The objects and events highlighted in this way offer affordances that have relevance for that particular mode of action.

So how do these ideas help us understand visual experience in the river valleys of southern Romania during the fifth millennium BC? What sort of entities are present within this environment with relevance in terms of practical activity?

A recent study by Harris of the Paruaros, a rural community living on the banks of the Amazon River in Brazil, has shed some interesting insights into the lives of people living in intimate contact with a floodplain environment (Harris 2000). Harris describes how people understand seasonality through attendance to various events, such as the rise and fall of the river, fish migrations, animal movements, soil hardening, plant growth and decay. They adjust their behaviour according to this ongoing perceptual involvement, to achieve resonance with these fluctuations in the environment. Since Paruaros know and comment on the flow of seasonal change, they experience it constantly, noticing the change in the height of the river and attending to all the changes taking place around them.

This study highlights the importance of vision for communicating on a range of events that occur within active river environments. This visual monitoring of seasonal change is important since people organise their social activities around these changes.

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Last updated: Thur Nov 11 2004