Wildness: Conceptualising the wild in contemporary environmental archaeology

Andrew Hoaen

Cite this as: Hoaen, A. 2019 Wildness: Conceptualising the wild in contemporary environmental archaeology, Internet Archaeology 53.

1. Introduction

As part of my recovery from a serious illness a few years ago, I was advised to do some voluntary work. As I was teaching environmental change to geographers and ecologists at the time I decided to volunteer for my local wildlife trust, at what was to become the site of my case study, the Devil's Spittleful, near Bewdley, Worcestershire (Figure 1). This work largely consisted of scrub bashing at different reserves; scrub describes those perennial woody shrubs and trees that are considered to be the 'wrong kind of nature' by the managers and bureaucrats that run and fund this type of activity. At the same time, for their first-year report, my students had to write about the environmental history of their local nature reserve. I was surprised by the number of sites in the UK preserved as nature reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest that the students were reporting to me had lost or changed their status as a result of vegetation succession. The same fate had nearly affected the site that I was volunteering on, and this led me to question what exactly was meant by wild, wilderness and wildness both in the environmental literature and in archaeology.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Location map of the Devil's Spittleful and Rifle Range reserves near Bewdley, Worcestershire. Digimap (2019) Kidderminster. Roam. 1:50000 colour raster.

This article is a work in progress; it is part of a series of practical experiments and thoughts about how a contemporary environmental archaeology might work. I am interested in how archaeologists and others have theorised wild spaces both in the past and in the present. This work is also aimed at looking at the kinds of activities and practices that people carried out in the wilderness among 'the beasts beyond the bounds of cultivation' (Garrard 2004, 60). A key theme of contemporary archaeology is a concern with what people actually do in the material world as opposed to their stated aims and plans (Rathje 2001, 64). An examination of the biological and archaeological remains recorded at the Devil's Spittleful provides a means of assessing the degree to which this reserve has been managed and the degree to which unmanaged succession has dominated, and allows us to consider whether these successional processes are therefore 'wild' as opposed to cultural in origin.

2. Approaches to the Archaeology of the Wild

Wilderness and wildness as a topic in archaeology has only been of intermittent interest (e.g. Simms 1992; Macinnes and Wickham-Jones 1992) though a more consistent discussion has developed around the need to integrate cultural, ecological and indigenous peoples' approaches to heritage management and preservation (Ralston 2004; Dalglish 2012; Whatmore and Hinchliffe 2010). I would argue that as archaeologists we have not sufficiently conceptualised the wild. We are not comfortable with the concept of nature and so the 'Wild' has been - to use Buchli and Lucas's terminology - 'suppressed' and is therefore 'unconstituted' in our explanations of the past and the present (2002, 13). Exploring the archaeology of the wild is, I will argue, a suitable topic for a contemporary environmental archaeology. One of the aims of a contemporary archaeology is that it should involve 'redemptive and therapeutic powers' (Buchli and Lucas 2002, 13) both for the individual and the group, and certainly working in the wild and experiencing nature has been shown to have an important role in human wellbeing (Bragg et al. 2015).

Recent developments in environmental philosophy (Plumwood 1998; 2006; Bennett 2009), urban (Jorgenson and Tylecote 2007) and human geography (Head 2010), have also spurred interest in the topic of nature and the wild. These writers draw on a variety of different traditions of thought in the humanities; for example Head (2010) and Whatmore and Hinchliffe (2010, 447) employ what might be called biophilosophical approaches to human/nature interactions. In this regard the work of Bennett (2009) has been particularly influential in stimulating debate on human/nature interactions in archaeology (Given 2013). There is, however, another strand of thought that has been largely overlooked within archaeology, that of the environmental humanities especially ecocriticism and ecophilosophy (Nash 1982; Bate 1991; Oelschlaeger 1991; Sessions 1995; Garrard 2004). Finally, biophilosophical approaches tend to discuss landscapes through a generic 'nature', while ecocriticism and ecophilosophy are focused on ideas of the wild and wilderness as a part of nature that can clearly be identified within human and non-human experience (Nash 1982).

Unlike nature, the definition of wild (cf. Plumwood 2006), whether applied to people, cultures, animals or plants, has remained remarkably stable (Garrard 2004). It is first recorded in AD 725 and is thought to derive from a group of words originating in old Germanic, Welsh and Irish (Oxford English Dictionary 2016). It means living in a state of nature, not tame or domesticated or a place or region that is uncultivated or uninhabited. Hence wilderness derived from wildeornesse 'where the wild beasts lived beyond the boundaries of cultivation' (Garrard 2004, 60).

Reviews of the development of the concept of the wild in ecocriticism have recently been made by Garrard (2004), and as applied to geography by Jorgenson and Tylecote (2007) the idea has been central in both European and American ecophilosophical discussions of the wild and deep ecology e.g. in Nash (1982), Oelschlaeger (1991) and Sessions (1995). The reader is directed to these works for more background

3. Separation of Nature, Culture and Wilderness

The concept of nature in the past was connected with an understanding that all life ultimately derived from divine creation, as illustrated by Coupe (2000, 29) quoting Ruskin: 'He [Homer] never says the waves rage, or the waves are idle. But, he says there is somewhat in, and greater, than the waves, which rages, and is idle, and that he calls gods'. In this view nature, culture and the divine are intimately engaged with each other, and form part of a single creation. The separation between nature as divine creation and nature as a materialistic subject of study can be traced back to the work of the early scientists but is particularly associated with Descartes (Taliaferro 2001; Thomas 2012).

The separation between nature, culture (as in cultivated land, see below) and wilderness has been dated at different points, and is an area that needs more research, Plumwood (1998) argues that this separation occurred as a result of developments in platonic thought around 2500 years ago (at least in Europe). Wickham-Jones (2010, 133) argues that the Roman concept of occupatio makes a clear distinction between the owned and the unowned (wild animals clearly being unowned). This concept of the unowned and Terra nullis as derived from the Romans has had profound implications on the way in which ideas about wilds and wilderness have developed, particularly in colonial situations (Plumwood 1998; Brennan 2001; Taliaferro 2001). The idea that the concept of the wild developed with farming is associated with the deep ecologists, for example Oelschlaeger locates it at the transition to farming, and the transition from the Palaeolithic mind (1991).

Culture, up until the mid-16th century, at least in English, was intimately associated with domestic nature and meant the tending of crops and animals (Jorgenson and Tylecote 2007, 447), hence cultivation with its association with the farm and the field. The separation of the world by European cultures into cultivated nature (and cultivated people), wilderness (and wild people), and culture (usually civilised European people), has had dire consequences both for the environment and also for different colonised peoples around the world.

4. Wilderness, Romanticism and Ecocriticism

The definition of wilderness, as we have seen, has remained relatively constant but the use and conception of wild places has changed in Europe and America over the past 300 years or so. As Williams has shown, the idea of the wild, developed in Europe before the romantic period, was one that saw wilderness as unproductive waste; for example in Samuel Johnson's quote about the Highlands of Scotland 'the appearance is that of matter, incapable of form or usefulness, dismissed by nature from her care and left in its original elemental state' (Williams 2000, 51). Note the implicit assumption in Johnson that nature is (or should be) at Man's service. It may be further argued that wildernesses represented a form of 'moral badness' (Nash 1982) and there is some evidence to suggest a widespread belief from the early 17th century onwards that it was part of humanity's role to improve the wild by turning it into cultivated land, settlements and the sites of industry (Nash 1982).

The development of the romantic movement in poetry through Coleridge, Wordsworth and, later, Ruskin was seminal in putting forward a new way of looking at the wild, as a place for aesthetic appreciation, recreation and spiritual improvement (Bate 1991). This may be contrasted with the way in which the meaning of nature and culture changed with the development of science and an objective scientific view of the world as a collection of phenomena, subjects to be studied in isolation, from the 17th century onwards (Thomas 2004). One of the central themes about wilderness as the concept has developed, especially through Thoreau and Deep ecology, is the idea that wilderness is separate from the pastoral nature of the farm and field and is essentially unknowable (see below and Plumwood 1998, 653); this idea is well expressed by Wordsworth in the Prelude. As a boy, one night he stole a boat and rowed out into the lake and seeing a 'grim shape' rise up and appear to pursue him, he rowed for the shore and made his way home 'in grave and serious mood'; he meditates on what he saw for several days and comments:

That spectacle, for many days, my brain
worked with a dim and undetermined sense
of unknown modes of being; O'er my thoughts
there hung a darkness, call it solitude
or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
remained, no pleasant images of trees,
of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
(Wordsworth (ed. Baker 1954), Book 1, lines 390-400).

I would argue that, in this extract, Wordsworth is contrasting his experience of the pastoral farm or house and its home fields with this new experience of something outside himself that ran on different principles and that was fundamentally alien to his understanding, which I would consider to be the wild. Similar sentiments about nature are expressed within a great many of Wordsworth's poems (Bate 1991; Danby 2000).

Thoreau, writing in the 19th century, has become the father figure for a whole school of literature and thought about the wild, wildness and the wilderness (Oelschlaeger 1991; Sessions 1995; Buell 1996). While some of his thought on wilderness is problematic and has been criticised (e.g. Mathews 2001), it has been very influential. Thoreau believed, as did Wordsworth, that there was an otherness to the wild, best expressed in the section of Maine Woods about his trip to Ktaadn, 'and yet we have not seen pure Nature, unless we have seen her thus vast, and drear, and inhuman' (Thoreau 2016, part 6), and in Walden 'that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature' (Thoreau 2000, 235) but he also knew the wild did not just reside in the spectacular. During his sojourn at Walden, he was able to find wild and wildness in a place that was located within the sounds of the bells of Concord and a short walk from the railway tracks. For example, he notes in his journal for 7 January 1857, 'I get a mile or two from the town into the stillness and solitude of nature' (in Porter 1962, 154), and again 22 June 1853 'All that was ripest and fairest in the wildness and the wild man is preserved and transmitted to us in the strain of the wood thrush' (Porter 1962, 74).

Thoreau knew and comments on the fact that Walden is a place that is composed of secondary woodland, he also observes the presence in his bean field of artefacts left by earlier indigenous farmers and hunters and later European settlers (Thoreau 2000, 145) and he writes:

'I take infinite pains to know all the phenomena of spring, for instance thinking that I have here the entire poem, and then to my chagrin, I learn that it is but an imperfect copy that I possess and have read, that my ancestors have torn out many of the leaves and grandest passages and mutilated it in many places' (Thoreau in Porter 1962, 56).

While Thoreau yearned for a pristine wilderness he knew that in all likelihood such places did not truly exist and that a combination of early settlers and the various peoples that inhabited America before contact had already altered the wilderness: 'It is difficult to conceive of a region uninhabited by man' (Thoreau 2016, part 6). This did not prevent him from recognising that wildness was a quality both of people (Spence 1999, 21), and of nature and that it was from this wildness ultimately that all creativity sprang (see also Snyder 1998, 644-45).

Unfortunately, only some parts of Thoreau's thoughts about how and what to conserve from the wild were followed; other parts of his thoughts about conservation were largely ignored in his lifetime and have only recently been widely acknowledged. As Spence comments: '…his conception of what constituted wilderness and the significance of its preservation simply did not translate over to the latter decades of the nineteenth century' (1999, 23).

Consequently, the meaning of wild and wilderness changed again in North America and the need to express ideas about the wilderness in legalistic terms led to the adoption of a 'purity' definition of wilderness during the late 19th and earlier 20th century (Callicott and Nelson 1998; Woods 2001, 351). The contribution of Native Americans, and other traditional peoples who were colonised by Europeans, to landscapes considered to be wild, unoccupied or underutilised was in many cases ignored (Simms 1992; Plumwood 1998; Mathews 2001). Thoreau's thought on the importance of Indian wisdom and the wild was largely ignored (Spence 1999, 22).

The new legalistic definition of wilderness, developed from the thoughts of Muir and others, was now focused on places without humans (Oelschlaeger 1991; Woods 2001). We see in effect a second fall whereby nature is only seen to be pristine and 'truly' wild if unaffected by people (man). This is perhaps best illustrated by the American Wilderness Act of 1964, where one of many criteria is that to be recognised as a wilderness area a place must be 'untrammelled by man', which is taken to mean unaffected by (as understood at the time) Western culture (Native American groups and their culture were seldom considered by Washington legislators and bureaucrats) (Woods 2001). Woods argues that the need for a wilderness to be pure draws on ideas of the wilderness derived from European settlers (Woods 2001, 351). This idea that humans are fundamentally inimical to nature and the wild is problematic, but is a strain of thought within both deep ecology and the wider conservation movement. It has had a profound impact on the way in which archaeological thought, particularly about cultural landscapes, has developed (Head 2010; Plumwood 2006; Johnson 2007).

In the UK, approaches to wilderness and wildness have rested on the 'purity' definition (Hedge 2016; Ralston 2004). Colonisation of the British landmass by modern humans pre-dates the end of the last Ice Age and occupation took place from the Holocene onwards. This has led to the denial of a wilderness condition in the UK among heritage professionals (both natural and cultural) in the UK both in the present and for large parts of the past, as Ralston notes: 'In professional scientific circles as far as I can see, there is a widespread probably now unchallengeable, view that there is no pure wilderness left in Scotland' (Ralston 2004, 82); note the use of the word 'pure'. A similar approach is taken by the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) who argue 'Nature is far from natural - virtually every acre of the British Isles has been extensively shaped by human activity' (Hedge 2016, 1).

As Europe and the UK have deindustrialised and we see the creation of new wild spaces in urban and near-urban situations, how do we theorise this urban wilderness and what does it have to tell us about regeneration and the wild? Both Whatmore and Hinchliffe (2010) and Jorgenson and Tylecote (2007) have looked at how regeneration has occurred in urban spaces, drawing in the case of the latter on theories of the wilderness developed out of ecocriticism and the romantic tradition of wilderness and in the case of the former on ideas developed in biophilosophy by Deleuze and Parnet, among others (1987 cited in Whatmore and Hinchliffe 2010). All these authors have characterised once occupied zones as interstitial wildernesses or as 'Feral Spaces'. What marks these places out is that their ecology is often depicted as being of the 'wrong sort', and consequently is classified as a 'brownfield site' and earmarked for destruction and redevelopment (e.g. the Royate Hill (Bristol) case study in Whatmore and Hinchcliffe 2010). However, it is not just brownfield sites that are affected by regeneration as a result of a lack of traditional management, many nature reserves have also seen widespread changes since their establishment in the 20th century. For example, the common at Epsom, Surrey, has changed from an open grazed landscape to a largely wooded one (Epsom Borough Council 2016), and similar problems recently hit the national headlines at a site owned by the National Trust associated with The Wind in the Willows. The National Trust had allowed woodland regeneration over a slope since the Second World War and its plans to restore a pre-existing chalk grassland through destruction of the woodland have raised protests (Sawer and Hope 2016). George Monbiot has argued that we need to recognise that wild processes are sometimes the best outcomes for nature reserves rather than clinging to a past ecosystem that may not be reproducible under modern conditions (Monbiot 2013).

5. The Devil's Spittleful and Rifle Range Reserves

The Devil's Spittleful and the adjacent Rifle Range were established as nature reserves and Sites of Special Scientific Interest in 1955 (Harris 2007). The major ecological factor in their listing was the presence of extensive heathland. Despite the lack of any palaeoecological or archaeological evidence, the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust, following authors such as Dimbleby (1962), have proposed a Bronze Age origin for this heathland and information hoardings at the site claim that the heath is 4000 years old (Harris 2007, 8). This site was chosen as a case study, as it has been declared by the state as a nature reserve and is actively promoted by the local wildlife trust as a 'wild' place. As a small wilderness located on the periphery of major urban centres it is perhaps a clear example of what Simms (1992) describes as a culturally created wilderness, but as we will see it is a wilderness that does not follow the rules set for it by its owners and managers. If one only takes a 'purity' definition of the wild then it is perhaps surprising to find a 'wild' place in the West Midlands, one of the most densely populated parts of the planet, with a population density of 325/km² (Worldbank 2016). The nature reserve is quite small at 61.5ha in extent (Figure 1). The centrepiece of the reserve is a small sandstone 'crag' and it is this feature that both dominates the landscape and contributes significantly to its wild character (Figure 2).

Figure 2
Figure 2: The Devil's Spittleful. Image: Andrew Hoaen.

The methodology used to infer the vegetation history at the site over the historic past has been document based, drawing on Ordnance Survey mapping, photographs, biological records and aerial photography. Ordnance Survey mapping, while it does not provide an accurate description of past vegetation, does show areas of rough ground, woodland and pasture (OS 1886; 1897). These have been taken as proxies for the various successional states identified by later botanical surveys at the site (Whild Associates 2012). While this method has problems, it is adequate to show how vegetation cover at the site varied over time.

Fieldwalking across the reserve indicates a spread of pottery from the Roman and medieval periods (personal observation) and flints have been located nearby (Christiansen 2009). Documentary evidence is scarce, but a location known as Teulesberg is mentioned in Domesday and Devil's Spittleful may be a corruption of this (Open Domesday 2016). A timeline of events at the site and its environs is presented below.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Woodcut of the Devil's Spadeful (Griffiths 1839)

The earliest cartographic evidence is from Henry Stevens' map of 1815, which shows the presence of post-medieval land division (Stevens 1815). Subsequently, the local author George Griffiths wrote down the origin myth of the Devil's Spittleful as a poem illustrated by woodcuts (1839). The poem relates the crag as a location where a conversation between the Devil and a drunken cobbler took place. The woodcut indicates a hill covered in firs in an open cultivated landscape (Figure 3). By this time the area was being used for graffiti, with dates possibly as early as 1611 being carved into the rock.

Figure 4
Figure 4: Ordnance Survey County Series 1:2500 1st edition 1884. Worcestershire
Figure 5
Figure 5: Photograph of the Devil's Spadeful c. 1900 (Harris 2007)

The first Ordnance Survey mapping (c. 1884, Figure 4) and a contemporaneous photograph show the Spittleful, covered in firs, with abundant shrubs and grassy heath (Figure 5). The adjacent fields of what was to become the Rifle Range Reserve are shown as a racecourse and with pasture/cultivated ground. By 1902, with the ending of the racecourse and the use of the ground as a shooting range, succession to rough ground, heath and woodland was rapidly progressing (Figure 6). Ling was recorded by botanical surveyors at the site in 1909 (Flora of Worcestershire 2016). By about 1927, after the establishment of the rifle range, succession to scrub woodland and heath was progressing. The site is recorded as heathland by the Dudley Stamp Land utilisation survey in the 1930s (Digimap 2016). The 1938 map, shows that large areas had undergone succession to a mixed woodland and brushwood (Figure 7).

Figure 6 Figure 7
Figure 6: Ordnance Survey County Series 1:2500 1st revision 1902, Worcestershire
Figure 7: Ordnance Survey. County Series 1:2500 3rd revision 1938, Worcestershire

Aerial photographs from 1945 indicate that extensive deforestation occurred during World War Two and heathland expanded to its largest extent (Figure 8). In 1955, the nature reserve came into being; subsequently an extensive closed canopy woodland formed and heath was largely confined to areas that had seen extensive fires during the 1970s (Figure 9) (Harris 2007).

Figure 8
Figure 8: Google earth image 1/1/1945. Google Earth Devil's Spittleful. 55° 22' 16.92" N 2°16'49.43" W. Eye Alt 2.85km. The Geoinformation Group 2016. [Last accessed: 21 September 2016]

This afforestation was threatening the existence of the nature reserve, so an application was made to the Aggregates Levy for funds to remove the woodland. These funds were used for both soil stripping and woodland clearance. As is often the case, these changes to the woodland created problems with the local community who had come to associate the site with woodland (Harris pers. comm.; Kidderminster Shuttle 2011).

Figure 9
Figure 9: Google earth image 1/1/1999. Google Earth Devil's Spittleful. 55° 22' 16.92" N 2°16'49.43" W. Eye Alt 2.85km. Infoterra Ltd. and Blue Sky 2016. [Last accessed: 21 September 2016]

6. Discussion: Nature didn't get the memo

The establishment of nature reserves in the aftermath of the Second World War came from the presumption that with the expansion of development and agricultural improvements a great many of the most important habitats in the UK would be threatened with destruction. To prevent this, key habitats were identified and the land was set aside as nature reserves and as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (Evans 1997). At the time, understanding of the role of disturbance, traditional agriculture and the time depth of particular ecosystems was poorly understood. This has led to problems for many reserves as traditional agriculture ceased and as the original disturbance regime that created plant communities ended.

Devil's Spittleful and the Rifle Range, although nature reserves, are perhaps better interpreted as having a similar dynamic to the woodland colonisation that Jorgenson and Tylecote (2007) discuss at brownfield sites or the 'feral spaces' discussed by Whatmore and Hinchliffe (2010). The 'wild' in the form of a variety of tree and scrub species has colonised the space, contrary to the wishes of one set of stakeholders (the Wildlife Trust and Natural England). This brings us back to a consideration of how best to interpret the response of vegetation at this site.

In order to do this, I will suggest that we need to look again at the 'purity' approach to wilds and wildernesses. Simms (1992), Woods (2001) and Plumwood (2006) argue that there are serious difficulties with the 'purity' approach to wilderness. Simms discusses the evidence for how a false view of the American Wilderness developed among Old World colonists as they expanded westwards. Simms argues that pre-contact population collapse among native American groups owing to disease, famine and warfare gave a false view of nature in the west, due to ignorance of how Native Americans had been managing the land (1992), and similar points have been made about the Australian outback and Australian Aborigines (Plumwood 1998). Consequently, the idea of a pristine wilderness in the American West and in Australia rested on an idealised view of the past. Woods (2001), taking a broader approach, examines five different arguments against definitions of wilderness and wilderness protection. He proposes that wilderness is an emergent quality of the land (and sea), 'I argue…that what is natural has a non-cultural origin and causal continuity with other non-cultural origins, and what is wild exists as an expression of more than human autonomy beyond anthropogenic controls' (Woods 2001, 359). Here we see the idea of the wild and wilderness as the 'other', existing outwith human wishes and desires, instead following its own needs ignorant of humans (see also Bennett 2009), an idea that Thoreau would be comfortable with. Plumwood also argues cogently that while the 'wilderness' concept has been abused to deny indigenous Australians land rights (2006, 134) the 'purity' approach to nature fails to recognise the way in which conservation and the role of wilderness areas has changed to reflect an understanding of human involvement in the way wilderness developed (2006, 136). She, together with Woods, argue that the environmental crisis is such that we need to create space for nature to be wild in. Snyder (1998, 645) argues that 'there is no original condition that once altered can never be redeemed'. He makes the point that nature is not a virgin, rather it is a wildness that is creative in returning land to a new natural state whatever the impact of disturbance is, whether that is human or natural in origin.

Writers such as Thoreau and Wordsworth and the deep ecologists are asking us to see wilderness not as an absolute, dependent on a legalistic definition that relies upon untrammelled nature (what Plumwood calls 'philosophical idealism') but rather as a continuum from trammelled to untrammelled, from cultivated fields to largely unmanaged wildernesses (Plumwood 2006, 140). Woods, following Sopers (1995 in Woods 2001), argues that we should retain a distinction between culture and nature, as the framing that such a separation helps create the conditions for a truly ecocentric approach to wilderness. He argues that although humans may alter nature 'this may not destroy it or diminish its independence from us' (Woods 2001, 356). He further argues that the wilderness condition can emerge from previous disturbance 'and that what is wild exists as an expression of more-than-human autonomy beyond anthropogenic controls'. This innate creativity of the wild to respond to attempts at management in its own unpredictable way is, I would argue, the most appropriate way to consider the landscape that has developed at both the Devil's Spittleful and Rifle Range Reserves (and many others in the UK). I would further argue that we need to recognise that these systems are operating alongside and separate from those of human culture.

The available evidence suggests that, rather than having an origin in the Bronze Age, this heathland is one of a number of recent successional states that occupy short temporal windows as management waxes and wanes across these nutrient-poor sandy soils (see also Whild Associates 2012). The mapping evidence suggests that between 1890 and 1945, vegetation changed from cultivated fields to heathland to woodland and back to heathland again. In the period after 1945 there was some limited success in maintaining heathland at the Rifle Range Reserve but at the Devil's Spittleful the heathland succeeded to woodland. Eventually, the drastic solutions of clear felling and bulldozing away the topsoil have been attempted as a way of maintaining the original specifications of the SSSI listing.

7. Conclusion

The wildland and outland at the Devil's Spittleful provide just one contemporary example of how wild nature acts to subvert human management as an actor in its own right. As Shakespeare notes in Henry V, abandoning the land means '…our vineyards, fallowes, meads and hedges, defective in their natures, grow to wildnesse' (King Henry V 5.2.54-55). It is not necessary to create wildness or wilderness; nature is perfectly capable of reproducing wilderness the moment that management is suppressed, either by war or neglect. This is perhaps most graphically demonstrated in recent times in areas that have seen nuclear disasters and subsequent abandonment. At both Chernobyl (Hilton 2016) and Fukushima (Durden 2015), newspaper reports and drone footage show evidence of woodland and scrub vegetation rapidly colonising the abandoned towns and fields surrounding these sites.

As a result of the 'cultural' and 'symbolic' turn (Miller 2010), we have invested landscape with human meaning and we have denied the non-human participants on the land agency; wilderness has become, to use the words of Buchli and Lucas, 'unconstituted…through suppression' (2002, 14). We have made nature a virgin (Plumwood 1998; Snyder 1998) who, once sullied, can never be considered pristine again. I would argue that the emphasis that the ecocritics and deep ecologists place on the wild is an important and overlooked element of the land both in the present and the past. As discussed above, Thoreau and writers such as Snyder consider the wild to be ultimately creative, capable of regenerating wilderness under almost any circumstances.

It is also the case that outside of professional opinion the public and tourist bodies are perfectly able to identify wilderness areas. Ralston notes that the boundaries of wild land are difficult to define in Scotland, if one uses a 'purity' definition. For both tourist providers and tourists, however, the idea of the wilderness in Scotland is 'alive and well' and large parts of the uplands are considered by both business, tourists and tourist agencies as 'wild' (Ralston 2004, 82). I would argue that we can detect and identify the wild and wilderness based on the degree of succession and the degree of management, from relatively unmanaged places such as the Devil's Spittleful to the highly managed farmland that surrounds it.

I have followed Woods, Snyder and Plumwood and argued against a 'purity' definition of the wild and the wilderness, as I believe that this best follows the original intent of both the Romantics and Thoreau. I would argue that an ecocentric perspective that sees wilderness as an essential property of the world that is waiting for an opportunity to recolonise lands dominated by humans is a better explanation of the vegetation changes seen at the Devil's Spittleful and Rifle Range Reserves. Further, I would argue that, as Buchli and Lucas suggest, a contemporary environmental archaeology has a significant contribution to make to healing the land by indicating the most historically suitable and sustainable usage of the land, for both its human and natural agents (2002). To repeat Matthews, paraphrasing Naess:

'The remedy (or psychotherapy) against sadness caused by the world's misery is to do something about it…it is very common to find those who constantly deal with extreme misery to be more than usually cheerful. According to Spinoza, the power of the individual is infinitely small compared with that of the entire universe, so we must not expect to save the whole world. The main point…is that of activeness.' (Naess 1973 in Mathews 2001, 230)


Cite this as: Hoaen, A. 2019 Wildness: Conceptualising the wild in contemporary environmental archaeology, Internet Archaeology 53.

Internet Archaeology is an open access journal. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

Terms and Conditions | Legal Statements | Privacy Policy | Cookies Policy | Citing IA

Internet Archaeology content is preserved for the long term with the Archaeology Data Service. Help sustain and support open access publication by donating to our Open Access Archaeology Fund.