The Neolithic chambered cairns of South Uist

3.3 The landscape setting of the sites

By examining the landscape settings around each of the chambered cairns, a number of themes were identified in their location. The sites typically have a restricted view in one direction, usually looking uphill at a closed view. The reasons for this remain unclear but it is a feature which occurs at comparable sites across the British Isles. The cairns also seem to be set in marginal areas, between two different land types. For the majority, this is between the lower land, and more upland and inland areas. Sig More, however, is set on the beach, between the land and the sea. From the perspective of people standing in the forecourts, the cairns were often built to obscure the view of the flat coastal plain and the coastline to the west. Views of distant mountains seem to have been emphasised along with nearby lochs. Many of the sites were placed in close proximity to dramatic natural rock outcrops. Overall, it seems clear that the sites may have been located to reference specific features within the landscape.

3.4 Representing the landscape

While writing up the results of the fieldwork, it became obvious that it was extremely difficult to convey a sense of the landscape. The use of a traditional academic commentary often fails to give the reader a sense of experiencing the living landscape. It also fails to provide the readers with the opportunity to interpret the evidence themselves, and perhaps incorporate it into their own landscape studies. Thus it seemed necessary to present observations in such a way that other researchers could interpret the evidence. This seemed particularly relevant in this case study, as South Uist is quite difficult to reach. Consequently, work began on a more accessible interface between the experiences of archaeologists in South Uist and the reader who is less familiar with these places.

3.5 Photographs and plans

In A phenomenology of landscape, Tilley (1994) attempted to convey a sense of the landscapes he had experienced by including a number of black and white photographs. Although the use of so many photographs was an innovative approach, they were still insufficient to reveal the whole landscape of a site and often failed to convey a sense of place (although this is not to say that black and white photos cannot convey the atmosphere of landscape or be emotive). To some extent, this is because a photograph can only show a small portion of the view. In an attempt to overcome this, a series of line drawings were produced to illustrate the entire 360° landscape around a site (e.g. figure 10).

line drawing of landscape in 360 degrees
Figure 10. A line drawing of the landscape setting around the site of Reineval

This method has been used successfully for a number of years to illustrate landscape guidebooks (for example by Wainwright's guides to the English Lake District 1960). There are both advantages and disadvantages to using such panoramas. Firstly, they do assist in the interpretative stage, allowing the landscape settings from a number of different sites to be examined simultaneously. Broad themes and patterns can easily be identified this way. Furthermore, the entire landscape setting can be viewed in one simple, easily reproducible, picture. The case of Reineval (Fig. 10) depicts the landscape setting from the viewpoint of the forecourt area. The illustration shows the range of mountains visible to the east, and how the bulk of the cairn blocks out the view towards the sea and the machair plain. But at the same time, these line drawings do not give a sense of the landscape itself. It is hard to conceptualise the landscape from this image, especially scale and distance. It also presents a view of the landscape that is impossible to obtain physically without turning through 360°. Haraway (1991) calls this the 'God-trick', seeing everything from nowhere, and such approaches have been heavily criticised.

3.6 The way forward

It is clear that landscape archaeology is restrained by the medium through which it is discussed, presented and reproduced. Books and journals can only print a limited number of photographs and line drawings. A phenomenology of landscape perhaps offers us the ultimate use of this format. The World Wide Web, however, represents a much more flexible medium to display landscape studies, wherein it is possible to incorporate many more colour images than could ever be included in a printed book, as well as animated images and many different kinds of narrative. The Bodmin Moor project is a good example of an attempt to convey a landscape, drawing on the experiences of many different people.

With this in mind, I began to explore alternative ways of representing the landscapes of South Uist.


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Last updated: Tue Aug 8 2000