This messiness amazes me

It had been a while since I last read a manifesto. To be more specific, the last one had the word communist in its title and had been written roughly 150 years earlier by a famous man with a beard. Pre-89, almost deep past already for those who were born just a few years later than me. Naturally, reading the word manifesto in the title of a text written by someone I know made me curious. Not least because it had the words messy landscapes next to it. The messy landscapes manifesto, written by Dmitrij Mlekuz.

When I was first confronted with his views of “messy landscapes”, I wasn’t sure what to think. Spending my working hours looking at LIDAR imagery full of traces of former human activities like Dimitrij, trying to understand the landscape (while avoiding to actually define the term) and mapping archaeological features, I could immediately agree that, yes, it often does look like a big mess. All those crisscrossing shapes and scrapes can be confusing, to say the very least. We try to improve our situation by using ever higher-resolution data (if they are available) and by applying ever more sophisticated visualisation techniques only to find that we can now see even more overlapping traces. Of course, the individual features may now look somewhat clearer, may be easier to define and to distinguish. But it can be very difficult to disentangle them – first with our eyes, then with the clicking of the mouse button.

So, yes, I agree with the picture of messy landscapes. But is it a valid concept, just because the words (admittedly) sound cool and capture the overall impression so well? To begin with, I agree with most other statements in the manifesto as well. At least, to a certain degree. Landscapes are not static (depending on the temporal reference frame, of course), they are (mostly) created in a messy way, they are (mostly) more than palimpsests. But there are cases where the slate has been wiped clean. There are cases where landscapes were created in a planned, ordered manner. There are cases where landscapes are just palimpsests.

However, to say that “there is no chronological succession, but a mess of temporaries” ultimately blocks the view at the chronological succession by which landscapes are created. Time is a dimension, a trajectory, it is not something that jumps here and there, back and forth. “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once“. If we close our eyes to this, things become very messy indeed for landscape archaeologists.

A very simple mess in the Rhine valley. The oldest recognizable feature are almost completely eroded Iron Age burial mounds (M; mounds visible in this LIDAR visualisation, age constraint from surface finds). Most of the space is taken up by (likely medieval) ridge and furrow. Arrows indicate a very faint linear feature which pre-dates the ridge and furrow and which could therefore be a Roman roadway or field boundary. The ridge and furrow fields are dissected by two channels. At first sight, channel CH1 looks like a natural watercourse with a straightened channel, but zooming out would show that it is an artificial channel which has become more natural-looking due to avulsion. Channel CH2 is younger than channel CH1 and cross-cuts (i.e., post-dates) a straight way which in turn post-dates the ridge and furrow. Bunkers (B), trenches (T) and pits (P; likely related to covering the bunkers with soil) of the World War II Siegfried Line (“Westwall”) and bomb craters (C) are superimposed on or cut through ridge and furrow; trenches are in turn superimposed by a later way. To the west of the ridge and furrow, a network of field boundaries is visible but superimposed by the present-day land parcels. LIDAR data (c) LGL/LAD

Early on in the manifesto, it states that “our job is to understand landscapes, no matter how complex they might be.” But later I read that “trying to describe complex, diffuse and messy things, landscapes, in simple terms would only make more mess out of them.”

I don’t quite agree. Of course, things are complicated, messy. But an excavation can be complicated and messy as well, without somebody writing a manifesto about it. Layer upon layer as a general, simplistic picture of what is seen in the ground, but what would it help if the archaeologist, either with passion or just with a shrug, talked about a “mess of temporalities” when multiple periods of building and digging and destruction and accumulation and disturbance are to be disentangled?

Only by generalizing, by simplifying, can we make sense of the complexity we encounter. Only by recognising and engaging with chronological successions can we disentangle them.

Does that mean that messy landscapes is a useless concept? I don’t think so. It is the concept which best describes what we see in the landscape if we don’t close our eyes to the things that don’t fit a narrow filter, be it temporal (e.g., looking for Roman sites only) or typological (e.g., looking for nothing else but burial mounds). And this is not only true for looking at LIDAR images, but also for being inside, moving through a landscape.

To me, the term messy landscapes is a constant reminder (if ever I would need one, given the work I do) to keep my eyes open for all traces of former human activities, to not disregard one in favour of another, because only in their entirety, only in their complexity (which we have to try to disentangle) can they bring us as close as possible to understanding the past.