Archaeology lecturers Dr Jodie Lewis and Dr David Mullin consider some of the unusual ways humans have understood and interacted with the natural landscape. 

Archaeology provides a unique long-term perspective on what it means to be human and it is one of few disciplines to combine the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences. One fascinating area that archaeologists study is how past people affected the world and how, in turn, the world affected them.

In western society today, there is a tendency to see culture and nature as separate.  This is partly a product of the intellectual movement known as The Enlightenment (or The Age of Reason). This movement stressed reason, science and logic as the best ways to understand the world and was a challenge to religious thinking and superstitious beliefs.  Humans were separate from the natural world and the natural world needed to be controlled by humans.

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Yet in many non-western societies, nature is not viewed as separate and a force to be controlled. Humans and the natural world are closely interwoven and nature can also be seen to have its own power, power which is respected and sometimes revered.  Elements of the natural world are viewed as having agency which may be likened to sentience.

Many archaeologists are now applying these important ideas to the past. There is an awareness that modern, western understandings of the world are not universal and that we need to explore the different ways past human societies thought about their world.

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One way we can get to this is by examining how natural landscape features were used. Watery places like rivers, bogs and springs and impressive landmarks such as mountains, caves and sinkholes, seem to have had great significance to past people, a significance that goes beyond the mundane.

The Neolithic (the New Stone Age), a period lasting from 4000-2500 BC, is the time of the first farming in Britain. Neolithic farmers created a range of impressive ceremonial, funerary and ritual monuments that show a strong sense of community and a vibrant belief system, providing us with a glimpse of complex social worlds. Stonehenge, one of the greatest Neolithic monuments ever built, continues to perplex us today and new scientific studies are providing us with fascinating insights into how and why it was built.

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Yet we can also look beyond the monuments and see that Neolithic people appear to have had a fascination with unusual features found in the natural environment. Sinkholes, for example, are natural shafts that are found widely across Britain. During the Neolithic period, we find evidence that intrepid individuals or groups lowered themselves into some of these holes into the ground, some of which are over 20m deep. We know this because they left behind them a range of deliberately deposited items, including exotic axeheads of distant European origin, fine flint work, animal bones and on occasion human remains. The lack of damage and careful placement shows that these were not simply thrown in from the surface. Neolithic individuals descended into the dark, dangerous shafts, and left behind them special things.

Some of these sinkholes appear to have opened for the first time during the Neolithic period which must have been a frightening and unexpected event.  Today we understand the geological processes that cause sinkholes to open but 6000 years ago this knowledge did not exist. These early farmers would have witnessed the land opening around them and interpreted it within their own frames of reference. Was there a belief that gods or deities resided in the underworld at the bottom of the shafts?  Should we view the intentional deposition of artefacts, animals and bodies as offerings to appease an angry or demanding higher power? Or was the earth itself seen as alive, perhaps hungry and requiring feeding or lonely and craving company? Perhaps entering the shaft was an attempt to communicate with the earth and the items that were left represent people’s attempts to give it what they thought it needed.

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But the human interest in natural places didn’t stop at those below ground. At the other end of the landscape spectrum, people were using rock from particular mountains (in the Lake District, Wales and other parts of Britain) to make into stone tools, specifically axeheads. Axeheads made from these rocks have been found many miles from their source in areas such as Somerset and Norfolk.  Early farmers might need these tools to clear away vegetation and trees in order to gain land to plant crops and graze animals. But why select rock from distant and hard-to-access mountains? Many archaeologists now think that the stone from which the axes were made was more important than the function of the axe as a tool. Were these high mountains viewed as the home of sky gods or were mountains perhaps seen as living entities? Having an axehead made from special stone may have been a way of transferring some of the magical or mystical power of these places into the human world.  

A recently discovered pot still covered in dirt from an archaeological dig.

The significance of the uplands continued well beyond the Neolithic and into the subsequent Bronze Age. While metal axes appear to have replaced those of stone, rock from distinctive landscape features continued to be exploited. But rather than being made into tools, rock from these places was crushed and added to the clay from which pots were made. Analysis suggests that these inclusions were not for practical purposes but instead were a way of incorporating pieces of important places into everyday items and everyday lives.

In both the Neolithic and Bronze Age, people’s relationship with the landscape was complex and not always straightforward or practical. One of the challenges of archaeology is to try to untangle these relationships in an attempt to understand how people made sense of the world around them. We should never assume their worldview was the same as ours.

Dr Jodie Lewis and Dr David Mullin both teach on the Archaeology & Heritage Studies BA (Hons) course at the University of Worcester. The themes discussed above are considered in modules including Neolithic and Bronze Age Britain and The Archaeology of Death and Burial.