Archaeology of Place

word-cloud related to place theory and chorography, from Rohl 2012I have been wrestling with archaeological approaches to place for several years, and this is a distinctive aspect of my approach as an academic archaeologist. I have published some preliminary papers on this subject (Rohl 2011, 2012, 2015), and continue to develop this work through my regional archaeological research projects (see my Antonine Wall and Roman/Byzantine Jordan pages). My perspective was initially inspired by my experiences excavating and researching multi-millennial "tell" sites in Jordan, which vividly illustrated that archaeological sites and monuments never really "belong" to just one period, but instead reflect numerous episodes of human activity and engagement all the way up to the present-day. My MA and PhD research adopted this approach for the Roman frontier in Scotland, and through these years I more fully fleshed-out my perspective by investigating antiquarian approaches (including early antiquaries' reformulation of ancient chorography) and interdisciplinary place theories that have developed most substantially within humanistic geography (e.g. Tuan 1974, 1977; Relph 1976) and philosophy (Casey 1993, 1996; Malpas 1999).

Tim Cresswell, a human geographer, has provided the most accessible introduction to contemporary place theory (Cresswell 2014). The key concept within this body of thought is that places are not just physical locations or dots on a map, but “meaningful locations” that receive their significance through memory and experience. In the formulation I adopted within my PhD thesis, I summarised a more detailed explication as follows:

places are more than just sets of coordinates or dots on a map and can be seen as a combination of location, locale, and sense of place. These terms, when unpacked, invest place with important ideas of (sometimes) mobility, materiality, memory, and meaning. Places do not exist ab aeterno (“from the beginning of time”), but are created, made, and produced—by individuals, communities, and at the national and global levels. Places depend upon experience, and are thus inhabited spaces where human activity occurs and time is spent. Places can also be seen as paradoxically static and dynamic, as forming and existing only in the present, but also participating in an iterative genealogy in which place gives way to place as present gives way to present. Places also exist at multiple scales and are often nested, from a single chair to the room it is in, to the house, town, region, country, etc., and the experience and meaning of sub-places within a larger enclosing place may differ from one another and for different people; there may also be a bi-directional relationship, whereby nested places depend on one another for definition. Unless an experience of place is shallow and superficial, the meaning and essence of place is often cumulative, with each new activity and experience adding new layers and nuances to the ways in which a place is perceived and valued. Following Foucault’s ideas on the “archaeology” and genealogy of knowledge, ideas and concepts, this process is even more complex through time, with ideas being dislocated, lost, and re-discovered—or re-excavated—rather than being merely cumulative. Taken altogether, this is the conception of place adopted in this thesis. (Rohl 2014: 38–39)

Although archaeologists have made few explicit contributions to the larger multi-disciplinary place theory discourse, our discipline has engaged with some of the concepts through regional archaeological projects, landscape archaeology, spatial science and GIS, and archaeological landscape phenomenology. While inspired by, and drawing on elements of, each of these archaeological approaches, I seek to more fully develop a new “archaeology of place” theoretical framework that primarily builds on place theory (as explored outside of archaeological discourse), genealogy, and the chorographic tradition. This is not an attempt to reconstruct archaeological sites and monuments as they existed in the past, nor as they may have been subjectively experienced by past peoples; rather, I want to focus on archaeological sites as they exist today, as present-day places that have been physically and ideologically produced, re-produced, and transformed from the time of original functional use until the present.

I am convinced that place theory offers a valuable but challenging framework for studies of the past. Perhaps most importantly, awareness of this approach challenges us to understand our sites, monuments, and landscapes as both places in the present, but also as places of the past. These are, crucially, very separate things, and it might be that we are better at the latter, but we tend to do so in a very shallow way. A more explicit recognition of place theory has the potential to enrich our understanding of the locations we investigate, and can also help us as archaeologists to better engage with potential interdisciplinary research partners. This is, particularly, something that is missing from contemporary Roman Archaeology. While I continue to develop this work, I am also beginning to explore the overlaps between my ideas and those of the separate but complementary discourse on psychogeographic approaches within archaeology.

Works Cited

  • Casey, E.S. (1993) Getting Back into Place: Towards a Renewed Understanding of the Place World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Casey, E.S. (1996) How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Prolegomena, pp. 13–52 in S. Feld and K.H. Basso (eds.) Senses of Place. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
  • Cresswell, T. (2014) Place: An Introduction, second edition. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Malpas, J.E. (1999) Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Relph, E.C. (1976) Place and Placelessness. London: Pion.
  • Rohl, D.J. (2015) Place Theory, Genealogy, and the Cultural Biography of Roman Monuments, pp. 1–16 in T. Brindle, M. Allen, E. Durham, and A. Smith (eds), TRAC 2014: Proceedings of the Twenty-Fourth Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
  • Rohl, D.J. (2014) More than a Roman Monument: A Place-centred Approach to the Long-term History and Archaeology of the Antonine Wall. PhD Thesis, Department of Archaeology, Durham University.
  • Rohl, D.J. (2012) Chorography: History, Theory, and Potential for Archaeological Research, pp. 19–32 in M. Duggan, F. McIntosh, and D.J. Rohl (eds), TRAC 2011: Proceedings of the Twenty-First Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
  • Rohl, D.J. (2011) The Chorographic Tradition and Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-century Scottish Antiquaries. Journal of Art Historiography, 5: 1–18.
  • Tuan, Y.-F. (1974) Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
  • Tuan, Y.-F. (1977) Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

This page was last updated on 6 November 2017.