Archive for January, 2015

Visuality: telling stories about cultural ecology

Sunday, January 18th, 2015


“The northeast entrance to Stonehenge is positioned at one end of a pair of natural ridges.  It is not unusual for Neolithic monuments to incorporate such aspects of the natural world into their design, but what is exceptional is that this particular natural feature, by sheer coincidence, is aligned on the solstice axis”.   Mike Parker Pearson (2012), who stumbled on the reason why Stonehenge is where it is.

1 Visuality

Foucault proposes that the spatialization of knowledge in Western Europe in the 17th century was one of the factors leading to the constitution of knowledge as science. He suggests the Western natural sciences such as ecology and archeology, are based more on the visual than other sensory organs. Natural history emerged as an individual science and precursor to modern conservation biology, which deals with the protection of landscapes, habitats and species, based on a spatialisation of objects which strike the eye. Concurrently, other elements of knowledge of the objects fall away as the objects are spatialised. This, Foucault argues, is linked to the development of the printing press. The natural world became divided into particular classifications, considered as universal categories, according to quantifiable, visual characteristics, and presented as illustrations in books. Books themselves can here be considered as spatial entities reproducing this spatio-visual aspect of knowledge. Texts become spatial techniques, not merely metaphors, as they become natural entities in their own right. They carried the authority attached to such objects in Western knowledge production over and above orally or bodily transferred forms of knowledge.

In contrast, oral tradition and oral lore is also cultural material and tradition transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to another. The messages or testimony are verbally transmitted in speech or song and may take the form, for example, of folktales, sayings, ballads, songs, or chants. In this way, it is possible for a society to transmit oral history, oral literature, oral law and other knowledge across generations without a writing system. The telling of stories was the main route to answer questions about humankind’s place in nature and the wider cosmos. Cultural monuments were built as the visual renditions of these tales as were natural features in the local landscape, such as rivers and mountains, all of which bound society to the earth.

In his book, ‘The permissive universe’, published in 1986, Kirtley Mather began a discussion of the recent separation of human thought from the earth as a relatively new phenomenon. His message for modern humans is that we should “keep our feet on the ground,” and maintain our kinship with the planet. This was the theme of an address given in 1996 by Eldridge M. Moores, President of the American Geological Society, who pointed out that cultural geology plays a prominent story-telling role in many indigenous cultures. For example, there is a strong relation between the native American Diné (Navajo) and Cree traditions and their local topography. Legends of a Mother Earth Goddess are abundant in Europe and Asia. Greek mythology includes a battle between Hercules and Antaeus, the son of Gaia, the earth goddess. As long as Antaeus could maintain contact with the earth, he was unbeatable. Only when Hercules held him above his head was that protective contact broken. Only by separating him from his earthly roots was Hercules able to vanquish his opponent.

About the time that Moores was preparing his address, James Loveluck was elaborating a theory, named after Gaia, which posits that the Earth is a self-regulating entity involving the bioisphere, the atmosphere, the hydrospheres and the pedosphere, into which we are tightly coupled as part of an evolving biophysical planetary system. Moores was speaking only four years after the first environmental summit had been held in Rio de Janiero, where sustainability and Earth’s carrying capacity were critical issues. Moores, referred to the fact that the American per capita resource use and waste generation were much greater than for any other region. He examined the prospect of bringing only four countries, Brazil, China, India, and Indonesia, up to one-quarter of the U.S. per capita level of consumption. Together, these aggregate about 40% of Earth’s 5.5 billion people and would double or triple the human planetary load. Earth’s productivity could not deliver the additional resources and science could not provide a technical solution. In other words, society somehow needs to work out a way for these and other countries to prosper without environmental ruination and to find a way for ourselves to prosper with less demand on Earth’s resources. Moores believed that geoscientists can help in this quest and that cultural geology should become the central science of the 21st century! Three decades later the talking still goes on!

What is required is an educational story-telling route from visuality to change our behaviour as modern consumers of nature. A story is a powerful strategy for teaching and learning. Stories can help develop our understanding of the places where we live. They can also help us create our own narratives supporting the development of shared stories; our cultural myths and legends. Stories are made, told and retold and myths, legends and folktales have been the cornerstones of teaching us to be earthbound and earthcaring in every culture. They are an important means to understand ourselves and to interpret experiences in the context of the human ecological niche. This is why the stories of indigenous cultures are closely related visually to the land. Indeed, traditional cultures that have evolved in more ecologically sustainable ways have also developed music, art, dance and storytelling as a way of expressing a sense of spirituality that integrates the self with other life forms that share a common habitat’. Stories produce a strong sense of social cohesion, which helps the community develop its understandings of place, in contrast to the focus on the individual, typical of modern Western culture. However, people interpret the same setting very differently, seeing nature;

* as source of scientific knowledge;

* as creation; * as a human resource;

* or in peril.

The guardians of cultural heritage use one or more of these interpretations when displaying what they are about, despite the fact that these perspectives may be in tension; for example, seeing nature as a source of scientific knowledge versus seeing nature as creation. Imagination plays an important role in this process and is particlarly well illustrated in the modern world of archaeological research, where there is an urgency to explain the inexplicable with learning models that are easy to understand.

Debates about the transmission and contextual models of learning have a long history and are far from new. In the transmission model, learners are viewed as passive recipients of pre-interpreted messages and learning is framed as a cognitive experience; the primary concern is whether or not the learner received a particular message. This transmission view of learning suggests that conservationists should work thoughtfully to define and fully transmit coherent educational messages or enduring understandings.

In contrast, in the contextual model, learners are viewed as active meaning-makers, or interpreters; learning is framed as a complex context-dependent social process, where the primary concern is whether or not learners are forming connections through their previous and subsequent experiences. This view of learning suggests that visitors to cultural monuments generate their own highly personalised meanings from the same experience, and that conservationists should implement strategies of storytelling that invite visitor interaction, response, and interpretations.


2 Conflicts in visuality

About 5,000 years ago on Salisbury Plain, Neolithic Britons constructed a 110-metre-diameter circular ditch and earthen bank with an inner circle of wooden posts. About 500 years later, they started work on the 30-metre-diameter stone monument that partially remains today as a major visual experience for tens of thousands of visitors from across the globe. The monument is oriented to frame the rising sun during the summer solstice and the setting sun during the winter solstice. It was erected in several phases that together lasted for perhaps 700 years. Modern dating methods have narrowed down the probable date of the first phase of construction to between 3000 and 2920 BC. The second phase, consisting of the erection of wooden posts was conducted later, and Phase III, the creation of permanent stone circles, much later still.

Stonehenge was abandoned about 3,400 years ago and the remains of the monument include two primary stone types: ‘bluestone’ and ‘sandstone’. Bluestones were the first stones to be set up within the henge earthwork. They were part of the original layout, which appears to have been a pair of concentric semicircles with an average diameter of 25 metres marked out in the centre of the monument with an opening towards the southwest. This setting has been determined by the excavation of two sets of stones pits known as the ‘Q’ and ‘R’ holes. This setting was however only short lived with the stones then being removed and the holes backfilled with chalk rubble. Possibly contemporary with this bluestone setting is the erection of the Altar Stone to the southwest of the semicircle. It is now recumbent but was shaped to function as a standing stone. This particular stone came from the native Bosherston sandstone of South Pembrokeshire. Apart from the Altar Stone, at least two other sandstone monoliths (of unknown origin) were also built into the bluestone circle.

The bluestones originated in the volcanic rocks indigenous to the Preceli Hills of North Pembrokeshire. With an average weight of about four tonnes, the bluestones, which take on a vaguely grey-blue colour when wet, are mostly diabase, a rock category which is chemically similar to basalt but intruded into other rocks at shallow depth rather than erupting. There were many changes in the bluestone settings prior to the arrangement that we see today, and there are indications that they may originally have been set in a double circle. Of these, 16 are still standing; the others are either leaning, lying on the ground or traceable only through buried stumps. It is thought that some of the bluestones were originally part of a circle situated one mile southeast of Stonehenge on the banks of the River Avon at West Amesbury. This circle is at the end of the ‘Avenue’, considered to be a ritual pathway that connected Stonehenge with the River Avon. It appears to be a miniature version of Stonehenge but all that now remains of the circle are holes containing chips of Preseli Spotted Dolerite, identical to the bluestones used at Stonehenge.

Current thinking is that the creators of Stonehenge originally built two bluestone circles – one with 56 stones at Stonehenge and another with 27 stones at West Amesbury. The stones of the smaller circle were later incorporated into the larger circle. Sarsen sandstone, is a hard, 60-million-year-old silicified sandstone similar to that of the Marlborough Downs, about 30 kilometres to the north of Stonehenge. About 50 sarsen stones remain, but originally there may have been many more.The sarsens were arranged in two circles around the bluestones, one within the other. The outer circle’s vertical sarsens are connected by horizontal rock beams that give the monument its unique character. Within this outer circle is a horseshoe of even larger sarsens with lintels called trilithons. The mass of the largest sarsen is estimated at 40 tonnes – the equivalent of a fully loaded cement truck. This gives a measure of the design and engineering skills that the Neolithic tribesmen had to develop in order to collect, dress and place their stones. Pebbles and flakes of many other rock types, both foreign and local, have also been found in excavations at Stonehenge and in other Neolithic and Bronze Age sites across Salisbury Plain: These include greenstone, limestone, schist, quartzite, gneiss and other unidentified sandstones. In all, at least 20 rock types have been identified at Stonehenge. Furthermore, archaeologists have uncovered diabase fragments from a number of archaeological sites in the area that are far older than the earliest stone settings at Stonehenge.

The generally agreed hard facts about Stonehenge are that it is known who built it, when they built it and what it was built from and we have a good idea how they built it. Two important unresolved questions concern its ultimate purpose and how building stones foreign to Wiltshire were assembled on Salisbury Plain. These questions have raised conflict between archaeologists and between archaeologists and geologists. Because of its alignment with the summer and winter equinoxes everyone agrees that the cultural purpose of Stonehenge was to celebrate the passing of the seasons. Regarding its ultimate purpose we resort to imaginative story-telling. Prof. Mike Parker Pearson’s story is that the original Stonehenge was a large funerary temple created between 3000 and 2500 BC as a graveyard for a local community of elite families. “This was a place for the dead”. Prof Tim Darvill tells a story about the place being an ancient ‘Lourdes’. The sick and wounded would come here for cures from the monument’s great bluestones, which had been dragged from Wales to Wiltshire because of their perceived magical healing properties. “This was a place for the living”. Darvill’s reference to the origins of bluestones raises another conflict of interpretation depending on whether it is believed the stones alien to Wiltshire’s geology were transported by men or by ice. The major persistent protagonist for glacial transport is the glaciologist Brian John. A selection of the Internet evidence-base of fact and conjecture is presented below.


3 Learning from Stonehenge

Human beings have to add sense to their existence in order to be able to manage their conditions of existence. To paraphrase Stuart Hall’s words: Culture comprises the meanings and values which arise among distinctive social groups and classes. These meanings and values depend on their given historical conditions and the relationships through which they “handle” and respond to the conditions of existence.

They also depend on the lived traditions and practices through which those “understandings” are expressed and in which they are embodied. What we can to learn from cultural heritage is continuously developing. All the time learning is being extended from the traditional concept of understanding the physical form of a monument to the sociological understanding of the society that built it and the lessons it has for contemporary issues. In this context, every age gets the story it wants to hear and the understanding of the nature of heritage is ever dynamic. There seems now to be an overall agreement that the past does not exist. What do exist, however, is a great number of relics of the past each of which is a product of a particular culture and its environment. We perceive these relics and interpret them, and by this process we imagine the artifacts as a cultural metaphor. The question has been raised: Whose cultural heritage? That is often a matter of interpretation.

With respect to Stonehenge the site has become a massive symbol of the tensions and contradictions that surround the way in which the past is used, understood and presented. Visitors arrive from all over the world locked into the silos of a multiplicity of political statehoods. In contrast, Stonehenge represents the workings of an ancient cosmopolitanism. It tells us that states, as central political organizations are an extremely recent invention in the evolutionary history of humans. Homo sapiens, evolved in societies with far less complex economic and political systems. Starting with Homo ergaster, the first of our ancestors to look more like ourselves, about 1.8 million years ago, early human societies were foraging societies dependent entirely on hunted and gathered food. Current evidence suggests that social obligations beyond simple friendship were defined exclusively in terms of kinship: the superiors were men, elders, and parents and the inferiors were women, youngsters, and offspring including in-laws. Cultures of kinship can and do acquire ideas and skills from those nearby but neighbouring societies often differ far more at a cultural level than expected because they resist such influences. Cultural evolution is not the free fair exchange of ideas it could be. Over thousands of years, these kin-based forms of political organization of bands and clans, gradually gave way to more centralized forms of government in which tribal warfare no doubt played a key role. The outcome was in the form of increasingly complex chiefdoms. These latter were the British regional tribal groupings encountered by the Roman generals who conquered them. The first archaic states developed from chiefdoms in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Importantly, the political processes from clans to chiefdoms were paralleled by changes in economic conditions, especially early inventions and promotions of agriculture. By implication, the earlier a society shifted to agricultural production, the earlier a state could emerge. Archaeological evidence suggests that a change to this kind of local political trajectory occurred from approximately 3000 BC.

The discovery of the burial of the Amesbury Archer in 2002, a mile or so from Stonehenge, represents a turning point in the dynamic culture change. The man was born around 2300BC, the time the last bluestone circle was raised. The presence of five Beaker pots in his grave is unique at this time. Beaker ware is the cultural marker of the Bronze Age. Also, his grave contained the largest single collection of archery equipment so far found from a Beaker grave and the earliest datable copper and gold objects found in Britain. Most remarkably, oxygen isotope analysis indicates that this man originally came from somewhere in the Alpine region of Europe. In summary, the transition from a hunter-gatherer economy to agricultural production in the new stone age was essential for the formation of chiefdoms and subsequently the creation of states, as agriculture enabled and advanced the development of a central political organization. This change from hunting-gathering to agricultural production produced a population explosion. By 5,000 BC, the world’s population was 10 million; by 1,000 BC, it was between 50 and 100 million; and by the birth of Christ, it was 200 million. In this context, Stonehenge represents a Neolithic world as a jigsaw of neighbourhoods. There are no overtones of the territorially sovereign states, which emerged later from a complex interaction between colonizing polities, events, actors, and spaces in all parts of the globe. About, 5,000 years ago, humanity had a cosmopolitan unity in a pre-metal global culture without the ideal of territorial exclusivity as the sole basis for state sovereignty. The stone gatherers of Salisbury Plain were villagers subject to the economic and cultural currents of prehistory as well as the tension between aspects of insularity and elements drawn from afar, which suggests a certain internationalism or cosmopolitanism.

Mark Pagel exploring the human propensity for cooperation and openess asked what is the nature of culture as a survival strategy that it would have the opposing feature of forming us into so many small societies, which seem to act in some respects like an extension of our bodies. We are devoted to others sometimes to the point of self-sacrifice, we cooperate with others to meet common goals, and yet we use others to advance our interests. At a psychological level, we display forms of social behavior conducive to living in small groups, such as rewarding conformity, punishing those who deviate from norms, being wary of outsiders. Cosmopolitanism is the ideology that all human ethnic groups belong to a single community based on a shared morality. Cosmopolitanism may entail some sort of world government or it may simply refer to more inclusive moral, economic, and/or political relationships between individuals of different geographical groups.

A person who adheres to the idea of cosmopolitanism in any of its forms is called a cosmopolite. Agenda 21 envisages a bottom-up world of cosmopolites promoting family involvement in community betterment with global networking of ideas and achievements. How can we learn from this story to promote some or all of the conservation strategies of the Rio cosmopolitan agenda? Actually, such a framework of ‘village networking’ was proposed two years after the Rio Summit by a group of young people sponsored by the United Nations. In Wales, this was the stimulus for the creation of a new knowledge framework entitled cultural ecology. Cultural ecology now exists as a collection of on-line resources for enriching national curricula to organise community assets that foster environmental quality and social well-being. Thus, the curriculum may contribute to resilience of the neighborhood by becoming nested in existing adaptive environmental co-management and the feedback loops of civic ecology. Thereby, the educational programs themselves also may contribute to living sustainably in these local systems, which may be networked far and wide through social media. Thus, the Stonehenge villagers and their social environs are symbolic of how situated learning through telling stories, as described in the environmental and science education literatures, may contribute to social learning and address complex neighbourhood management issues in socio-ecological systems.



4 Facts and conjecture: an Internet evidence base