Thinking Big – Some Landscape Archaeology in Cumbria

Some of you may remember a post I published a few months ago where I discussed a trip to the Kelvingrove Museum with artist and archaeologist Aaron Watson? Well we decided to keep the dialogue going and last week I visited Aaron for a few days in Lancaster and we spent our time visiting sites throughout the Lake District and the Vale of Eden. The sites were all related to the “Living Among the Monuments” project initiated by Penrith Museum which investigates the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age of the Vale of Eden.

My visit started with a hike up to the Langdale Neolithic axe factories in the Lake District which were of course situated right at the tops of the hills, often in very awkward and dangerous places…and I’m clumsy at the best of times!

Some views from the hike, looking across the mountain range and looking back up to the quarries from the valley.

As we began our hike Aaron asked me to keep an eye out for anything ‘different’ in the geology of the hill, he followed this request up by bashing some dull sounding rocks together then continued up the hill without another word. A bit odd you may think, but I was there to learn and I thought it rude to question the sanity of my host so early in the trip, so I carried on up the hill keeping an eye out for anything “different”. Further up the hill and I noticed the geology was beginning to change, along the path and poking out of the peaty banks were greenish stones. “When in Rome” I thought, shrugged, then proceeded to pick two up and bash them together. The sound was far more high-pitched than the stones further down the hill and had a lovely ‘tinkly’ quality. Aaron looked pleased and announced that I’d noticed the first bits of volcanic tuff, the stone being quarried here in Langdale.

Flake of Langdale tuff (from the Dock Museum Collection)

We continued up to Harrison Stickle and round to the Langdale Pikes before descending back to the valley past some strange Bronze Age stone arrangements. On the drive home we stopped at Copt Howe, which consists of two GIANT boulders decorated in rock art marking a natural entrance to the Langdale valley and quarries beyond.

Copt Howe rock art ( and a wider shot showing how the boulders form a natural entrance to the valley beyond.

After visiting the rock art decorated “entrance” I began to think about how difficult it is to visualise an archaeological landscape in its intricate entirety.

Day two and we head to Penrith to visit some henges, first stop is King Arthur’s Round Table and Mayburough. Aaron makes an interesting observation that when we discuss the central standing stone at Mayburough I make all my observations without actually touching the stone, he suggests that my way of seeing archaeological sites has been influenced by the tools I use in my research. Certainly, the scanners and digital modelling tools I use are in many ways very ‘hands-off’ and focus on the visual not the sensory. I began to consider how this may affect my interpretive process and analytical thinking in my work.

Aaron is always pushing me to question everything I do in terms of both my methods and my approach to interpretation. Although throughout the first year of my PhD I’ve been advocating a self-reflexive approach to my work, I realised how difficult it is to be so critical of aspects of your own work-flow and process which you become so accustomed to. I guess “question everything” isn’t as straightforward as I thought when I’d been so blissfully unaware of something which now seems so glaringly obvious….*face-palm*.

We quickly moved on to the Penrith Museum to meet with curator Judith Clarke and discuss the presentation of prehistory at the museum. There is a permanent exhibition dealing with the “living Among the Monuments” project, at the centre of which is a screen playing Aaron’s interpretive film (presented at TAG 2010 last December) on loop. It was great to see the culmination of a lot of the discussions we’d had over the past few days in a museum context and got me thinking about how to communicate complex ideas of space, time and meaning…but I think I’ll save that for another post!

Following the museum visit we picked up some tasty bread and cheese and headed into the depths of the Vale of Eden to meet with Aaron’s fieldwalking friend Annie Hamilton-Gibney for lunch. I was told Annie had an eye for discovering new archaeological sites, and after spending the afternoon walking the local hills with her looking for “not-geology” I have to agree!

Searching for ‘not-geology’ in the Vale of Eden

We spent some time handling artefacts found over the course of their fieldwalking project before heading back to Lancaster. That evening we got into a debate over the implications of conveying ritualistic subtleties in reconstructions as well as how to convey a true sense of space and time. Aaron showed me some of his work and explained how he uses the abstract concept of cubism to convey depth of time. After day two I walked back to my hotel that night feeling a little bit like my brain was melting, but feeling excited about my research all the same. I felt like the questions I’d been challenged with over the past few days were helping me to bring my own research direction to a definite focus and reeling in a lot of peripheral ideas I’d been having to form a more realistic idea of the scale of what I’m doing.

Friday came, and with it a few last visits to some monuments before heading back to Glasgow that evening. We started with Long Meg and her Daughters, a stone circle built over a rise in the topology, with an outlying standing stone (Meg). Thinking back to the previous day, the first thing I did was stride right up to Meg and give her a good feel (er, sorry old girl!). I hadn’t visited this site before or studied it, so when Aaron fired in with the questions about what I thought about this stone I reeled off a number of observations which struck me at first impressions. How tall Meg was compared to her ‘daughters’, how the smooth face was pointed towards the entrance of the monument…it took me a few moments of intense concentration to notice that the stone was a pinky colour and thus obviously a different type to the stone used in the adjacent circle…duh. But Aaron wanted more from my observations and prompted me to think about what else was significant about the stone. He gave me a hint that all the observations I’d given so far were again a direct influence of the way I would scan or model the site.

In an attempt to remove my ‘scanning goggles’ I began to move around the stone, placing my hands on it, searching for something significant. I was just about to give up all hope and lick the stone in a desperate attempt to engage my sensory perceptions when my eyes fell over an area of the stone that seemed to be glittering in the sun as I moved. This, Aaron pointed out is an effect that cannot be picked up by scanning or photography. It required a moving observer and the sun. I eventually worked out from a few clues that the ‘bumpy’ side of the rock was a result of quarrying which meant the stone had been deemed significant and brought in from elsewhere. This also suggested the possibility that the smooth surface which would have been at the surface prior to quarrying may have had the rock art carved on its face prior to the stones’ extraction from its original location.

This made me consider once more how to go about building site biographies into reconstructions and if this is at all possible using the tools I’m trained in. My research aims to investigate the interpretive process throughout the stages of reconstruction – from collection of the data in the field, to the creation of the 3D models and animations, to consumption by an audience and narrate my own engagement with the subject at each stage. Once again I find myself back at the problem of consumption of the final outcome which, as Aaron and I discussed in-depth, returns the model to a static environment.

As if my brain didn’t already have enough to ponder, we powered on to a few more sites before we lost the light and Castlerigg Stone Circle was the next stop. Aaron explained how his own thesis had considered this site within the landscape and how the site creates the illusion that it is sitting in the centre of its environment, bordered by mountains and hills on all sides. He made the point that on a map, or through something like GIS analysis it is not possible to make this connection, as the mountains do not appear in a circle, instead they are spread out in a more linear way over differing distances. It is only by standing within the monument that the optical illusion of the stones being bordered by mountains is visible. It just goes to show that computers don’t always have the answers, and sometimes a (however subjective) interpretive human eye is a better solution.

Aaron Watson’s photo collage of Castlerigg stone circle (

The few days I spent in Cumbria really got me thinking about the interpretive limitations of the tools I use for my research. Investigating so many sites over such a vast landscape which all seemed to be intrinsically linked to one another was fascinating and made me re-consider the importance of site and artefact biographies and how difficult it is to represent this intangible side of heritage.

Anyway, I’m going to conclude this post before I rant on any longer, I’ve got too much work to be getting on with now after the past week!


  1. Very interesting post.

  2. Thanks Kit, I definitely have lots to be thinking about!

  3. […] you follow the blog you’ll remember me talking about a visit to Castlerigg I made in November 2011 with Aaron, where we’d discussed how the stones aligned with the […]

  4. […] you follow the blog you’ll remember me talking about a visit to Castlerigg I made in November 2011 with Aaron, where we’d discussed how the stones aligned with the […]

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