Archaeology is not one simple subject. It is multi-disciplinary, taking ideas from all kinds of fields, including biology, chemistry, sociology, psychology, history (of course) and even philosophy. One of the most important ideas which has come from philosophy is phenomenology.
Phenomenology was an idea propounded by Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), a German-Austrian philosopher (Sawicki, 2014). It is a philosophical technique used in subjects as diverse as architecture, psychology and particle physics. It was brought into archaeology primarily by Christopher Tilley’s book A Phenomenology of Landscape in 1994 (Brück, 2005). Put as simply as possible, phenomenology is the study of how things appear from a particular point of view. Its etymology is from Greek ‘Φαινομενον’ phainomenon, ‘appearance’ (Smith, 2013) (also obviously the etymological root of ‘phenomenon’). This is as opposed to the ‘reality’ of how things are.
For instance, when we look at a piece of paper, we can only see one side. Without folding or bending it, it is impossible to see both sides of the sheet of paper at once. This does not, however, mean that the other side of the paper doesn’t exist, only that from our perspective it does not exist. This is a very useful mind-set to have within an archaeological setting. Nowadays, aerial photography can show us an ancient mound from above, surrounded by open moorland. This view is clearly very different to that which a person would have seen when the mound was new.
After the nature of the landscape at the time of the construction of the mound has been established, phenomenology can be used to see the mound from the perspective of a person on the ground. Maybe he was surrounded by trees which blocked his view? Maybe there was a village surrounding the mound? Maybe he wasn’t a he? Any of these can help us to form a picture of how the mound would have been viewed and experienced at the time, and give us some idea of its purpose. Tilley (1994) suggested that the formation of the stones of a portal tomb at Pentre Ifan in Wales (see Figure 1) mimicked the shape of the nearby mountain of Carn Ingill. This is an example of a phenomenological approach. Phenomenology is not only a visual approach; it is about experiencing the environment and landscape through the body – sensual archaeology.
It may seem an obvious way of looking at things in archaeology, but there are so many perspectives available to us nowadays that it is often overlooked. However, there are problems with this approach. No matter how hard we look, we are still seeing through the eyes of a modern Westerner (at least I am) and this can only go so far in illuminating the human experience of, for instance, the Neolithic period (Brück, 2005). We may find it impossible to reconstruct the landscape of the time – it may be hard to tell whether the area was forested or not; a river might have changed its course; maybe sea levels were higher or lower. For archaeological phenomenology to be accurate, a realistic and accurate viewpoint is necessary. Even so, the more perspectives available to anyone trying to deconstruct the past, the better- the more viewpoints you have of anything, the better the picture you can build of it.
Brück, J. (2005). Experiencing the Past? The Development of Phenomenological Archaeology in British Prehistory. Archaeological Dialogues, 45-72.
Sawicki, M. (2014). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource. Retrieved from http://www.iep.utm.edu/husserl/
Smith, D. W. (2013). Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/phenomenology/
Tilley, C. Y. (1994). A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths, and Monuments. Oxford: Berg.