Landscape Archaeology

What is Landscape Archaeology?

The Rear Gardens of Kew Palace
The Rear Gardens of Kew Palace, where landscape archaeology has been used in planning efforts. Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Landscape archaeology has been defined in a number of ways over the past couple of decades. It is both an archaeological technique, and a theoretical construct: a way for archaeologists to look at the past as the integration of people and their surroundings. Born in part as the result of new technologies (geographic information systems, remote sensing and geophysical surveys, in particular, have all contributed greatly to this study) landscape archaeological studies have facilitated broad regional studies and the examination of elements not readily visible in traditional studies, such as roads and agricultural fields.

Although landscape archaeology in its present form is decidedly a modern investigative study, its roots can be found as early as the 18th century antiquarian studies of William Stukely, and, in the early 20th century, with work by the geographer Carl Sauer. World War II impacted the study by making aerial photography more accessible to scholars. Settlement pattern studies created by Julian Steward and Gordon R. Willey in the mid-century influenced later scholars, who collaborated with geographers on such landscape-based studies as central place theory and statistical models of spatial archaeology.

Critiques of Landscape Archaeology

By the 1970s, the term "landscape archaeology" came into use and the idea began to take shape. By the 1990s, the post-processual movement was underway, and landscape archaeology, in particular, took its lumps. Criticisms suggested that landscape archaeology focused on the geographical features of the landscape, but, like much of "processual" archaeology, left the people out.

What was missing was the influence people have on shaping environments and the way both people and environment intersect and affect one another.

Other critical objections were with the technologies themselves, that the GIS and satellite imagery and air photos used to define the landscape were distancing the study from the researchers, by privileging the research with the visual aspects of a landscape over other sensual aspects.

Looking at a map, even a large scale and detailed one, defines and limits the analysis of a region into a specific data set, allowing researchers to "hide" behind scientific objectivity, and ignore the sensual aspects associated with actually living within a landscape.

New Aspects

Again as a result of new technologies, some landscape archaeologists have attempted to build in the sensuality of a landscape, and the people who inhabit it, using hypertext theories. The impact of the internet, oddly enough, has led to a broader, non-linear representation of archaeology as a whole, and landscape archaeology in particular. That involves inserting into standard texts such sidebar elements as reconstruction drawings or alternative explanations or oral histories or imagined events, as well as attempts to free the ideas from text-bound strategies by using three-dimensional software-supported reconstructions. These side bars allow the scholar to continue to present the data in a scholarly manner but reach for a broader interpretive discourse.

Of course, following that (explicitly phenomenological) path requires that the scholar apply liberal amounts of imagination, the scholar who by definition is based in the modern world and carries with him or her the background and biases of his or her cultural history.

With the inclusion of more and more international studies (that is, those that are less dependent on western scholarship), landscape archaeology has the potential to provide the public with comprehensible presentations of what can be otherwise dry, inaccessible papers.

Landscape Archaeology in the 21st Century

The science of landscape archaeology today melds theoretical underpinnings from ecology, economic geography, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, and social theory from Marxism to feminism. The social theory portion of the landscape archaeology points to the ideas of the landscape as a social construct: that is, the same piece of ground holds different meanings to different people, and that idea should be explored.

The dangers and delights of phenomenologically-based landscape archaeology are outlined in an article by MH Johnson in the 2012 Annual Review of Anthropology, which should be read by any scholar working in the field.


Ashmore W, and Blackmore C. 2008. Landscape Archaeology. In: Pearsall DM, editor-in-chief. Encyclopedia of Archaeology. New York: Academic Press. p 1569-1578.

Fleming A. 2006. Post-processual landscape archaeology: A critique. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 16(3):267-280.

Johnson MH. 2012. Phenomenological Approaches in Landscape Archaeology. Annual Review of Anthropology 41(1):269-284.

Kvamme KL. 2003. Geophysical Surveys as Landscape Archaeology. American Antiquity 68(3):435-457.

McCoy MD, and Ladefoged TN. 2009. New Developments in the Use of Spatial Technology in Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Research 17:263–295.

Wickstead H. 2009. The Uber Archaeologist: Art, GIS and the male gaze revisited. Journal of Social Archaeology 9(2):249-271.