Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Ideas of Landscape

I’ve just been reading Matthew Johnson’s excellent new book Ideas of Landscape. In this exploration of the origin of the English approach to landscape archaeology Johnson’s places particular focus on the work of W.G. Hoskins, whose book The Making of the English Landscape played such a central part in the development of landscape history in England. A key element of Hoskin’s approach was a strong criticism of industrialisation and the modern world. This comes through most profoundly in a key passage from Making, which is worth quoting in extensively:

“What else has happened in the immemorial landscape of the English countryside? Airfields have flayed it bare…Poor devastated Lincolnshire and Suffolk! And those long gentle lines of the dip-slope of the Cotswolds, those misty uplands of the sheep-grey oolite, how they have lent themselves to the villainous requirements of the new age! Over them drones, day after day, the obscene shape of the atom-bomber, laying a trail like a filthy slug upon Constable’s and Gainsborough’s sky. England of the Nissen-hut, the “pre-fab” and the electric fence, of the high barbed wire around some unmentionable devilment; England of the arterial by-pass, treeless and stinking of diesel oil, murderous with lorries; England of the bombing-range wherever there was once silence…Barbaric England of the scientists, the military men and the politician; let us turn away and contemplate the past before all is lost to the vandals” (Hoskins 1955, 231-2)

This elegiac and undeniably slightly reactionary passage strikes a chord with me. One of the first digs I worked on was the Anglo-Saxon site at West Heslerton. It was the summer of 1989 and as we revealed the remains of an rural settlement dating to the 6th century American A10 Tankbusters flew low overhead warming up for the first Gulf War. In the evenings we’d sometimes walk up to the top of the scarp slope of the Yorkshire Wolds and drink and smoke whilst looking at the landscape laid out in front of us. To our left lay Ryedale with its many early medieval monasteries, directly opposite were the southern slopes of the North York Moors, whilst in the distance to our right was the Mesolithic site of Star Carr. Occasionally, this idyll would be disturbed as warplane streaked across the sky practising night flights.

Many of my subsequent digging experiences have been juxtaposed with signs of warfare and conflict. Jet fighters screamed above us when sieving on the site of the castle of Dolforwyn in Montgomeryshire in 1992; military police stopped to investigate what we were up to when fieldwalking next to the army camp at Catterick in 1994. In 1996 I dug on the Roman fort at Pevensey in the shadow of a pillbox of 1941 vintage. In four years working in the North East I regularly sped passed convoys of army vehicles heading north to Catterick after peacekeeping duties in the Balkans or moving up to Otterburn for exercises.

Hoskin’s approach to the study of landscape was Romantic and his work is paralleled artistically in the Neo-Romantic movement. This movement has its origins in the late 19th century and early 20th century in the work of William Morris, Samuel Palmer and such under-appreciated writers as Richard Jefferies. However, it flowered particularly in the 1930s-50s in the art of John Minton and Eric Ravilious, the films of Powell and Pressburger and Humphrey Jennings and the music of Arnold Bax and Benjamin Britten. This late blooming was undoubtedly stimulated by the impending threat of industrialised warfare and the massive change in rural life that were taking place following WWI; George Orwell wrote about both these threats in his novel Coming Up for Air (1939). Whilst not normally seen as a Neo-Romantic in this little gem Orwell clearly engaged with the concerns of many other artists in the tense years of the late 1930s after Guernica and before Dunkirk.

It was the work of later artists in the Neo-Romantic tradition, including authors such as Alan Garner, Keith Roberts, and artists including Andy Goldsworthy , Clifford Harper and the Brotherhood of Ruralists, whose work I first encountered as teenager (in the case of the work of the Brotherhood of Ruralists on the cover of the Arden Edition Shakespeare’s I used at O level and A level) that stimulated and has continued to fire my own academic and creative engagement with the past and the English landscape, as much as childhood visits to castles and churches.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Estonia Pictures 4

This building, now the Estonian Museum of Architecture, but was once a storage building for shed. It lies in the heart of the Roterman's district close to the port of Tallinn. It is a reminder that although Tallinn's trade was at its peak in the later medieval period, its docks remained a key factor in the 19th century prosperity of the city. Even today over 80% of Russia's trade through the Baltic goes through Tallinn.

The Orthodox Cathedral of Alexander Nevski which lies in front of the Estonian parliament house on the Toompea. It was built in 1900. Its dedication to Alexander Nevski, the Russian czar, whose remains lie in St Petersburg, was a clear political decision. Nevski defeated a Livonian army on the eastern borders of Estonia in 1242 at Lake Peipus. In Russia this has long been seen as a highly symbolic victory by Russians over military agression from Europe, and a victory over the Catholic church by Orthodox Christianity.

Tallinn Day 3

It has definitely got much colder today. The temperature is around 0ºC and the water in puddles is frozen. I go back to the Department of Archaeology to do some more work and do some photocopying. I wrestle with the photocopier, but eventually manage to get it to work; I get half way through my copying and then… out of toner. There is no one I know around, and I’m not sure I know the Estonian for “photocopier toner” anyway.

I take the opportunity to investigate some of the local museums: the nearby Niguliste Kirik (St Nicholas Church) is now a museum of religious art. It contains a range of altar pieces and crucifixions from the 14th-16th century, when Tallinn (or Reval as it was known) was at its height as a Baltic trading city. The highlight is the Dance of Death by the Lübeck artist Berndt Notke, a potent reminder of the proximity of death in medieval life, as well as containing scathing criticism of both the Pope and cardinals.

I then visit the Tallinn City Museum housed in a 14th century merchant’s house. It contains an excellent display on medieval life in Tallinn, with lots information about the city’s origins and the role played by the Guilds in structuring society. There is also a sobering display about life in Estonia under Soviet control.

After a bite to eat, back to the Department for some more wrestling with the copier and then back to the hotel to catch up with further reading, sort out my emails and get ready for tomorrow’s trip out to look at some archaeological sites.

Tallinn Day 2

After a breakfast I head back over to the Department of Archaeology. I take a different route and walk across the Toompea, the upper part of the Old Town, stopping to peer in the Orthodox cathedral. I spend most of the day working through loads of archaeological papers and journals building up my background knowledge of Estonian archaeology, particularly focussing on the what we would call the early medieval period, though in Estonia the Iron Age continues until the 13th century, when the country was conquered by the Danes and the Teutonic Order. Apart from a quick lunch in the departmental pub (!) I’m at my desk from about 10 till 6, when I head off. Marika Mägi, the head of the Department, for a meal, invites me round for a meal. I’m fed and watered splendidly. Chatting to her partner Tyge I realise that he spent some time in the Dept of Archaeology in Reading at the same time I was there- embarrassingly I have no memory of him- though to be fair he has no memory of me either! By the time I take the bus back into town its noticeable that the temperature is dropping. The walk back from the bus stop to the hotel is freezing. Despite yesterday’s sun, it’s clear that the cold weather is not yet gone.

Since I was last in Tallinn, three years ago, there have been some noticeable changes. Like any European city there are the usual mix of Irish pubs, Indian restaurants and Greek tavernas, as well as bars and eateries serving more traditional Estonian fare. However, the city is definitely becoming more oriented towards tourism. Twice I find that what used to be a bookshop has turned into a shop for holiday makers and gift buyers. There are also changes in the city’s attitudes to the traces of Soviet occupation. There decision by the city authorities to remove a monument to Russian soldiers who died in the Second World War has caused much controversy and has been reported in the international press.

Elsewhere, near the church of St Nicholas the foundations of buildings destroyed during the bombings of the city by the Soviets in 1944 stood as testimony to the destruction wrought by the Russians; when I was last here they were carefully fenced off and a sign explained their significance. However, they have now been covered over and the area is being turned into a small park. There is a definite sense that the city is turning away from the legacy of the Russian past and has its face firmly set on the future.

Estonia Pictures 3

Someexamples of typical 15th/16th century merchants houses. The bottom example is known as the Three Sisters and is now an expensive hotel. These houses combined domestic accmodation with warehousing; similar buildings are found in many of the towns that once belonged to the Hanseatic League.

Estonia Pictures 2

The sixteenth century Great Sea Gate on the northern side of the old town of Tallinn. The massive tower visible on the left is called Paks Margareeta (Fat Margaret), because it was the biggest tower on the walls. In front of the gate lies a monument to the victims of the ferry Estonia, which sank with huge loss over 800 lives in 1994.

Estonia pictures 1

The Russian orthodox church of St Simeon ad Anna which is just a few minutes walk from my hotel. It has its origins in the late 18th century, but fell out of use during the period of Soviet occupation in Estonia. Its now being restored.

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

David's Tallin Trip Day 1

After a stupidly early start (I didn’t know there was such a thing as 3.30am in the morning), I make it to the airport, which at that time in the morning was filled with tired, grumpy people. The flight takes me over Denmark and the southern coast of Sweden. We overfly a series of Baltic islands including Öland, Gotland (Swedish) and Saaremaa, Hiiumaa and Vormsi (Estonia). It’s a good reminder of the importance of island and coastal landscapes when studying the archaeology of the region; in periods when the interiors of much of the East Baltic were dominated by dense forest shipping routes were obviously a major way of moving around the area.

I get a taxi from the airport to my salubrious dockside hotel. A Russian driver who either had a death wish or a grudge against the English drove the taxi; it is not surprising that Finland and Estonia produce such good rally drivers.

Tallinn is a fascinating city; it stands at the borders of Europe and Russia and also lies on the edge of Scandinavia and Central Europe. This can be seen in the architecture. The medieval heart of the city shows clear similarities with the other important trading towns that lie around the Baltic and the North Sea. At the centre of the old town lies the main square, Raekoja Plats, dominated by the 15th century town hall. In many of the streets around this part of the town the 15th and 16th century houses of the city’s major merchants, which combine domestic space with warehousing. Other clear reminders of the city’s Hanseatic trading past include the House of the Great Guild, which was the headquarters of the German-speaking merchant guild that dominated trade. Nearby is the House of the Blackheads, an organisation for visiting foreign merchants founded in the late 14th century. Both buildings are again typical of late medieval North European architecture.

However, elsewhere there are clear reminders of Estonia’s Russian past. The country was ruled by Russia during much of the 18th and 19th century, and was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1991. This has left a clear mark on the city. This can be heard on the street, where it is common to hear Russian spoken – Estonia still has a large Russian-speaking minority, particularly in the cities. The architecture also expresses Russian influence. This is most obviously seen in the presence of a number of Russian Orthodox churches, including the spectacular Cathedral of Alexander Nevskii built in 1900 in a typical Russian medieval revival style, with onion domes and the a cross-shaped plan (for more about the changes in Russian architecture in the later 19th century have a look at Orlando Figes’ excellent cultural history of Russia: Natasha’s Dance). However, it’s not only in the sphere of ecclesiastical architecture that the Russian influence can be seen. The relative proximity of St Petersburg can be seen in the presence of the Neo-Classical and Baroque facades on a number of important public buildings, including the castle, which houses the Estonian government.

I head into town to get my bearings and a bite to eat. The weather is great- I am able to sit outside at a street café while I have my lunch. Having digested my beer and visited a few bookshops I head over to the Institute of Archaeology which lies in an historic building behind St Nicholas’s Church, a mainly 15th century building erected by German merchants. I have a meeting with Marika Mägi, the head of the department. We go for coffee in a pub in the basement of the building – the Department even has its own back entrance into the bar. This is an innovation every archaeology department in the UK should follow! We arrange that I should come in the next day to use the Departmental library for my research. By now my early start is beginning to catch up with me so I head back to the hotel to get a bite to eat and an early night.