Henges and water: Towards an elemental understanding of monumentality and landscape in late Neolithic Britain

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This paper examines the adoption by archaeologists of perspectives of 'landscape' currently being explored in the social sciences. Despite an appreciation of the social construction of landscape and nature, it is suggested that generally archaeologists have failed to take account of the significance of the social identification of 'natural' constituents of the world. Virtually all societies identify particular 'elements' in the composition of the experienced world and cosmos. The importance of these elements is that they represent the basic substances from which everything is derived and to which everything decays (including humanity). Therefore, elements maintain ontological status and provide a potent symbolic medium of expression. Here the late Neolithic henge monuments of Britain, the architecture of which has defied archaeological interpretation, is examined in terms of a representation of landscape and a strategic deployment of 'elements'. In particular, the element of water is identified as being a major component in their architectural image and symbolic constitution. The henge monuments are shown to embody a physical representation of the local topography and to draw heavily on that topography to create a series of homologies of landscape. A crucial aspect of this observation is the suggestion that archaeologists have misconceived the visual appearance of henge monuments, particularly the probability that the enclosure ditches were receptacles for water. Furthermore, it is argued that the relationship between henges and rivers provides a metaphorical conjunction between the natural flowing of water and human movement into the monuments. It is hoped that this study will focus attention on the importance of the social constitution of nature and landscape, and the influence this may have on the materiality of architectural representation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)313-336
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Material Culture
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 1996


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