The Materiality of Stone: explorations in landscape phenomenology.
By Christopher Tilley.
Oxford: Berg, 2004
Reviewed by Vicki Cummings
The Materiality of Stone is the third in a series of books by Tilley which deal with landscape, phenomenology and experience. Volume one, A phenomenology of landscape (1994), was arguably one of the most important books of the 1990s, and inspired a whole generation of archaeologists to undertake landscape studies. The second volume, Metaphor and material culture (1999), was perhaps not quite as successful as Phenomenology, but still contained some interesting case studies. How, then, does this third instalment fare ?
The book contains only five chapters, a theoretical introduction, a short theoretical conclusion, and three long and detailed case study chapters. For me, the theoretical introduction did not say anything I had not heard before. This chapter is essentially a whistle-stop tour of various theoretical approaches such as phenomenology, experience, considerations of place and how people engage with the world. For students wishing to read about these subjects, I personally would advise them to read some of Tilley's earlier, more detailed and in my opinion, superior, discussions of these subjects. And while we are on the subject of theory, the book is also curiously structural in its approach to the archaeological record, and this is echoed in the introductory chapter, where Tilley stresses a series of oppositions in how the body engages with the world. I was quite surprised by such a strong structuralist approach here, especially as he is at pains to stress the problems of mind/body and culture/nature dualisms. I wondered if Tilley could have used a more nuanced and subtle approach rather than falling back on binary oppositions. That said, the introduction does exactly what it says on the tin: it reminds readers of where Tilley is coming from when he goes out in the field and engages with places. It certainly is a good quick summary of his previous work.
Chapter two is a detailed consideration of the Breton menhirs, and was for me the least satisfying of the three case study chapters. Tilley discusses in detail the settings, groupings and properties of these standing stones. There is a lot of nice description of the stones themselves, and Tilley proficiently evokes the individual character of the menhirs. He admits in chapter one that he will be using 'thick' description, and this works well in places, particularly when describing the visual characteristics of the stones, but often it is so dense that the reader can easily loose the thread of the overall argument. That said, Tilley does present lots of interesting observations about these stones, but sadly these are not developed: after presenting 50 pages of field observations, a mere three pages are devoted to 'interpreting the stones'. I felt that so many of those interesting observations could have been developed into quite exciting ideas, which could then be placed in a broader Neolithic context. As it is, rather disappointingly, the reader is left to make the connections themselves.
In contrast, chapter three, a study of some of the Maltese temples, was more interesting. These amazing late Neolithic constructions were built from two of the islands' distinctive limestones, one which looks like honeycomb, the other is smooth. Tilley discusses the various uses of these differing stone types in the architecture of the temples. Again, the section on experiencing the temples is dense narrative, difficult to follow if one hasn't visited these sites, but is followed by a much more detailed discussion section. Tilley rather neatly manages to connect landscape, architecture, substance and place into a broader cosmological scheme.
Finally, chapter four considers a cluster of Bronze Age rock carvings and barrows in southern Sweden. This is the best chapter in the book: the description is not so dense, and a whole range of interpretations are offered. Connections are drawn between the sea and stone, not only in the carvings on the rocks, but also in the position of the outcrops in the landscape and their overall form (in Tilley's words, the rock resembles 'frozen waves'). The broader discussion on the importance of the sea and boats is also interesting. There is much here, then, to get your teeth into. One criticism, however, would be that Tilley tends to use models from ethnography when he evokes a Bronze Age cosmology (I'm thinking here of the three-tier 'world' of underworld/land/sky). This division of the cosmos may well have been how Bronze Age people understood their world, but because of a lack of references to the wider literature, it is frustrating to see Tilley use this model without broader discussion or debate. In fact, there is a rather sparse range of references to other relevant work throughout the whole book, which I found annoying. This is exemplified by the concluding the chapter, where Tilley doesn't bother to reference a single thing on a whole range of key theoretical issues (intriguingly, apart from Richard Bradley). Other criticisms of the book would be that many of the line drawings are rather poor quality. The photographs are also interspersed at rather awkward places in the book so that I found myself constantly flicking between pages.
Overall, I would say that this is a rather mixed volume. Some parts are genuinely interesting and inspiring. Others are frustratingly dense and descriptive. The connection between the theory at the beginning and in the case studies is at times tenuous. But perhaps I have been unduly harsh on Tilley here. This must partly be because he has written so many really excellent and inspiring books and papers in the past that anything short of brilliant would simply not do. However, for all the positive sides of this volume I do feel that it has not quite fulfilled its potential. The dense narrative makes for slow reading at times and the interpretations and broader implications of the studies are in places brief or under-developed. This book suffers the same problems that other studies of monuments and landscape face: it is extremely hard for the reader to appreciate the subtleties of the argument when one has not visited these sites. Perhaps it is time, then, to think of other ways of communicating these ideas. Tilley himself argues at the end that it is the written word which is key. However, with the internet now so widely available, and digital photography so advanced, studies such as this could potentially pioneer new ways of presenting the written word, ideas and images. The use of video images to run alongside these descriptions would, for example, have been one way to present these ideas. Even an online sequence of colour photos would have greatly strengthened the observations. For someone like Tilley, who must surely wish to move beyond linear narratives, perhaps it is time to explore new ways of telling these stories.
Vicki Cummings (biography)
Vicki Cummings currently holds a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the Department of Environmental
Management, University of Central Lancashire. Her research is on the origins of monumentality in the
Irish Sea zone. She has recently published a book on the chambered tombs of Wales with Alasdair Whittle,
and an edited volume on the Neolithic of the Irish Sea with Chris Fowler. She can be contacted at: