Thursday, 6 March 2014

Review: Prehistoric Wessex - Towards a Deep Map

I've just finished reading (and properly digesting) a superb book, Prehistoric Wessex: Towards a Deep Map (University of Pennsylvania Libraries, 2013, ISBN 978-0-615-76673-7). It's not a book in the usual sense, but the catalogue for an exhibition at Penn Libraries a year ago - Prehistoric Wessex: Towards a Deep Map - curated by David Platt (who kindly organised me a copy), Kathryn Schaeffer, and Jon Shaw. It is, however, a superior catalogue, copiously illustrated with images from the Penn Libraries Rare Book & Manuscript and other collections, that transcends the format to become a highly readable reference work in its own right - and itself literally a 'map' to its topic, one that encourages and frames further reading.

      I'm also grateful to David for introducing me to the concept of a 'deep map'. This is a fairly recent label for a style of intensive historical-topographical study of a location that goes beyond standard historical-topographical accounts both in breadth and eclecticity of topic, and in a strong focus on exploring the 'meaning' and 'spirit' of a place (and that not from a claim to any single authoritative position). This could involve a departure from standard narrative to include more subjective material, such as the narrator's own involvement with the topic. The Introduction quotes Mike Pearson's description ...
"Reflecting eighteenth century antiquarian approaches to place, which included history, folklore, natural history and hearsay, the deep map attempts to record and represent the grain and patina of place through juxtapositions and interpenetrations of the historical and the contemporary, the political and the poetic, the discursive and the sensual; the conflation of oral testimony, anthology, memoir, biography, natural history and everything you might ever want to say about a place …"
- Mike Pearson and Michael Shanks, Theatre/Archaeology (Routledge, 2001)
... and cites the examples of Wallace Stegner's Wolf Willow (an autobiographical portrait of Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan), William Least Heat Moons' PrairyErth (focused on the Flint Hills of Kansas), and Mike Pearson's 'In Comes I': Performance, Memory and Landscape (a multimedia exploration of the landscape and culture of English villages).

click to enlarge
Prehistoric Wessex: Towards a Deep Map takes as its starting point Thomas Hardy's fictionalized Wessex, and branches out from that to present "a palimpsest of the ideas, images, and the descriptions of the monuments that informed Hardy's perspective on the region we still know as Wessex".
      The book begins, then, with a sampler of contemporary images and accounts of the region, such as George Alexander Cooke's 1800 Topographical and statistical description of the County of Wilts and Thomas Davis's 1811 General View of the Agriculture of Wiltshire, before moving on to specific prehistoric locations in Hardy novels: the 1878 edition of The Return of the Native, with its sketch map of Egdon Heath (Prehistoric Wessex references here Charles Knight's beautiful Old England books); "Mai-Dun" (Maiden Castle) and other sites mentioned in The Mayor of Casterbridge; and, naturally, Stonehenge, the climactic location where justice catches up with the protagonist of Tess of the d'Urbervilles.

Scanned image by Philip V. Allingham. - the Victorian Web.
Prehistoric Wessex then moves on to Shakespeare, both as an influence behind Hardy's works, and as as a genre where Wessex figures prominently; for example, Stonehenge has repeatedly figured as backdrops for King Lear, and associated art such as James Barry's King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia). This leads on to the related topic of its repeated appearances in poetry, such as Michael Drayton's topographic poem The Poly-Olbion, Ann Radcliffe's Salisbury Plains. Stonehenge, Wordsworth's Guilt and Sorrow, and Blake's beautifully illuminated Jerusalem. This literary thread concludes with a look at several examples of post-Hardy (or parallel) works featuring Wessex: the post-apocalyptic pastoralism of Richard Jefferies' After London; Mary Butt's forgotten psychological-occult drama Ashe of Rings; and Bill Brandt's Literary Britain, a photographic collection that emphasises Britain as a timeless landscape. (A side-excursion took me at this point to the Salisbury Museum website, which showcases its Stonehenge Art collection).

James Barry - King Lear Weeping over the Dead Body of Cordelia
Wikimedia Commons
Not all of Prehistoric Wessex is solemn literary stuff. The next section moves into modern popular culture - although one with tensions. The humour magazine Punch paid repeated visits to Stonehenge, as with Edward Tennyson Reed's Prehistoric Peeps XIV - A Cricket Match (there are others in the series on the Cartoons page of The Megalithic Portal); 'Arry at Stonehenge (in which the ghost of an ancient Britain objects to the working-class 'Arry's graffiti - with the unconscious irony that scratching graffiti was a regular habit of upper-crust visitors); and Stonehenge and what it may become (a dystopian view of a commercialized Stonehenge following its proposed sale in 1899). These tensions about who could go to Stonehenge came into the real world following its commercial enclosure in the middle of the 20th century, with a notable manifestation being the 'Battle of the Beanfield' in 1985. The popular culture section ends with a listing of appearances of Avebury (another neolithic henge) and Stonehenge in films and TV.

from Stukeley's Stonehenge, A Temple Restor'd to the British Druids
The remainder of Prehistoric Wessex is largely devoted to historical takes on Wessex and its monuments, charting the change from "pre-antiquarian" (considerably speculative ancient history by writers such as Geoffrey of Monmouth and his British History) via antiquarianism (investigation by gentleman amateurs of varying scholarship and integrity - Hardy's little-known story A Tryst At An Ancient Earthwork takes a dig at unscrupulous excavators) to the beginnings of modern archaeology. The antiquarian approach is exemplified through a detailed account of William Stukeley ("'Arch-Druid' of Stonehenge and Avebury", whose practical and observational methods were impeccable, despite his interpretation being distinctly flaky - see Stonehenge, A Temple Restor'd to the British Druids). There's also a comparison of the theories of Inigo Jones (whose The most notable antiquity of Great Britain, vulgarly called Stone-Heng, on Salisbury Plain argued Stonehenge to be a Roman temple) and John Smith (whose Choir Gaur, The Grand Orrery of the Ancient Druids, Commonly Called Stonehenge argued it to be a Druid sacred astronomical observatory). By the end of the 19th century, such approaches were declining in favour of the modern scientific mapping and planning of investigators such as Alfred Charles Smith.

I apologise for such an extensive travelogue of Prehistoric Wessex: Towards a Deep Map, but I wanted to convey its flavour as a book that can be pleasantly read over an hour or so (it's only 95 pages, some of them plates) yet is so rich in references and conceptual 'hyperlinks' that nearly any page could take you off on day excursions of further reading. And what's remarkable, even though the physical originals are scarce, is that much of this material can be explored by the reader through easily findable sources such as the Internet Archive. Reading it has been a fascinating and inspiring experience.* I don't know how many copies were printed, but so far it's still available via the Penn Libraries online bookstore - Prehistoric Wessex: Towards a Deep Map - Exhibition catalog - and there's a Flickr photoset documenting the exhibition here.

- Ray

* To elaborate on the "inspiring" part: it gave me a lot of ideas. I've been a trifle at a loose end since finishing A Wren-like Note, and have been looking for a new project. The idea of the 'deep map' approach strikes a chord for me; in an unfocused way, this is what JSBlog has been doing for a long time - for instance, in its repeated return to Isle of Wight topics from different directions, such as topographic, historical and literary. I've been thinking for a while about trying my hand at some historical-topographic accounts of some Devon locations (I was discussing this with Felix Grant in connection with our Wren Notes partnership). What seemed a great idea at first had cooled off a little on my realisation of just how many "me-too" titles there are on such topics, not differing much in their style. A deep map format looks a powerfully fresh approach.


  1. Is a deep map monstrously different from what people made of Geertz's thick description?

  2. You're right, it isn't. "Deep map" seems to be a label applied when such methods are applied to a location (focused on topography-history) whereas "thick description" is more aimed at sociology and anthropology. "Deep map" also seems to be a format where it's more acceptable to quote/include a scrapbook of source material, rather than just analysis.