Guest Column

Probing Ancient Landscapes: the semiotics of space, water, and fire

By Andrea Vianello

I have been to the recent World Archaeological Congress (WAC-6) held in Dublin, and I was very pleased of discovering a separate program of events, “WAC Fringe”, running in between the academic program. In short, it was a series of events displaying hands-on the activities of experimental archaeologists, but intriguingly it also included exhibitions of modern art. An unofficial detailed program is still available on the Internet. The events included trials of ancient music, metalworking and pottery making, as well as art exhibition, and were a very welcome addition to the general program. I shall not comment here on the individual projects presented, I was just pleased to see experimental archaeology playing such a significant role.

Visiting several events in a short time has brought back to my mind a project (space, water and fire) by Professor Dragos Gheorghiu, of the National University of Arts of Bucharest, who is pioneering the research in this field by recreating artefacts and using ancient techniques, but is also re-enacting the use of space, water and fire to reproduce perceptions that are both ancient and inspiring for the new generations. His project is part of a new field in archaeology, often labelled as archaeology/anthropology of perceptions/senses, which merges art, cognitive sciences, archaeology and especially experimental archaeology, anthropology and philosophy, or phenomenology in archaeology. I am aware of other major research project in the field of phenomenology that should be mentioned: the Tavoliere (Apulia, Italy) survey by Ruth Whitehouse, Sue Hamilton and others (Hamilton et alii 2006). As part of that project, the soundscape of several settlements has been probed, attempting to find the boundaries of human voice and natural sounds in the terrain. A current project at Cambridge University, Changing Beliefs of the Human Body (Boric and Robb 2008) is exploring the human body from an holistic approach, which tries to break the traditional limit of studying physical remains (bones) and material evidence (usually grave artefacts). Whilst the Cambridge project is not using primarily phenomenology, it is a good example of current efforts to expand the domain of archaeology from material and physical evidence to all aspects of human life in the past, even those that have left no direct traces. Here I shall focus on Prof. Gheorghiu’s project because it aims at recreating the past in a controlled way, enabling him to record emotions and discover symbolic meanings.

The space, water and fire project aims to understand the mental mechanisms of the design process (incorporating both the pragmatic and the symbolic dimensions) and to reconstruct the perception of traditional people. In particular, the eco-relationships between traditional populations and their built or natural environment are being addressed. The research is also looking into the human perception of paleo-landscapes, or of the ancient human settlements’ spatial organisation. To achieve this, some dwellings and tools are being reconstructed employing experimental archaeology, and water and fire are added to the resulting landscape. These two natural elements were present in the past in the same form as today, and they help in recreating living ancient landscapes. Of course, the study of ancient techniques, artefacts and landscapes also affects modern perceptions and has the potential of influencing contemporary art. However, this project in particular is also using art as an instrument of research by using the sensitivity of living artists in re-created landscapes to produce new art as well as to focus on significant elements or aspects. The initial study was carried out in the village of Vadastra, and a comparative anthropological study led by Dr Heinrich Dosedla has examined the validity of the initial results using a large set of ethnographic evidence.

The inclusion of two natural elements such as water and fire, present in the ancient landscape as part of artificial and natural events at different scales has proven to be a powerful tool to recreate ancient landscapes that could be re-lived. Most projects of which I am aware of would stop at the recreation of a fragment of past or at the demonstration that the landscape surrounding individuals affects their perceptions and can be the start of cognitive processes (perception by contemporary artists). The present project instead finds a way forward into the ancient mind. The result is not a sophisticated (read: theoretical) debate (e.g. on cognitive processes) or a “hymn” to the significance of a class of artefacts (e.g. pottery; metals; etc.) or technique, which has been the focus of the study. The result is that archaeologists are reconstructing ancient experiences and understanding them for what they are. For instance, fire could be seen as a shaping force giving “birth” to objects such as ceramics and metals, and as a destructive force (see figure of burning hut), like in the natural world. Of course, natural cycles come to mind here.

Of great importance is the study of how symbols emerge following physical perceptions of the reality. For instance, fire can be symbol of both birth and death, generation and regeneration. Although the destruction of the hut might be seen as a dramatic moment at first, it could also be interpreted as a moment of regeneration, a new birth. The phoenix regenerating from her own ashes, a myth dating back at least from the Middle Kingdom of Egypt (the phoenix is called Bennu in Egyptian texts) and possibly earlier, comes to mind. The phoenix is seen as symbol of new beginning, even if its present state is clearly associated with destruction. The light and sound of the fire also could have been translated into symbols. By cognising some powerful physical experiences with past experiences, wishes and thoughts, symbols emerge. The space, water and fire project is demonstrating that each stratum of any archaeological record is not just a cultural phase, but a period that witnessed changes or destruction at its boundaries. And the contemporary artists working in the project are very effective in picking up the emotions that likely were felt by the ancient people. They are not attempting to replicate, or interpret or find the reasons of a specific event, a task best suited to traditional archaeology. The artists involved are instead re-enacting it, embodying the event, and then expressing it through their art. In other words, they are re-enacting an event to cognise it into modern symbols. The output will tell us much about how symbols can be created, and possibly what symbols recorded and preserved in the material record might mean. This study does not exclude, but certainly marginalises the importance of iconographic studies in the study of symbols. This is methodologically correct because symbols often do not represent naturalistically an event. Moreover, by finding out what kind of emotions were being produced at one place and time, and looking at their frequency, it will be possible to expect a symbolic behaviour (i.e. the production of symbols and signs directly related to contemporary events causing most emotions), and therefore the frequent “ritual” behaviour of the ancient people may return to speak, some ancient symbols might even be recreated with some approximation. Finding out ritual behaviour will no longer be the end of an interpretation, but at least for some researchers the starting point for a semiotic analysis of a fragment of the past. So far semioticians have concentrated their efforts on the present, using cultural and anthropological similarities to interpret ancient symbols or assume their use. The present developments applying phenomenological analyses to archaeological studies can reveal instead a colourful, moving and noisy past world, bringing in action all five human senses. Semioticians might finally have a chance to apply their skills to the past, overcoming the limits that material evidence has in recording symbolic behaviours. Archaeologists also have to gain a lot in all this, because ritual behaviour is now a far too unsatisfactory interpretation.

Water is the other obvious element that often determines the choice of space and sets boundaries. The association of an artefact with some powerful natural elements can also affect its significance as much as its function, and perhaps even more. The project has concentrated its study so far in rites of passage, across waters and symbolically. This type of study adds to a corpus of knowledge dating back to antiquity itself. For instance, the Roman pontifex maximus was the most sacred and revered of Roman priests, yet it was also an officer in charge of the earliest bridges across the Tiber. A similar title, gephyraei, is also present in the Greek world and again unites the sacred sphere with bridges and rivers. Of course, the connection with the bridges quickly disappeared in later history. Thus, we know that building a bridge had to be quite an event, if nothing else because it required peace and cooperation between different communities. Indeed, the key purpose of the early sacred officers associated in some way with bridges was to maintain a peaceful link between the world of the gods and the human world, or in other words they had to build a symbolic bridge between worlds. Bridges themselves might have symbolised a link or a significant passage in the life of a person, since in prehistoric times bridges must have been exceedingly rare and crossing one, as opposed to wade a river, might have generated quite powerful sensations, which once again the team of artists and researchers in the space, water and fire are investigating.

In short, the project aims to see through eyes sensitive as similarly as possible to the ancient ones the ancient world, by recreating fragments of the past and experiencing them, and through them see the artefacts in their archaeological, functional and cognitive context. Conceptually, the research is similar to what particle physicists do to understand the material world: they recreate special conditions in the lab, and can witness on a microscopic scale fragments of realities that happened or will happen at much larger scale, and by doing so understand things they cannot possibly study directly.

So, what do we learn from all this? This project reveals the deep connection between ancient people and the natural world. The separation between human world and natural world was not that sharp until recent times. I think that this project more than others is showing the true potential of current research, albeit with less detail than some projects in experimental archaeology, less promises than cognitive science and less theory than some pure phenomenological studies. Yet, it gives us a chance to see the ancient world with the eyes of an ancient person (through sensorial perception of artists rather than cognition guided by our understanding), perhaps just a fragment, but it is well worth mentioning.


Dragos Gheorghiu, Catalin Oancea, Marius Stroe and StefanUngureanu (The Prehistoric House)Marius Stroe and Dragos Manea, (The Furnace)Adrian Serbanescu and Ion Anghel, (The Bridge)Dragos Gheorghiu, students and villagers (Black ceramics)

[experiments funded by CNCSIS and Dr. Romeo Dumitrescu; first version of this article published by Intute, University of Oxford]


Hamilton, S., et alii. 2006. Phenomenology in Practice: Towards a p Methodology for a `Subjective' Approach. In European Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 9, No. 1, 31-71.

Boric, D. and J. Robb (eds). 2008. Past Bodies: Body-Centered Research in Archaeology. Oxford: Oxbow Books.