Landscape Complexity and New Media: a review of the Carrlands Project Website (Mike Pearson).

Bradley M. Sekedat
Brown University
A growing number of recent studies seek new ways to engage with landscapes (see references). The Carrlands Project ( fits aptly into this category as it explores the complexity of the Carrs in southeastern England through the combination of music, dialogue, and composed sound recordings. The format of this presentation is a website that hosts a series of 12 recordings divided among three specific portions of the Carrlands: Snitterby Carrs, Hibaldstow Carrs and Horkstow Carrs. Each recording is approximately 15 minutes long, treating the ‘historical,’ ‘cultural’ and ‘physical’ variations that make up this diverse region. The creators (Mike P. Pearson, John Hardy and Hugh Fowler) encourage users either to bring the recordings with them to the Carrs to enhance the interactivity of their engagement, or to listen to the audio clips at a distance, embracing the message of complexity inherent within them. This reviewer listened from his office in Providence, Rhode Island. I paid particular attention to the dominant themes that arise out of the scripted narrations and musical compositions that accompany the journey through the flat, marshy, industrial and agricultural terrain.

The intended audience of the Carrlands Project is broad. An explicit goal is “to aid public appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of landscape through active participation and engagement.” Tabs at the top of the web page create pathways for users to search through a general overview of the project, to read about the aims and objectives set forth, to familiarize themselves with the area more thoroughly, to interact with the site as intended by the authors, to learn about the creators, view photographs of the region, explore suggestions for further reading, and to provide user feedback. As a public website, the project is open to any audience with the means to access the internet and listen to mp3 files.
The primary scholarly objectives appear to be numerous—many carry the same themes drawn out of Pearson and Shanks (2001), Ingold (2004) and Pearson’s more recent book In Comes I (2006). Through these themes, the Carrlands Project explores both the complexity of a very specific landscape and the complexity of landscape syntheses more generally. The method of presentation undertaken by the Carrlands Project seems, above all else, to highlight the Carrs as products of long-term changes brought about through specific interactions. In this sense, the Carrs are artifacts; they are involved in changing networks of relation. What we see today is the product of long-term accretions. What was once a region dominated by now extinct flora and fauna was eventually a region settled by people, who brought new meanings and new practices to the Carrs. Mesolithic human interactions occurred side-by-side with changes in the flow and courses of rivers and streams; the locations of those waterways had a bearing on land tenure systems and the placement of industrial factories; the location of industry was wrapped up in the presence of houses and cities. The sound recordings successfully convey this artifactuality through the compilation of overlapping stories. Some stories describe narrative accounts, others speak to changing elements of the topography, such as irrigation methods that alter the water table. In this, there is a particular interest in blending past and present. The effect highlights the varied pasts that are always present in the Carrlands yet which often get overlooked. The flat, low-lying nature of the Carrlands today can often mask the depth that is present. (The speaker and the auditory nature of the Carrlands project compel the listener to integrate the aural component of the Carrs into the experience.) Whether 5,000 years ago, 2,000, 150 or yesterday, something of these past events are co-present in the Carrlands landscape.
Of note, however, is how the Carrlands Project has mediated engagement with the landscape. The choice of emphasizing the auditory experience of the Carrs raises issues that have been addressed in literature on the production of archaeological knowledge (Tringham et al. 2007; Van Dyke 2006; Webmoor 2007; Witmore 2004 and 2006). Most notable is the impact that media have in this regard. Witmore (2006), for instance, speaks of multi-fields, in which the process of mediation, whether through text, video, or (most salient here) sound, participates in both the creation of and distribution of archaeology itself (see especially Van Dyke 2006). Each medium is multi-faceted, both reducing complex amounts of data through a process of translation and serving to distribute that knowledge through the medium itself. Text and drawings essentialize archaeological data in certain ways, just as sound recordings that highlight other qualities of the landscape do. Awareness of the participatory role of media in the productive process is the first step, then, in furthering the kinds of knowledge produced.
Since landscapes, as the Carrlands Project has aptly shown, are complex beasts, enhancing the kinds of knowledge produced through creative mediation is particularly suited to them. While the Carrlands Project certainly (and actively) enters into this realm of mediated production, there is the potential that the land-turned-artifact of the Carrs can become overly static to the listener as a result of scripted narration and composed music. Moreover, the project does not openly engage with the role of its media as situated against other kinds of media. Perhaps, given its neglect, the emphasis on sound was left to speak for itself. Still, I am left pondering why certain choices were made. What does sound add that was not available to the listener before? Why not add a video walk through of Snitterby Carr for those who cannot travel there? Why not incorporate more media into the discussion of these landscapes if the complexity behind them is so integral to the aims of the project? And perhaps most importantly, how is the knowledge transmitted via mp3 recordings maintained and archived for posterity?
Having said all of this, the Carrlands Project should be taken as an important and welcome step in approaching the ever-expanding study of landscapes. The emphasis on overlaying practices and relationships that are specific to this terrain, and the emphasis on what those practices mean to the Carrs as we ‘know’ them adds much to the discipline. Equally welcome are the emphases placed on the non-visual aspects of the Carrs. Sound recordings provide one very effective avenue into the documentation of these understudied associations between past and present, between the terrain and later action. Further transparency and further efforts at mediation of these places will only help convey the very richness of seemingly docile landscapes.
Ingold, T. 2000. The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill. London; New York: Routledge.
Pearson, M. 2006. “In Comes I”: Performance, Memory and Landscape. Exeter: University of Exeter Press.
Pearson, M. and Shanks, M. 2001. Theatre/Archaeology. London; New York: Routledge.
Shanks, M. 1992: Experiencing the Past: On the Character of Archaeology. London; New York: Routledge.
Tringham, R., Ashley, M. and Mills, S. 2007. Senses of Place: Remediations from text to digital performance.
Van Dyke, R. 2006. Seeing the past: visual media in archaeology, American Anthropologist 108(2): 370-75.
Webmoor, T. 2007: Reconfiguring the archaeological sensibility: mediating heritage at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Doctorial Dissertation. Department of Anthropology, Stanford University.
Witmore, C. 2004. On multiple fields. between the material world and media: two cases from the Peloponnesus, Greece, Archaeological Dialogues 11(2), 133-64.
—–. 2006. Vision, media, noise and the percolation of time: symmetrical approaches to the mediation of the material world, Journal of Material Culture 11(3), 267-92.