#1: Subjectivity in an objective frame

Moving earth mysteries along

Over the 27 years that I have edited Northern Earth, and the 47 years since I wrote my first article on the subject area, I have become increasingly aware that the topical implications of the field still occasionally known as earth mysteries stretch very much beyond even the broad inquisitorial sweep of its early conception. Many of its protagonists inevitably focus their scope of interest on particular interests and activities, such as archaeology, folklore and forteana, and many, true to its original schema of seeking answers to ‘mysteries’, pursue narrower, more elusive but yet productive side trails, or translate them into activities other than research, such as art and writing fiction. As editor of the field’s longest-running journal, it is my job to try and mark these shifts in focus, and sometimes encourage areas that seem to be slipping beneath the radar – while at the same time trying to offer enough to satisfy a highly varied readership.

Our central focus is of course perceptions of place, especially as they emerge through layers of folklore and archaeology. That places us along the fringes of various disciplines, some of an antiquarian nature, some owing much to modern understandings of perception, psychology, and environmental effects on human consciousness; we dip our fingers into areas of attention that do not always talk openly to each other. Among them, as regular readers will know, are psychogeography and phenomenology, which I regard as potentially valuable tools for disentangling the threads of meaning implied by how we situate ourselves, our monuments and our rituals (all considered in the broadest sense) in place. This involves a kind of sideways step from our usual contemplation of, say, ancient sites or traditional narratives, and a squint back from a different angle – hence the title of this new section, The Alt-Antiquarian.1

Psychogeography, it must be admitted, is a problematic term. It has the feel, quite rightly, of a made-up word, a gimmicky post-war jibe at – and potentially escape from – a sense of bounded geographies that intensify the spirit of war and aggression. Yet however affected, the word seems to me perfectly appropriate for an approach exploring the intersection of mind and place, past and present.

It has become associated with radical politics and post-war Marxism, and with urban contexts – some even insist you can only do psychogeography in a city, as it is in cities that psychogeography can recognise and beset the physical manifestations of power. The planned lay-out of towns and cities is of course the prime example of power dictating where we might go and be, but that also applies to rural communities, as the historical experience of England’s  Enclosure Awards testifies.2 From this debate came a range of political and artistic engagements challenging what we might call place complacency, some of which I thought deserved a place in Private Eye; elements of magic and occult ritual sneaked in, and even Will Self contributed a psychogeography column in The Independent newspaper. Today there’s something of a revival and a sense of inclusivity towards a variety of approaches towards the interface of mind and place that is implied in the term; and if you still have qualms about the word itself, you could try on Phil Smith’s Mythogeography, Tina Richardson’s SchizoCartography, or Nick Papadimitriou’s Deep Topography,3 the last of which is perhaps the most relevant to NE’s approach.

OED psychogeography:

“The study of the influence of geographical environment on the mind, behaviour, etc.; geography considered in regard to its psychological effects”

Psychogeography’s hydra-like stock of meaning is probably why we still hear the question ‘what is psychogeography?’ amongst NE readers. Our stock in trade, after all, is an area that comprises things like ritual landscapes, stone circles, ley lines, desire paths, boggarts and fairies, magic, terrestrial zodiacs, place legends, haunting and fortean testimony. Mostly stuff that gets your boots muddy rather than dusty, your lungs clearer rather than clogged – i.e. rural. And mostly stuff that implicitly relates a locale to its history, rather than to contemporary structures of power – though Stonehenge’s contested history is a case study in how these can inter-relate.4

So we first extricate psychogeography from its urban shackles and see it as a praxis that extends to urban, suburban, rural, anywhere; and then we take a look at what it might entail for our alt-antiquarian perspective.

One way in which archaeology in particular can be seen in psychogeographical terms is its role in today’s heritage industry. Many World Heritage Sites have become expressions of global consumer capitalism, enrolled as participants in a voracious climate-changing tourist industry – an industry that may in one day whizz fifty tourists at a time around Avebury, Stonehenge and King Arthur’s Winchester, or both islands of Malta, to address a tick-box bucket list of must-see sites. In such a framework of self-gratification, it is no surprise that traditional cultures are routinely scandalised by tourists who often seem to treat sacred and cultural artefacts as de-contextualised backdrops for self-assertion rather than as mediums of deep local significance. In high-speed globalised capitalism there simply isn’t enough space for recognition and respect of local cultures and sensibilities.

This is a classic symptom of the Society of the Spectacle, as Guy Debord termed it – a situation where commodity has colonised social life. “The spectacle is… a social relationship between people that is mediated by images”, such that “all life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles”. The Spectacle obfuscates the past, makes it immediate and fleeting, one era equal to another thousands of years apart. The past is appropriated by the dynamics of both the consumer economy and elite empiricist versions of history, delivered without contention in a succession of what we now hear of as ‘alternative facts’. In such circumstances, to quote Debord again, “all that once was directly lived has become mere representation”, and our “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity”.5

The history of psychogeography, and the essential exploration of constructs of power and social worth that ensues, go back much further than its history as a word. Archaeology clearly shows how much human effort has been expended in making sense of not just the spatial environment – its mundane dimensions like water, shelter, cardinal direction, and so on – but also how much attention has gone into deriving meaning from or conferring meaning on to that environment – first based on observations of its characteristics, and then laying down patterns of culture and power. Those observations were not simply visual, but synaesthetic, involving all the senses, including the elusive sense of atmosphere.

Synaesthesia (Wikipedia): 

“a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway”

How can we be sure? Because that is how we appreciate places today, at least when we are taking them seriously. And there is no reason why human perception maybe 5000, 10000 years ago should be any less synaesthetic. Indeed, there is every reason to think that it would have been more synaesthetic in the past. For instance, our experience of colour: we are bombarded with colour in this world, we take it for granted. Most of us probably think a pebble beach is a bit boring and ordinary. But just imagine how, to a people not so saturated with hues, a pebble beach might look when dry, and then after rain.

From such observations come metaphors of meaning that are transcribed to landscape, both natural places – like rock outcrops or horizon shapes – and the built – like shrines and megaliths – all part of the psychogeography of prehistory, extending to another approach that NE has been advocating for around 20 years, phenomenology6 – another slippery but essential concept for our area of interest.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘phenomenology’:

“the direct investigation and description of phenomena as consciously experienced, without theories about their causal explanation and as free as possible from unexamined preconceptions and presuppositions”

In the words of anthropologist-cum-archaeologist Christopher Tilley, “A phenomenologist works and studies landscapes from the ‘inside’ …enters into the landscape and allows it to have its own effect on his or her perceptive understandings… to understand landscapes phenomenologically requires the art of walking in and through them…”.  There are clear overlaps here with psychogeography and its emphasis on movement through place as a means to engagement, and this is even more explicit when Tilley adds “landscapes have meanings, whose significance we can attempt phenomenologically to make manifest and interpret; they also do things and have experiential effects in relation to persons… Through the bodily process of experiencing the landscape, we learn to think in terms of metaphors, to think in the same style as prehistoric persons”.7

Phenomenology was a bit of a revelation for me, helping me make better sense of the ancient monuments and old folklore that permeate the landscape around us. Characterised as it is by an attempt to commingle subjective and objective perceptions, phenomenology isn’t universally accepted amongst archaeologists. Orthodoxy and science privilege more material and demonstrable procedures – such as testing hypotheses, analysing soil and artefacts, reconstructing patterns of migration. These are all valuable, and from them we can gain insights into more subtle aspects of prehistoric life, like religion, ritual and cosmology. But there often comes a point where we need to look at what the landscape itself can tell us here and now, to see place as a cultural mentor straddling the centuries or millennia, rather than to pursue what it might reveal to the excavator or surveyor. The efforts required by phenomenological investigation present a countervailing dynamic, a new way of seeing for alt-antiquarians, and undermine the modern portrayal of the ancient world as Spectacle.

One of Tilley’s discussions involves the ritual landscape of the East Devon Pebblebeds – a geological feature where a prehistoric culture noticed, on top of hills, the kind of rounded stones that usually occur on beaches and riverbeds. Whatever metaphorical allusions boundaries and water may have had to them – and we must bear in mind that all over the world they are traditionally associated with thresholds to the otherworld – such allusions must have been aroused with this anomaly, presenting as a beach or riverbed, but on a hilltop. Most of us today, I am sure, would barely notice. But this may have seemed like an inversion of the natural order of landscape, what is normally below appearing on top; did this factor into a vision of place where ancestral notions could be addressed, and materialised in pebble cairns – interment in the ground simultaneously, by the altitude of the ground itself, accessing the firmament?8 A similar metaphor may be expressed at Mayburgh Henge in Cumbria, whose massive walls of river pebbles deliberately transported from the River Eden encircled the inner stones and whoever was inside the henge wall – and implicitly within the river banks.

Another insight of Tilley’s was into the Dorset Cursus, an earthwork consisting of parallel banks running 10km over undulating landscape. The banks focused the attention of someone walking between them on what is ahead or behind; but occasional gaps in the banks afford glimpses of parts of the surrounding landscape. What, Tilley asked, can we learn if we see these linear earthworks as embodying a narrative or myth, with the side gaps as timely reveals, stage-managed illustrations in the story being walked?9

The idea behind the alt-antiquarian is to keep asking questions, to reject taken-for-granted explanations where identified in efforts to glimpse the worldviews of the past, and thereby deepen and enrich contemporary worldviews. Through a phenomenological and synaesthetic approach, ancient mysteries can become contemporary insights, and history more than a ghost of itself.

Mayburgh Henge


  1. Based on ideas expressed in my talk ‘An Antiquarian Psychogeography’, part of the NE-curated session, ‘The Alt-Antiquarian’, at the 4th World Congress of Psychogeography in Huddersfield on September 6, 2019, which also featured Mark Valentine, ‘A country still all mystery: Occult territory in supernatural fiction’.
  2. For more detail, see John Billingsley, ‘The City & the Country: Psychogeography as we see it’, NE 150 (Sept. 2017), pp. 13-18, www.northernearth.co.uk
  3. Phil Smith, Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways, Triarchy Press 2010. Nick Papadimitriou, Scarp, Sceptre, 2013. Tina Richardson, http://www.schizocartography.co.uk/ & Walking Inside Out: Contemporary British Psychogeography (Place, Memory, Affect), RLI 2015.
  4. Andy Worthington, Stonehenge: celebration and subversion, Alternative Albion, 2004.
  5. Guy Debord, La société du spectacle (1967), various translations available
  6. OED phenomenology: “A method or procedure … which involves the setting aside of presuppositions about a phenomenon as an empirical object and about the mental acts concerned with experiencing it, in order to achieve an intuition of its pure essence… philosophical methods or theories which emphasise the importance of analysing the structure of conscious subjective experience”. See also Note 2.
  7. Christopher Tilley, Interpreting Landscapes, Left Coast Press 2010 pp25-31, 487
  8. Tilley, 2010, Ch. 6, ‘Sensory Experiences on the East Devon Pebblebeds’, pp253-292
  9. Christopher Tilley, A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, paths & monuments. Berg 1994, pp170-200

Published in NE159, December 2019, pp.10-13