Layers of heritage

I have been fortunate enough on the last two weekends to visit two world heritage areas, the Bronze Age rock art of the Tanum area in Bohuslän, and the mediaeval town of Visby, on the Baltic island of Gotland. The Gotland visit was part of a field trip with old colleagues from the Landscape Science program at Kristianstad University, where I worked in 2005-06. A nine day field trip underpins the second year subject Svenska Landskap. It is described as a smörgåsbord of landscapes – a quick taste of many different things. Intensive or block teaching is standard in many Swedish universities, with students concentrating on one subject completely for five weeks.

Seeing with a bus. Photo: L. Head

In Tanum the rock carvings display many different motifs, which are argued to ‘reveal the life and beliefs of people in Europe during the Bronze Age and are remarkable for their large numbers and outstanding quality’.

Visby is the former Viking site which became the Baltic centre of the Hanseatic League from the 12th to the 14th century. ‘Its 13th-century ramparts and more than 200 warehouses and wealthy merchants’ dwellings from the same period make it the best-preserved fortified commercial city in northern Europe.’

City wall, Visby, Gotland. Photo: L. Head

Gothenburg University has established a priority research area in Critical Heritage Studies, and I am involved with the Landscape and Place sub-cluster of this group, so there is great potential for ongoing discussions. Here are a few themes that struck me as of comparative interest between Sweden and Australia over recent weeks, building also on Michael Adams’ reflections.

The question of authenticity

It is striking that many of the Tanum carvings are painted in relatively fresh red paint. Painting over rock carvings is a controversial practice in Australian terms, but it is used in the Bohuslän context to protect eroding rock surfaces –  from the elements, and from tourists – and also to make the carvings visible to visitors. This is one example of the fraught and contested politics of ‘authenticity’ in relation to heritage.

Aspeberget panel, Bohuslän. Photo: L. Head

In the context of Australian Aboriginal rock carvings it would not be acceptable for managers to paint things over to enhance visibility. (Not that I am suggesting we in Australia are particularly good at the management of this kind of cultural heritage – witness the example of the Burrup Peninsula.)

We need help to see

Just as the untrained eye would pass over the unpainted carvings unless you just happened to catch the light at the right moment, so we all need help to see and understand heritage landscapes in different ways. In the Tanum example, it is important to understand the landscape context, and the fact that sea level was 15m higher here during the Bronze Age. This transformed the landscape into a fjordland of sorts, with the region being important in far-flung trade networks because of its coastal access. It is also important to know that climatic conditions were warmer than present, so deciduous rather than coniferous forest prevailed. This had implications for the resources available to inhabitants at the time, and so on.

Having skilled and knowledgeable guides is a wonderful asset, as were landscape historian Pär Connelid and landscape scientist Joachim Regnell on the Gotland fieldtrip. For example they were able to explain the combination of rapid recent isostatic coastal uplift and cultural activities forming the landscape below, at Langhammars Nature Reserve on Fårö, north of Gotland. In this picture, Pär and archaeologist Richard Fullagar are standing next to the remains of a Bronze Age burial mound (formed close to sea level 3000 or so years ago), with an intervening sequence of beach ridges spread out before them.

Coastal uplift sequence from Bronze Age to present, Langhammars Nature Reserve, Fårö. Photo: L. Head

Langhammars also has a connection to a different layer of Swedish cultural heritage. In Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, The Seventh Seal, the chess game between the Knight and Death was filmed there.

The labour of heritage

In all these examples it is clear that it takes a lot of work to maintain, enhance and communicate heritage. If heritage is understood as the use we make of the past in the present, it stands to reason that this does not ‘just happen’. There is the labour of building and managing appropriate tourist infrastructure and interpretation. It takes work to keep nature at bay, for example in keeping the Tanum rock faces free of moss, lichen and soil encroachment. Paths and signage must be maintained – heritage is an active process that has its own political economy.

Agricultural heritage

Some of the most interesting and moving sites we visited on these fieldtrips were not World Heritage sites at all, but different kinds of fragments of past everyday lives. It is striking in Sweden that many if not most of these are parts of agricultural lives; farm buildings excavated from Bronze Age, Iron Age and Mediaeval times, and agricultural vegetation communities (coppiced trees, meadows) preserved in Nature Reserves (similar to those I discussed in the first post in this current series). We don’t have an equivalent in Australia. We seem not to have found a way to value our food production systems as part of heritage, except perhaps in super-nationalistic ways such as the Stockman’s Hall of Fame.

Pondering the details of everyday life in the Bronze Age took me back to a discussion between Nigel Clark and Michelle Bastian (@mhbastian) at the RGS-IBG conference a few weeks previously. They wondered how we might need to reassemble the shards of the past in different ways in the future – something I will return to in my next post.

Encountering the agricultural landscape. Photo: L. Head

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