People in the past ordered the world of their experience, defining places within it and pathways through it, and in that way came to understand and control it. Vital as it was to exploit natural resources to the full in order to subsist, human activity in relation to the landscape was often structured according to symbolic or cosmological principles, forming what are known to archaeologists as ritual landscapes or sacred geographies. Examples of sacred geographies are many and varied among both historically recorded and modern indigenous peoples.

As is still the case for many indigenous peoples today, places may have become imbued with sacred or mystical significance because of their position within the landscape, as with the summits of high hills; because of the presence of prominent landmarks, such as caves, watering holes, or distinctive natural rocks; or because of remembered events that happened there. Some of these places may have been used for the construction of shrines or monuments, and others may have assumed sacred significance precisely because earlier constructions were built there. Sacred significance may be attached to lines and paths as well as particular places. For the inhabitants of the Hopi village of Walpi, the directions of sunrise and sunset at the solstices are themselves sacred, so that four sacred lines radiate out through the landscape from the village to the horizon. This configuration represents a very direct and obvious connection between the landscape and the sky, and also a relationship between space and time, in that each line is empowered by the actual occurrence of sunrise or sunset on the appropriate day.

Patterns of movement through the landscape may be vitally important as a way of reinforcing a group's understanding of the structure of the world and their place within it. Thus the Lakota people of South Dakota associate certain constellations with specific landmarks within the Black Hills. In accordance with their oral tradition, they undertake an annual progression through those hills that is understood to be related to, and seen to be in tune with, the path of the sun through the constellations. The Lakota example also illustrates how the needs of the sacred and the mundane—or, as we might see it, of ideology and pragmatism—need not necessarily be mutually exclusive or in conflict. The cycle of seasonal movements ensures that the Lakota follow the movements of the buffalo, a vital food source that they also saw as the very embodiment of the power of the sun.

The Lakota example also illustrates that no discussion of sacred landscapes is likely to be complete without a consideration of the sky. As soon as we start to think about how people perceived and conceived the world, and as soon as we start examining evidence of human action shaped by and undertaken in accordance with such perceptions, then we need to consider not only the land and sea but the totality of the visible environment within which those people lived. That includes the sky.

See also:

Cosmology; Monuments and Cosmology.

Aboriginal Astronomy; Aztec Sacred Geography; Hopi Calendar and World-view; Lakota Sacred Geography.

References and further reading

Ashmore, Wendy, and Bernard Knapp, eds. Archaeologies of Landscape: Contemporary Perspectives. Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

Barrett, John, Richard Bradley, and Martin Green. Landscape, Monuments and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Bradley, Richard. An Archaeology of Natural Places. London: Routledge, 2000.

Carmichael, David, Jane Hubert, Brian Reeves, and Audhild Schanche, eds. Sacred Sites, Sacred Places. London: Routledge, 1994.

Edmonds, Mark. Ancestral Geographies of the Neolithic: Landscapes, Monuments, and Memory. London: Routledge, 1999.

Goodman, Ronald. Lakota Star Knowledge: Studies in Lakota Stellar Theology. Rosebud, SD: Sinte Gleska University, 1990.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn, eds. Archaeology: The Key Concepts, 156-159. Abingdon: Routledge, 2005.

Scarre, Chris, ed. Monuments and Landscape in Atlantic Europe. London: Routledge, 2002.

Tilley, Christopher. A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments. Oxford: Berg, 1994.

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