Department of Anthropology

Graduate Student Spotlight: Jordan Bowers

Wed, April 25, 2018
Graduate Student Spotlight: Jordan Bowers

The Department of Anthropology is excited to share the following interview with Graduate Student Jordan Bowers, conducted by Elizabeth de Marigny. We will continue to highlight the amazing works our students are doing, in Austin and around the world, a few times each semester.

You work at Bagunte- an archaeological site in Portugal. Can you tell us a little about the site and the work that you do there?

Bagunte is an Iron Age hillfort located approximately 15 miles north of the city of Porto. It is one of over 1,000 hillforts in Northern Portugal and Galicia. Locally the hillforts are known as castros, which in turn gave us the name Castro Culture for the region’s Iron Age archaeological culture. Although only the acropolis, which covers an area a little larger than 2.5 acres, has been extensively excavated, it is believed that the settlement could be as large as 125 acres.  In 1910, Bagunte was made a Portuguese National Monument, one of only a handful of castros to have been designated as such. Its most extensive periods of excavations took place in two previous periods - the late 1800s and the 1940s. In 2009, excavations began again at Bagunte under UT’s Portugal Archaeology Program, a research project and field school led by my supervisor, Mariah Wade. During the summer, I work at Bagunte as a TA for the field school.

Why did you choose to work at Bagunte? Was there something in particular that interested you?

The first time I took part in the excavations at Bagunte was in 2011 when I was still an undergraduate at UT. I attended the field school largely to knock out degree requirements and at that time had only a general interest in archaeology – I didn’t think I would end up where I am now, but the experience I had on the field school was great and I decided to go again the next summer!

There are a variety of reasons for why I chose to continue working in Portugal (and Galicia) for my graduate research. However, I would say that the biggest draw was the opportunity to work in a region that has largely been forgotten about by Iron Age archaeologists outside of Portugal and Spain. I hope that through my research, and that of my colleagues, we can help to increase the visibility of the Castro Culture in Iron Age studies.

Your dissertation research merges sensory and phenomenological perceptions with GIS, can you break this down for us, and tell us a little about the research methodologies you are using?

My dissertation research is about the relationship between the people of the Castro Culture and the landscape of Northwest Iberia. Too often, the landscape is seen as only a backdrop to human activity, but, when looking closer, we can see that the relationship between people and landscapes is extremely complex. The landscape can play a role in defining the types of resources people have access to, the locations in which certain activities can take place, and movement through that space (among many other things). This is not to say that the landscape determines everything – people also expend a great deal of energy modifying the landscape to suit their own needs, modifications that can include terracing, de-/re-forestation, damming waterways, etc. To understand the Castro Culture, it is important to understand this relationship.

My project has gradually evolved over time. It initially started as a class project analyzing intervisibility between the castros using GIS. It was through that project that I developed an interest in landscape studies. As I began to read further about landscape archaeology, I came across Christopher Tilley’s A Phenomenology of Landscape, which was my first foray into the application of phenomenology in landscape archaeology, as I am sure it was for many others. Before I read this, I knew that I was interested in studying the landscape and using GIS as a tool to do this, but Tilley’s book opened me up to an entirely different way of exploring the relationship between people and the landscape. Landscape phenomenology emphasizes the importance of the perception of the landscape through the body and the subjectivity of this, rather than as a ‘text’ with a single commonsensical or objective interpretation. In my research, I view landscape phenomenology and GIS as tools that can complement one another, with each building on the strengths and weaknesses of the other.

What is interesting about your research is that you are using GIS not just to measure and display the physical features of a landscape, but also to tell a story about human interactions with, and perceptions of, the landscape in which they inhabited. Would you say this is an accurate assessment of your research? And could you tell us how you came up with this idea?

My understanding of the field of landscape archaeology is as something with two opposing sides – one side that emphasizes humanistic, subjective, and sensory aspects of peoples relationship with spaces/places and the other side that is more focused on quantitative types of analysis. This divide is not something only I see – others have gone so far as to deem it a ‘crisis’ in {British} landscape archaeology and many are working on new ways of re-integrating them – particularly through combining phenomenology with new advances in technology  - whether that be the ability to do things with GIS that are magnitudes greater than what was done in the past, and even as far as exploring augmented reality as a way to recreate representations of a past landscape/settlement to explore it using phenomenological methods.

For your data, you are measuring variables like sound and visibility. How are you collecting this information, and what do you hope they can tell us about the past?

On the phenomenological side, I am collecting data by visiting castros in different areas of Northern Portugal and Galicia taking note of various features of the landscape, including the topography, the location of rivers and the ocean, and accessibility of different parts of the landscape. I also pay attention to the location of each settlement in relation to neighboring castros, which can be seen or not seen, and the types of different sounds and their source in relation to my location. This involves numerous visits to each area and purpose of this is to develop a familiarity and understanding of the relationship between the settlements and the landscape of the area. I use GIS to analyze many of the same things I am looking at through my fieldwork, but with the goal of producing quantitative, rather than qualitative, results. For instance, viewshed analysis in GIS supplies numerical data for the area of the viewshed and graphically represents areas of the landscape that are visible or not, but it can’t express some of the understandings that are gained through the bodily experience of landscape, such as how distance between settlements is visually perceived.

These two lines – my own bodily experience of the landscape and the use of GIS produce different ways of looking at the same data and from this I believe I can come to more well-rounded interpretations and ideas of how the Castro people related to each other through their landscape.

You are particularly interested in Iron Age settlement practices, what, if any, are some of the challenges that you face working on such an early time period?

Sure, doing archaeology means there are always challenges. First, and as many archaeologists will surely relate, the record can be cruel. We rely on material culture being preserved in order to understand past societies, but the conditions in different areas are not always favorable. For instance, in Northwest Iberia, we deal with soils that eat away at organic remains, meaning that 2,000 or so years later there is little left, except those things preserved under ideal conditions, limiting our  understanding of how people lived.

Second, we have a nearly complete lack of burials in the region dating to this time period. Burials can tell you a lot about the people and their society. With this lack of information, it makes it very difficult for us to understand and discuss basic things about society, such as whether there was a strict hierarchy between individuals. We ultimately rely on the few examples and other cultural similarities in order to discuss these things. For instance, among the Castro Culture there is a debate whether society was hierarchical or heterarchical. Burials would help us understand social structure better, but due to the lack of burials we are missing so much information.

Finally, there are certain challenges I face that are more relevant to my research alone. Some of my issues deal with modern-day borders – the availability of data to work off is different between Portugal and Galicia/Spain. For instance, when I was looking for a digital elevation model, the base of much of my work in GIS, I found free LiDAR and photogrammetry data available for Spain, but no similar datasets exist for Portugal. On the other end, Portugal has an on-line database of archaeological sites largely available to the public, but this information is not as readily available at equal levels for the areas of Spain that the Castro Culture inhabited, leaving me to rely on a crowd-sourced database for the castros in Galicia that has different levels of contribution in different parts of the community and some errors due to the data being produced by non-specialists.

On the other-hand, I am using a methodology that favors certain types of knowledge over others. This issue extends into both GIS and Phenomenology. Any modern way of ‘knowing’ what the past is like is inherently problematic. GIS favors a rationality that those in the past likely did not hold and it is necessary in any analysis using GIS that we recognize that the data we see and interpret is only one type of reality. For phenomenology, the important aspect is how our body interacts, experiences, and relates with the world. Due to this, my experiences with a place are only my experiences, they are not direct correlates with people who experienced that same place in the past. There are some aspects of this relationship and understanding that would be very similar and some that would be very different. The value in this type of analysis, I believe, is that it opens one up to different world views. It makes you try to put yourself in the shoes of others and think about places differently.

I do want to take this opportunity to thank the Municipality of Vila do Conde and the Municipal Office of Archaeology for their logistical support for my research, as well as their continued support and cooperation with the Portugal Archaeology Program’s annual field school. I also want to thank the Center for European Studies at UT for their support via a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship for the 2018-19 academic year. The research and logistical capabilities of this project would have been very different without the support of these organizations.

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