Various Meaning Aquired by Places and Landmarks in the World

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Throughout the entirety of human existence, people have striven to find meaning as to what their true purpose is on earth. The intention of this search is to encourage humanity to continue living and bettering the world, but it often results in distress over the lack of easy answers. There are many aspects to human life, nurture, and experience, which impact assumptions, beliefs and traditions. Individuals and groups have different perspectives, and apply these to the world they observe to create their own meaning and sense of fulfillment.

Origins of meaning can include spiritual, historical, intellectual, or social issues amongst others. There are abundant distinctive natural land formations and intriguing man-made maze cities in the world that are open to unique interpretation by every person who witnesses them. The amazing diversity of freedom of thought leads to places developing separate, and multivalent meanings. When discussing places and their meanings, an often-asked question is whether meaning is ‘inherent’, or if people’s own beliefs give each place its importance. This inherent meaning is often the result of the genius loci of the location, the “guardian spirit” (OED, 2014 or “essential atmosphere” (OED, 2014) of the place in question.

The grounding effect of being immersed in nature, away from bustling city life, leaves an empty canvas for individuals or groups to fill and derive meaning from. Whether by the crashing waves of the seaside, amongst towering trees, or in a peaceful meadow, nature provides an environment away from daily stresses where personal reflection and study can occur. Throughout history, country living has always been “idealised” (The Open University, 2008) for this reason. One use of nature as a getaway can be seen in the architecture of Roman seaside villas. These buildings were designed and constructed to utilise the natural surroundings and shape of the land.

This is seen through Pliny the Younger’s description of his villa stating that “at the front and sides it seems to look out onto three seas”(Radice, B. 1969), the layout optimising what could be gained from such a location. The level of consideration that went into planning the buildings exemplifies the meaning of seaside living to the Romans as a desirable environment for their personal leisure, social life, and work. The significance of this meaning is emphasised through the deity mosaics[1], and serene landscape paintings[2], placed in the parts of the building not open to the ocean or gardens so the mind could still be stimulated. Having a safe haven close to nature gives people a chance for self-reflection, in turn creating a new meaning for that place.

While the Romans viewed the seaside as a leisurely getaway, to those living in the United Kingdom and Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the seaside meant “popular medicine” (The Open University, pp. 171). For long after the Romans enjoyed the seaside, the majority viewed it as a place of work for fishermen and too unpredictable for casual visiting. However, early into the eighteenth-century, trips to the seaside became a commonplace treatment doctors recommended their ill patients. There were widespread claims that “cold water was said to stimulate the skin and nerves [...] removing any obstructions in the bodily ‘humours’” (pp. 175) and should be utilised safely through great care and technique of the bathing machines.

Despite a lack of scientific evidence to support the list of beneficial claims, the seaside quickly flooded with invalids eager to try out this popular technique to heal many different ailments. The recommendations of seaside medicine soon seeped in to the upper-class communities, causing people to flock there by the thousands. Popularity of the seaside soon increased, all kinds of people other than the sick; those from different classes and diverse backgrounds taking trips to their nearest seaside to reap the benefits of the sun, air, and sea, and to enjoy the coastal economy that followed them there.

Through these three different, but equally important meanings given to the seaside, it becomes clear how meanings of places can develop and change very quickly as different people find different uses for what a location may offer. Places with specific initial meanings such as the seaside can be invaded by those who do not require the ocean for healing, and their presence soon develops new and further meanings to the location. In the present day, humanity as a whole has adopted many of these meanings and they have become what immediately springs to mind when a seaside holiday is mentioned. In addition to these, the welcoming atmosphere of the seaside has given rise to many niche and more personal meanings being created, the elements of nature catering to the diverse needs of the people that visit.

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Places can have meaning developed from the usefulness of the location for human health, but there is also another argument that meaning and sacredness of a place can be inherent. There are places in the world that people claim have an energy, something you feel the moment you are there. It moves many people to action and deeply provokes their desire to find an answer to the unspoken questions the energy asks them. The origin of these energies cannot always be explained, sometimes from an object such as a tree, or a rock formation, such as the menhirs of Stonehenge and Avebury, and other times it is felt in the very air surrounding you. The genius loci of these locations is what allows people to see their personal beliefs reflected in nature around them, creating unique meanings.

The places connected to natural landscapes let people feel close to the earth, and in turn close to their god or spirits, whether they follow Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hindi, paganism, druidry, witchery or any other spiritual belief. The sun is an important recurring icon in spirituality and science, having such a wide reach as its movements control our galaxy and everything in it. So it is a common occurrence that places in the world connected to the sun have no one accepted interpretation, and are important places to people beyond astrology. Stonehenge is a popular and bustling “intersection of cultures” (The Open University, 2008) as each interpretation or meaning placed on it is open to as much contest as another. As a result of this, the difference in beliefs and subsequent meanings does not prevent people from celebrating and worshipping harmoniously. During occasions such as the midsummer solstice at Stonehenge, the positioning of the megaliths as the sun sets confirms that “belief of something sacred, makes it sacred” (The Open University, 2008), as humanity is seen being brought together.

Stonehenge is seen as a place that has inherent meaning and has been the source of many debates considering the general origin of meaning. Can meaning be created by people or is it something already present, beyond human control. The design of Milton Keynes[3] in south-east England 1967 followed the concept of meaning created by humans. Although its original purpose is unknown, humans created Stonehenge, and the architectes of Milton Keynes set out to mimic the intentions set by their predecessors. In a fairly unknown area, the location does not feel sacred, but “while designing they wanted to give meaning beyond function” (The Open University, 2008) they intended to combine the harmony of the city’s architecture with the natural movement of the land, and the placement of “sacred elements in non-sacred spaces” (The Open University, 2008), to create their own place for interpretation.

Explicitly exemplified in the Tree Cathedral created by Neil Higson, the chief landscape architect, designed to hold no bias for any religion, and be open to people from every different spiritual belief. Challenging the concept of how meaning is created unsurprisingly resulted in many elements similar to that of stonehenge, including the main church of the city having 5 denominations coexisting, and the ley lines that run through both locations. Ley lines are a network of lines of supernatural energy connecting monuments across the globe, “at the places they intersect, there are pockets of concentrated earth energy” (Serena, date) important to alternative spiritualities. There were many different meanings given to Milton Keynes by different people because the architects and constructors planned with the explicit intent of the place being a vessel to hold meaning.

Throughout history many different meanings are given to the same place, as each new generation creates a wide variety of new perspectives through their experience with conflict, cross-cultural encounters, and the development of their culture. Communities through these years would have been focused on survival and protection of their people and their land, locating any advantageous landscapes that they could utilise for safety or comfort. These landscapes could have been an island surrounded by water, or a place with extreme weather conditions- both able to slow the progress of potential foreign invaders. The conveniently located Glastonbury Tor-seen in Plate 4.2.6 (The Open University (ed.) 2008, pp.83), allowed the progress of boats through the surrounding shallow marshy sea to be observed from its height. The instinct to protect their people gave many places an important meaning as they represented safety. It could be argued that the meaning of these places were inherent, the land naturally formed in such a way that it could be adopted for such purposes by many mammals. Despite being widely known for the arts and culture, Glastonbury too was associated with conflict and danger, long before the festivals began.

Events in history give places positive meanings. There are many places that have negative meanings and have been ruined in the eyes of a cultural group because of the actions of an invading foreign culture. The long-term colonisation of countries by Britain has affected economies and cultures from the fifteenth century to the present day. Britain has a negative reputation to many countries and communities still recovering from the theft of their land and belongings, and still fighting for their ownership to be returned.

The superior view the white British had of themselves caused countless deaths, and destruction of functioning societies and cultures. To the African diaspora British museums and British places of power have negative and repressive meanings from the earliest days of cultural encounters. Theft of the Benin Bronzes[4] as loot, now placed in museums and galleries “implies that [the Nigerian people] were incapable of looking after [the artefacts] before they were taken” (Dalton-Johnson, K. 2008) and that they somehow belong in an environment that is vastly different to their original context. Museums are seen as a priceless resource and a place for education and observation.

They can be a fascinating part of ‘foreign’ histories to be appreciated, but for some cultures they mean a hoard of thousands of stolen objects held captive from their rightful homes. There have been many requests from countries for the return of artefacts and art acquired through British colonisation. Governor Tarita Alarcón Rapu’s demand for the British to return the stolen Moai to their home on Easter Island as “We are just a body. You, the British people, have our soul.” (The Guardian, 2018) exemplifies how deeply the negative meaning that has been created by British actions runs. Conflict between cultures lasts generations, with the colonisers’ progeny retaining the negative, repressive meanings as they continue to ignore the pleas from the native countries.

Through examples of places around the world, it has been shown that they acquire meaning in many different ways. Places often have a meaning originating from features of the natural landscape, which can be of practical or spiritual value to many different people. The evolution of cultures due to migration or displacement of peoples causes layers of meaning to form. Such as in the case of Glastonbury Tor which began as a highpoint of refuge and observation, developed artistic meanings for people, bringing the festival scene to the small town. Just as cultures have developed in the past, it can be expected that there will be further progression in the future adding new layers of meaning to places.

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