A central theme in post-modernist archaeology of the more science-friendly, not radically relativist kind for the past 20 years has been the study of the after-life of monuments, or “the past in the past”. Archaeologists are of course keenly interested in the archaeological record, and I think there’s a reasonable argument for studies of how the people we study engaged with the remains around them in their era. Mind you, I think this should be treated as a side issue and a bit of a novelty. I’ve heard Mesolithic scholars proclaim that a lithics scatter in a river bank was as significant to later generations of hunters as Stonehenge is to us. No — people in the past must be assumed to not have given a damn about ancient remains unless it can be clearly proven that they treated them in some distinctive way.
I saw a fine example of not giving a damn in Chester last week. Considerable stretches of the town’s Roman wall survive as part of the Medieval town wall, which is in turn largely preserved because it was turned into a fashionable walkway in the Early Modern Period. Every now and then work needs to be done on the wall, and almost every time a piece of fine Roman mortuary sculpture is found. This is because the cemeteries of Roman towns were “extramural”, located outside the walls, and at a stressful moment some time in the 4th century the burghers of Chester felt the need to reinforce their wall real fast with whatever materials were at hand. So they stripped the town’s conveniently located cemeteries of old stonework. Thanks to construction work on the wall in the 1890s, the Grosvenor Museum in Chester has one of the finest collections of Roman mortuary sculpture in all of Britain.
Serendipitously, today’s issue of the subway newspaper Metro has a story about the outrage such a callous treatment of grave stones can cause. Generally, in the modern West, we take very good care of old things and new things. But all semi-old, fiftyish things are in a dangerous state. If they can just reach a slightly more venerable age, then chances are that they’ll be preserved. But most buildings, most institutions, most monuments, never achieve a status as Old and Venerable.
Christian cemeteries are very unsafe places to be buried in. Hallowed ground is finite, and the moment your great-grandkids stop caring about your grave, chances are it will be replaced by a new one. At a cemetery in Gothenburg, the headstones thus displaced have been dumped in the woods along with old wilted wreaths and hedge clippings. Outrage! But get this: people are upset that the stones haven’t been given the usual treatment in modern Sweden, which is to be taken away and crushed into gravel!
As an archaeologist, I must of course applaud the person who has been dumping these abandoned monuments intact instead of allowing them to be destroyed. He or she has performed a service to future colleagues of mine on a par with what those Roman fortification engineers did at Chester 1700 years ago. Well done!