Making the Archaeological Record

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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!

Comments

  1. #1 llewelly
    February 12, 2009

    But recycling is good for the earth!

  2. #2 Geoff Carter
    February 12, 2009

    In the late 1740s the English parliament was quite pleased with itself for having built a military road (B6318) across northern Britain from Newcastle to Carlisle, for a little over £20,000. A significant saving on materials was achieved by demolishing over 20 miles of Hadrian’s Wall, still in places over 3m high, and crushing it into road stone.

  3. #3 derek
    February 12, 2009

    This happens a lot in London too. The monument of Julius Alpinus Classicianus, an early procurator in Britain, mentioned in Tacitus, was found built into later additions to the wall around the City of London.

  4. #4 Nomen Nescio
    February 12, 2009

    why bother crushing them? there can’t possibly be a shortage of gravel in Sweden, after all. is there just not enough space to store them, or what?

    (personally, i hope to some day join that obscure artificial religion whose highest sacrament is to become fossilized. i’ll need to study up on taphonomy and geology a bit before i can pick a burial site for myself…)

  5. #5 Martin R
    February 13, 2009

    N.N., if I understand this correctly, people have this feeling that the head stone is almost like a dead body, and they sure as hell don’t want dead bodies dumped in the woods. Also, I believe that, say, the Johansson family might feel embarrassed if the neighbours found out that they are no longer paying the grave fee for Great-great-grandma Johansson.

  6. #6 Paul Burnett
    February 13, 2009

    Back in the 1970′s I bought several acres of woods to play in, near the Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Some of the muddy paths needed help, so I used some flat stones I had found laying on the property as paving stones. A couple of years later I found out that they had been (un-marked) headstones and footstones of a small family burial ground, probably a century or so earlier. How was I to know…?

  7. #7 Ingvar
    February 19, 2009

    It used to be (and probably still is) that you can see carvings on re-used slabs of marble at the Nobel building on the KI campus (it’s the building in the Stockholm-KS-closest corner, there should be assorted text visible on the marble slabs closest to the ground).

    Not quite as exciting as gravestones, though.

  8. #8 Martin R
    February 19, 2009

    Cool! Any idea what the slabs were part of before getting re-used?

  9. #9 Ingvar
    February 20, 2009

    As far as I understand, they were part of the building that was in the same location before the current building was erected. At least that’s what my memory of what my colleagues told me at the time, but I only worked at KI in the 1993-1994 time span, so there’s a slight haze to the memories.

    I suggest ambling over and having a look, though it may be better to do that during the summer