Not far from my home, in the woods down by the tracks, are the foundations of an abandoned railroad man’s homestead. Its name, Vinterbrinken (“Winter Slope”), survives in a nearby street name, though few know that anymore.
The house was built by the railroad company in the 1890s and was torn down, along with its barn, in the 1950s. The municipal archives have photographs of the buildings and the people who lived there, and they are all known by name.
Lately, the staff at a nearby daycare centre has been taking the kids down to the site and had them excavate parts of it, collecting hundreds of objects from the middens and demolition debris. They have now put on an exhibition at Fisksätra public library, displaying selected finds along with drawings by the kids with their own comments and interpretations, and offering some literature about the area (including a paper of mine.) In the display case are for instance parts of two pocket watches and a uniform button with the old Swedish Rail logotype.
These excavations are illegal. I don’t think they should be, but they are. When the librarians told me about what was happening at Vinterbrinken and slightly guardedly asked me what I thought about it, that’s what I replied. Swedish law offers blanket protection for all remains of human activity “in the past” provided that they are permanently abandoned. But that’s not how the law is applied in practice. We rarely bother to dig anything later than the 18th century. In fact, I believe the National Heritage Board sees this disparity between heritage protection de jure and de facto as quite a problem. Could we phrase the law in such a manner that we get good protection but only for important stuff? The issue is clouded by the fact that not everyone agrees on what is important, and that ideas change over time even among heritage managers themselves. The tendency over the decades has been for more and more categories of site, later and later ones, and less and less impressive ones, to receive protection in practice.
As mentioned here recently, I certainly don’t want our museums to spend their meagre resources collecting modern trash. And I am personally not interested in any of the archaeological questions the Vinterbrinken site might be able to answer if the daycare kids quit looting it. What do I care about the everyday minutiae of life in an early-20th century rail man’s homestead?
But I have a suspicion that there may be quite a few people who are interested in that sort of thing. Not least the members of Föreningen Motorvagnen, the Saltsjöbanan railroad’s old-boys association, who spend loads of time and effort restoring old carriages and organising rides. But then again, the old boys probably aren’t aware of the amount of information a competent excavation team could coax out of the site. Perhaps they’re quite happy just to see the finds in the display case.