June 12, 2006

The evolution of ancient sites

Posted at 8:22 pm in Elgin Marbles

Architectural books & magazines typically present new buildings in a pristine form – corners form smooth sharp angles & glass reflects smoothly. The reality of course os different – while buildings start out pristine & new, from that point onwards they begin to deteriorate. Over longer period of time, bits might be added, taken away or replaced leading to the gradual evolution of the structure’s form. Nowhere is this more evident than in ancient archaeological sites – everyone knows that Stone Henge or the Parthenon that we see today do not look remotely similar to how they did when they were first built.

This change is not just true of the buildings as a whole, but also of any individual part of the building – the Parthenon’s sculptures have been damaged in many ways throughout history – by everything from air pollution to the deliberate destruction of the iconoclasms.

An interesting book which looks at some aspects of this issue from an architectural point of view is On Weathering by Mohsen Mostafavi & David Leatherbarrow.

Most people would argue that this damage is not a good thing, but one has to accept that to a certain extent it is inevitable – and in some cases more damage can be done by a poor attempt to right a problem which is not fully understood – for instance the cleaning of the Elgin Marbles under the instructions of Lord Duveen, or the use of steel bars in the earlier restoration of the Acropolis by Balanos.


(From an archaeological perspective) is vandalism of ancient sites a bad thing?
By alun

The first of the postings to Revise and Dissent. Commenting is closed here, but you can comment on this post at HNN.

If you’re desperate to hear the answer and can’t bear suspense I’ll drop a hint: I’m hardly going to get any dissent if I say yes am I?

On the way back from Oxford today I stopped by the Rollright Stones to get some photos. There are plenty of good photos on the net. Flickr has a few, as does the Megalithic Portal. The problem with these photos is that they emphasise the stones, which normally is one of the major attractions of a stone circle. The Rollright Stones are a particularly good place for this because unlike somewhere like Stonehenge you can get among the stones. Unlike Avebury the circle tends to be relatively empty too. The wardens are friendly people and the lack of facilties means that it tends to be quiet. It’s a very nice place. Sometime in the early hours of April Fool’s Day 2004, or possibly late the previous evening, someone daubed the stones randomly but fairly comprehensively with yellow paint. Over two years later the paint still defaces the stones as you can see from the photos below. Is it a problem?

If the paint can be removed safely then should it?

Visitors certainly seem to think it should. The new threat to the stones are well-meaning members of the public who attempt to pick it off. There’s a strong feeling the paint doesn’t belong there because it’s a neolithic site. But it’s not just a Neolithic site. It was also there in the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. In fact it has been there every day of every year since then, except for September 3 to 13 in 1752.

It was this way of thinking about sites that led to Cornelius Holtorf’s PhD “Monumental Past: The Life-histories of Megalithic Monuments in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Germany)”. In it he traced the use and re-use of megalithic sites in Germany. Is vandalism a form of re-use? Possibly. Holtorf includes sections on Vandalism and Desecration.

Certainly if these were ancient peoples destroying a site we would have no archaeological qualms. The circle henge of Arbor Low is one such site. It was a fantastic site with a majestic bank, foreboding ditch and as good a collection of standing stones as anyone could hope to have. In the Bronze Age someone clearly decided “I’m having that” and built a barrow for a burial. A Bronze Age barrow needs a lot of soil, but there was plenty of that in the surrounding bank, so he took it from there. Nearby Gib Hill, a Neolithic barrow, probably used as a communal burial also had a Bronze Age burial built on top of it. You can see these sites for yourself with a copy of Google Earth and this KMZ file. Is this destruction or an insight into how society changed over time? It’s both. So can modern neglect be seen in the same light?

Quite possibly.

Heritage has an odd place in the vandal’s heart. The stones at Avebury were also daubed in paint, possibly as a protest against GM crops. The stones here were seen as very much the property of the government through English Heritage. In Cornwall it’s this ownership that’s under attack. The historic sites themselves aren’t attacked, but English Heritage signs are. Cornish nationalists do not accept that Cornwall has ever been English. This isn’t just a British issue. Currently there’s a debate in the archaeological community about how much undocumented of destruction of sites is acceptable and whether we should work with those who destroy sites to pull what we can from the rubble or else refuse to cooperate and lose unknown treasures.

From the perspective of modern history the damage at heritage sites is source material for contemporary social tensions. By cleaning it away we destroy historical source material for future generations. This view might bother you. It certainly bothers me. It seems to open up a world where anything goes. If someone wants to destroy the Alamo for fleeting fame should we let them to that historians of the future can examine the rubble and see how fame-obsessed society was? If we remove traces damage from sites then we erase part of their life histories.

I think the way out of this knot is to re-think what the problem is. How should we relate to the past is not in the end an archaeological or historical question. It’s a political question (with a small p) or possibly an economic or aesthetic question. As historians we can try and see what was, but that is only a guide to what can be. History is descriptive not proscriptive. No number of slaves that existed in the past would justify slavery in the present. Returning to the vandalism problem, other people may damage sites, but as a society we can still take an ethical stand and say this is wrong. By conserving sites we reflect the values we see in the past that we hold as important today. Archaeologically (and historically?) it may be a bad idea, but thankfully modern life isn’t arranged for the benefit of archaeologists or historians. It’s for these people to relate the past to contemporary society and because that’s always changing there’s always going to be work to do even in well-trodden fields.

It doesn’t stop you looking at the damage done and wondering how stupid can some people be though.

Further reading:

Graffiti Archaeology is a fascinating art site which explores how layers of Graffiti in locations build up in layers over each other.

The Westmoreland Gazette on the neglect of archaeological sites in north-west England. Via Archaeology in Europe.

The Nether World on the occupancy of Babylon by members of the Coalition of the Willing.

And finally you might think they should remain in London or return to Athens, but the Elgin Marbles are the most obvious example of archaeological materials whose damage has contributed to their ongoing history.

Update: ever have that feeling that something obvious was staring at you in the face? I omitted to link to the most obvious site on the topic Towards an Archaeology of Iconoclasm by Troels Myrup which is always wonderfully illustrated.

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