These are some thoughts I offered in a recent Pecha Kucha Night orgnised by Gordon Duffy and Tim Taylor: http://www.pecha-kucha.org/night/edinburgh/newsletters/2354 You can watch the video in YouTube and get the slides (20 slides x 20 seconds) here: Pecha_Kucha 2Dec11.
I hope you’ll find the following thoughts inspiring. I was inspired in my turn largely by the King of Asini (the void under the mask or the ruins of Asine) and other poems by Giorgos Seferis, created from nostalgia, memory and loss.
“Παμπάλαια υλικά κατάλοιπα που είχα την καλή τύχη να βρεθούν στον ανασκαφικό μου δρόμο, μια φορά στη λάσπη κι άλλοτε, συχνότερα, στο ξερό χώμα κάποια κρητικά καλοκαίρια, κάποτε και σε αραχνιασμένα μουσειακά υπόγεια. Και μόνο τυχερός; Γιατί να μη λογίζομαι πανευτυχής, τρισμάκαρ, όλβιος, αφού χάθηκα στην αγαθότητα της ανωνυμίας της προϊστορίας…» στον πρόλογο του βιβλίου του «Γεύση μιας προϊστορικής ελιάς» από τον Ικαρο, 2005
Ancient stuff that good luck brought them to my excavating path ….. And only lucky? Why wouldn’t I consider myself happy, blessed, joyful as I was lost in the kindness of the anonymity of prehistory. This is how G. Sakellarakis, a Greek archaeologist, described his experience with Minoan Crete.
Why happy to be immersed in a world without memory or history? because this is what we can usually say about prehistory. Maybe because we are in this strange threshold between our need to keep record of everything we do and move forward carefree from the layers of history above us.
Figure: my computer
I see this kindness from looking at peoples’ stories without any prejudice for what came before, after or around them, based only on the evidence of what they left behind, knowingly or not. Purity that in extremis could even re-invent civilisations, as A. Evans’ Minoan world that Sakellarakis often opposed in his work.
Each country has an opportunity for such kindness in its prehistoric past and here are some thoughts I have from my work on this country where, to use the poet, “it was decreed by Athena that I should live”. I consider myself happy as I was lost in the anonymity of the Scottish Iron-age brochs.
Figure: Dun Troddan
Anonymity does no justice to the complexity of brochs: the galleries, the staircases, the height, the shape, the stones, the scale, the location. Their grand and conspicuous statements make us to want to know more but there is so little to read …
Figure: Dun Telve
But we can touch them like a mask and recognise the echoes from the voids underneath: was someone sleeping in these cells, were kids running up the stairs, would someone wake up in the middle of the night from the barking of the dogs at the guard cell, were the crops dry at the galleries?
Figure: inside Dun Troddan
And who build them? Who planned? Who cut or gathered the stone? Who corbelled the cells? Who celebrated watching it grow? Who dared to thatch the roof when it finished or repair it when it was blown away? This is my happy friend John Barber who introduced me to brochs.
Figure: Spittal broch
And who saw them crumbling slowly or being attacked and then repaired them, taking gradually down parts of the height as its inhabitants didn’t use them or didn’t believe any more in them. And who were the last who decided to abandon the fight with men and elements and leave them?
Figure: Yarrows broch
We are in prehistory: their names are not everywhere with us, their children did not become statues, only a passing Viking would sing the story of a princess in a tower, their desires would become the fluttering of the birds. They left their empty shells.
Figure: Gurness (Monuments Record)
We can’t imagine “their large eyes, the curved lips, the curls”, only their shape if you like. Sometimes we can find behind them their clothes, their shoes, their tents. We imagine what they eat but it’s so frustrating we can’t tell how they died or where they are buried …
Figure: the hood from the National Museum of Scotland
Sometimes we get the fragments of what they touched, what made them happy. Funny enough we are excited from their leftovers, they only thing we can find for sure, rather than what was really precious for them. This science is about their piles of rubbish?
Figure: Their artefacts
Where are they??? Where are their tombs??? Does there really exist among these ruined lines, edges, points, hollows and curves; does there really exist here where one meets the path of rain, wind and ruin does there exist the movement of the face, shape of the tenderness ….
Figure: Edin’s Hall
of those who’ve waned so strangely in our lives, those who remained the shadow of waves and thoughts. Or perhaps no, nothing is left but the nostalgia for the weight of a living existence there where we now remain unsubstantial, image of a form that the sentence to everlasting bitterness has turned to stone:
Figure: a gate
Figure: the cult statue of Apollo Oplitis
Is archaeology the modern cult of the ancestors? Or the anonymity of prehistory is a kind offer to remember of things past in silence, respect and self-awareness? But like art, is memory useless? What can we do with memory? Do we practice a “modern cult of monuments”?
Figure: Neuesmuseum, Berlin – restoration
And how anonymous memory can be recollected? It’s become a science, archaeology, which previously under the pretexts of antiquarianism unearthed and even re-created the story of brochs – but maybe not their history, this is the confusion at Nybster…
Figure: the archaeological survey at Nybster (Graeme Cavers, AOC Archaeology)
And what a moment is archaeology when order emerges from the ground… The anonymous fabric crops out of the anonymous earth, only to confirm that it will stay anonymous, for ever, as there are no names to read …
Figure: excavation by AOC Archaeology
What is to remember, what is to forget and what is in between them? I’ve realised that even where we know the history, the stories are endless and we are all entitled to them
Figure: Koldinghus Castle, Denmark (Johannes and Inger Exner)
Can a broch be restored or is it simply strengthened – which makes my life as an engineer much easier? Are their values there or it is upon scientists like myself to find them for all of you? Is this the frontline of science to set the cultural agenda?
But they are impressive iconic structures on their own – even if only few – and maybe this together with science is a new cultural value rather than the historic or artistic ones that we often seek in conservation. Maybe we should not be so sad after all about the void behind the mask.
Figure: A take on Becher – this is for you Tim
If you want to thank someone now, rather thank these two people, Giorgos Seferis and Yiannis Sakellarakis.