The Archaeology of the Early Modern

11 July, 2011

This week on the reading rest I have an anthology:
Mary C. Beaudry & James Symonds: Interpreting the Early Modern World: Transatlantic Perspectives. [Contributions To Global Historical Archaeology] Springer Science+Business Media 2011. New York Dordrecht Heidelberg London.

I read a chapter by one of the editors, James Symonds:
Stooping to pick up stones: A Reflection on Urban Archaeology. Pp 63-84.

There are several, perhaps apocryphal, captions to this lithograph by Daumier, one of a number featuring a telescope, often seen on tripods or in the hands the more dignified Parisians observing the comet 1858 without bending over backwards. This man, a non-ground-penetrating archaeologist, has turned his gaze down into the early modern city and marvels at the wonders of the early modern: “Ah, I can see my street, there’s my house, there’s my garden and my wife, I can see Laurent – Oh, I have seen too much.”

In Doré’s scenes from his London Pilgrimage (1872) there is obviously much, though not too much to see and a tube focus and perspective to his views, but also a quantitative and systemic narrative to go with the city perspective. This perspective is embedded in the concept of the ‘City’. The tube view becomes a metaphor for naturalism and it is easy to see that life in the backyards is as systematic as the inanimate city architecture.

It is one of the points of archaeology that it lends itself to both views: (1) creating the story around the perspective and (2) making the perspective the story. Both ways we interact with the material past and detect something new or forgotten. James Symonds’ examples are the (1) abandoned Sheffield cutlery workshop, complete, probably with fingerprints and a story in itself (pp 65 ff.), and (2) the documantation in Inner Relief Road project. Among a lot of other things this project demonstrated the systematic way in which some towns create their own past by demolishing it and leaving only the odd end phase, perhaps an end before a shift, to be obvious (pp 76 ff.).

JS:s chapter is meant to be read together with the chapter preceding it, because the whole book is a matter of contrasting views, e.g. on early moderns urban archaeology, on each side of the Atlantic. The chapters are based on discussions along these lines at the annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology in 2005. With hindsight they seem partly to have belonged to the empirical turn inasmuch as theory seems now and then to be empirically driven. At the same time, we detect the echo of an archaeological backlash opting for systemic data quantification. Early modern urban archaeology is an obvious case because it is complex and in a more or less constant crisis finding its way through practice, based on approval: theoretical or public or antiquarian or economical or medial – you name it. Thus there is a methodological point in reading JS’s chapter as a freestanding contribution because it discloses the rambling path of a complex archaeology and indeed of Archaeology. Reading it as it ought to be read, i.e. as discussion, it is a most enjoyable series of well-placed and sharp comments set in a research-historical perspective.

Everything starts where it ought to start; with the former Swedish Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gunnar Sträng (in office 1955-76), in his 21st century Sheffield Construction Manager outfit, wondering: What’s the point? Don’t archaeologists, and we – the taxpayers – know enough already? Can’t we just go and read about it if we are interested?  And since we all know that illustrating historical facts is the anti-intellectual temptation of historical archaeology, he had/has a point.

 This temptation is especially enchanting when we dive down into the mermaids’ world finding the silent wrecks, wonderfully preserved and eerie, from which we emerge in order to plunge into the systematic waters of archives where luckily we find the captain’s protest and all kinds of highly interesting information, such as the position of the wreck, which we already knew, and the name of the ship which we didn’t, and the cargo, and the crew, and the date, and so on. It is pure National Discovery Geographic Channel material – nothing but oddly-odd and fascinating facts.

The preoccupation with archaeology illustrating known facts covers a theoretical insecurity hinting that perhaps material sources and contexts are not real proof. Perhaps the intuitive insight when you uncover the skeletal remains of an Infans I below the byre floor on the Iron Age farm is just a trick you play on yourself.

JS is far from doubting the significance of the archaeological material in its own right and far from being bothered by the fact that archaeological as well as written sources do not per se give a fair picture of the past.

Given second thoughts, the past as we know it, was never intended be a fair representation of itself. It is a fabric and palimpsest meant to impress the future, sometimes intentionally blurring past and present, irrespective of the source material. The unlikely and odd material illustration to what we already know is there just to accompany the illustrations to a complexity and context of which we know nothing.

The car has just passed Kroppkakan. The grave is in front to the barn

The grave monument on the Folkeslunda cemetery, Öland, known as Kroppkakan illustrates this point[1]. Kroppkakan dominates the cemetery, a monument to the prosperous Late Roman Iron Age and to a cemetery then already centuries old. But this could not be known for sure if the stone had not been removed and the grave beneath it excavated. Surprisingly, there were protest against doing just that, but as usual the local opinion wasn’t able to argue against the antiquarians. To begin with, the community, playing by the rules, tried the protection-and-preservation argument. But restoration, protection and preservation, when leading the new and safer road respectfully (and expensively) past the grave, were never questioned by the authorities. Then the villagers argued that the stone may fall to pieces if moved. But taking future contracts and goodwill into account a building company hastened to sponsor the perfect solution, a ‘cradle’ guaranteeing the safety of the stone. And there was more heritage management, such as the re-erections of an impressive line of standing stones that had fallen down. In fact, the benevolent colonial officers, representing the heritage authorities, would spare no effort trying to point out the genuine past of (the by now obviously more and more) backward Ölanders on the far side of the island.

And the stone was cradled and lifted without any technical problems whatsoever, and the excavation began – the very last square metres of the whole site, i.e., the only totally excavated cemetery on Öland – and the expected central grave was there. First, almost at once, there were the skeletal remains of 14 newborns shoved under the bulging sides of the stone, barely hidden under thin layers of crushed lime stone.

Thus forced to see too much too modern when focusing, and knowing surprisingly little, the excavation was carried on, and because of the premeditated Roman Iron Age structural meaning of the cemetery, which actually proved itself already in covered up babies, the antiquarians, much to their satisfaction, because they knew it would be there, found their grave. And sentiments turned early modern:

Everybody from the dejected Baronet to the sullen adept, now caught the spirit of curiosity, crowded round the grave, and would have jumped into it could its space have contained them.[2]

Lime stone and good preservation conditions have secured a number of surprising human skeleton remains on Öland among other thing illustrating the perpetual need to care for children now and then breaking the chain of reproduction.


[1] A Kroppkaka is a large potato dumpling stuffed with chopped pork – there are who-can-eat-the-most competitions. Kiki Lundh excavated and published the cemetery where Kroppkakan was the outstanding central monument. See Lundh, Kiki. 1991. V. Långlöts socken. In: Ulf Erik Hagberg, Berta Stjernquist & Monika Rasch (eds). Öländska järnåldersgravfält, vol 2. Riksantikvarieämbetet. Stockholm. Pp. 263–338.

[2] Walter Scott: The Antiquary. Everyman’s edition (reprint 1976) p. 224. Or http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7005

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