Wednesday, 28 May 2014

So speak, you dead: thoughts about archaeology. 5 ― excerpts from T.S. Elliot's Four Quartets

Burnt Norton House, Cotswolds, Gloucestershire

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.

T.S. Elliot, Burnt Norton
(first of 'Four Quartets')

photo: ©  Michael Dibb and licensed 
for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
I find the notion that archaeology is a science to be absurd. Not that we cannot use science in our application of archaeology if we are careful to use it appropriately ― such as by looking for clustering patterns rather than by chucking everything into the "blender of averages", or by confirming something that we think we see in the style of an object with the use of the electron microprobe.

"All is phenomena. All is text. All is simulacra for which an original does not exist. There are no structures of class, race, gender or good and evil. These are, variously, texts written by people with a political agenda. People are supposed to take these structures as valid 'representations' of that which actually exists."

We cannot remove ourselves from the work but we can be mindful of that problem and seek ways to lessen its impact on those whose psychology demands some measure of objectivity.

Better to admit it is an art, placing ourselves in the mood by gazing across a meadow to an old house, or by reading a poem or whatever it takes.

Between the snowstorms - East Coker
Between the snowstorms there was a short-lived thaw
before the next flurry as can be seen by the puddles
and lingering snow clinging to the thatch of the
cottages. This photograph was taken from the
carpark of The Helyar Arms.

In my beginning is my end. In succession

Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,

Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place

Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

T.S. Elliot, East Coker
(second of 'Four Quartets')

photo and caption © Sarah Smith and licensed for reuse

Archaeology is entertainment. The monuments have their parking lots and a semblance of education is given with their "interpretive centres", but not so much with the admission booth or the gift shop.

Around the Parthenon all is cleared. Gone are the Byzantine church, the houses and shops and the bustle of people past ― Everything was removed so as not to spoil the view, and to focus only on the desired expression of Athens history. A little slice. Gone is the real history where time leaves its marks as a Vanitas for all.

"It is above all that
oh yes
It sits upon the choicest of
Church seats
up there where art directors meet
to choose the things for immortality
And they have lain with beauty
all their lives
And they have fed on honeydew
and drunk the wines of Paradise
so that they know exactly how
a thing of beauty is a joy
forever and forever
and how it never never
quite can fade
into a money-losing nothingness"

from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (original line spacing unpreserved because of space restrictions)

Aerial view of Cape Ann, Massachusetts.

"According to a note by Eliot under the title, "The Dry
Salvages— presumably les trois sauvages — is a small
group of rocks, with a beacon, off the north east coast of
Cape Ann.

I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
Is a strong brown god—sullen, untamed and intractable,
Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;
Useful, untrustworthy, as a conveyor of commerce;
Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.
The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten
By the dwellers in cities—ever, however, implacable.

T.S. Elliot, The Dry Salvages
(third of 'Four Quartets')

Ritual is a term often encountered in archaeological reports and without further explanation to attempt to explain objects or their placement where another interpretation cannot be ascertained.

Even if "possibly ritual purposes" is used, then the reader will most likely accept this explanation thinking that is what the archaeologist really thinks and for reasons not expressed. The aura of the "expert" comes into play. It would be far better to merely note what is seen, or to say that different reasons might be imagined for this that could include ritual purposes. In this way, the reader can be more open to thinking of such reasons.

When we see that a deposit of early Celtic art objects has been cast into a river, do we think that it was an offering to some "brown god"? Might it also be an offering to the water itself; a way to send those things to the Underworld; or a way to remove them from sight for some other purpose we cannot yet imagine?

Let the evidence speak for itself.

Key in the inspiration for the poem Little 
Gidding by T. S. Eliot.

For last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.

T.S. Elliot, Little Gidding
(last of 'Four Quartets')
Unlike the real historical records that might be found in old churches, records of baptisms and the burial of the dead in its graveyard, the Archaeological Record is not history at all. It is a "best guess" based on what evidence has been found and removed by the excavators.

Evidence might be interpreted differently in the future, or it might be ignored in the haste to dig somewhere else. It might go to some museum where it will lie in storage, forever unseen as it is deemed not worthy or interesting enough to display. Perhaps it might be discarded as unimportant when storage space becomes a critical matter, or even destroyed after the dig "to prevent it getting into the hands of collectors"

It takes effort and attention for us to hear the voices of the dead and to pass them on, and what they appear to say today, might be seen very differently in the future. This is how it will always be. Let us make sure, though, that they are never silenced.


  1. Great post and well said. Thanks.

    1. Thank you, Dick, much appreciated. I was looking for a quote, yesterday, and I found the T.S. Elliot poems and it went from there. I think it might be my favorite post so far but the formatting within the template nearly drove me crazy. From poetry yesterday, I'm shifting to dance today (in the same series)

      Thank you, too, for linking to another of my posts from your blog. Without detectorists, I have no idea what I would be doing -- the subject of Celtic coins, for example, is dependent on it and the finds have added to our knowledge more than anything else.