My interest in the last few years has been to examine how pasts – specifically tangible pasts – are incorporated in urban environments. Most of my work looked at particular sites in Rome where a number of experts are brought in to find options in which remnants and modern development initiatives co-exist.
But London, the city I’ve lived in for the past 7 years, has also proved a fertile ground to reflect on the same issues. One of the things that I’ve been increasingly interested in is how pasts are part of the everyday landscape that I frequent. Since London isn’t a ‘fieldwork site’ per se (where I travel to investigate, gather data and then leave), I have been wondering about what the past in broad terms means for urban memories, and also what it means to ‘dig deeper’ to find things we hadn’t thought of uncovering.
As a non-archaeologist, one of the ways that inspired me to think about archaeology as a discipline and the idea of excavating is a quote from Walter Benjamin in ‘A Berlin Chronicle’:
He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging. (…) He must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. For the matter itself is only a deposit, a stratum (…) True, for successful excavations, a plan is needed (…) Fruitless searching is as much a part of this as succeeding, and consequently remembrance must not proceed in the manner of a narrative or still less that of a report, but must, in the strictest epic and rhapsodic manner, assay its spade in ever-new places, and in the old ones delve to ever-deeper layers. (Benjamin 1932/1997: 314)
Benjamin thinks about the practice of archaeology as a metaphor for uncovering buried memories: digging, going over the same matter, and considering ‘new’ alternative recollections that may reveal multiple meanings. I find that these words give me a license to play with archaeology by questioning the extent of its artefact-based inquiry, and by attempting to ‘do’ archaeology without the rules and training. (It almost feels like I’m a fraud, but I’d like to dip my toes in the term just to see where it can go.)
While I am unclear at this stage what I would be doing in September 2015, I have some ideas about the kinds of enquiries that intrigue me. If my reference point is London, I would like to explore the following ideas flowing from Benjamin’s metaphor:
- look at the different layers of times and meanings amidst contemporary urban developments
- consider other types of ‘artefacts’ that can be traced in and out of the city with reference to Andreas Huyssen’s (2003) metaphor of the palimpsest
To explore these aspects, I was thinking of spending half of the month of September 2015 in London trying to get impressions from the general public, experts and councilors and expose reflections on the Public Archaeology 2015 website in the following areas:
- around the city’s ‘ancient’ pasts to explore the impact of tangible remnants in everyday circumstances (see figures 1 and 2), and
- in the borough of Haringey to contemplate how Banksy’s artistic imprints could be seen as artefact-palimpsests that are indicative of regeneration and community identity (see figure 3).
Figures 1 and 2: Roman remnants publicly accessible in London
Figure 3: Graffiti art on a Poundland wall in Haringey
In the course of 2014-2015, I will be involved in other research projects that will lead me to Stoke-on-Trent and Newcastle. I hope that this (and any other suggestions that people might have!) will inspire me for the second half of September 2015. These research projects will enable me to interview community members as well as participate in an art exhibition which could potentially materialize in September 2015. These public engagement activities would coincide with posting reflections and photographs on this website.