Night of the Living Dead: modern ruins and archaeology

By Maksymilian Frąckowiak, Kornelia Kajda, Dawid Kobiałka

Archaeologies of the present

A spectre is haunting contemporary archaeologies – the spectre of the present. That is to say, one has recently been witnessing a shift in archaeological approaches: a new, ‘neo-materialistic paradigm’ (so-called return to things) is slowly emerging on the scene. It indicates weak aspects of post-processual perspective with its emphasis on the social, meaning, sings and analyses of discourse, among others. On the contrary to post-processual approaches, here attention is mostly paid to materiality of things. What has also been clearly pointed out is the fact that, more than ever before, the present slowly becomes more important and interesting for archaeologists than the distant past (e.g. the Neolithic) (fig. 1). It is rather the materiality of things than constitutes archaeology than the focus on the distant past (e.g. Lucas 2004).

Figure 1

Fig. 1. Materiality in and of the present: a ‘ghost town’ Kłomino, Poland (author Dawid Kobiałka).

It is said that previous approaches have overlooked, or even more accurately, blurred what seems to mostly characterize archaeology: things as things. From this point of view, one cannot but agree with Laurent Oliver (2013, 127):

History will always have infinitely more to say about past events, just as anthropology will have more to say about the way in which human communities function. The theoretical strength of archaeology resides in its exclusive relation to material remains, which is what distinguishes it from all other disciplines in the social sciences. It draws its immense theoretical potential from its study of the materiality of the present. As scholars from other disciplines have sensed, there lies therein the source of a radically new approach to the world, for archaeology’s relation to matter leads to a veritable phenomenology of the present.

No wonder then the French archaeologist goes to the end of this reasoning. If archaeology is about things, their materiality, what can be said about the world through material culture, then the conclusion is easy to predict. It is only in the present that archaeology can show its all theoretical and practical strength. In contrast to e.g. the Neolithic from which have survived few pieces of pottery, some flint tools, some pits and so on, the present is full of material culture. And the materiality of the present is the task to be undertaken by contemporary archaeologies. That is why, as the title of Oliver’s paper clearly points out: the business of archaeology is in the present (Oliver 2013).

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A World in Decay? – a Case of Tram Cemetery in Wrocław (Poland)

One of the many examples of material culture where materiality and memory are deeply interwoven is a certain tram cemetery in Wrocław (Poland) (fig. 1). That is why I will shortly describe the history of the site, to focus later on interesting problems which confront us, such as heritage sites as tram and/or car cemeteries. I refer also to cinema, where issues often discussed by archaeologists, like ruins, material culture, heritage in becoming, etc. are staged in such a way that is worthy of closer attention.

 Fig. 1

Figure 1: An overview of a tram cemetery at Legnicka 65 in Wrocław. These trams are from the 1960s and 1970s (photo Dawid Kobiałka).

The tram cemetery is located in a North-western part of Wrocław. It is only 20 minutes by walking from the city centre: a metaphor of the city jungle acquires here a quite literal meaning (fig. 2). The place where the old trams are located now is an old tram depot no. 5. Today the place is visited by many people, both inhabitants of Wrocław and tourists out of the city. The place has become well-known after an article in the local news (Torz 2013) where the author complains that the old trams, and some of them are legally protected heritage, like the old wooden Linke-Hofmann Standard trams going to disappear soon.

Fig. 2

Figure 2: A view from inside of Linke-Hofmann Standard tram (photo Dawid Kobiałka).

The title of Torz’s article seems to speak for itself: “see how heritage has been destroyed” (my translation). Also, local TV was interested in the tram cemetery[i]. Coming inside the tram depot and seeing all these trams in ruin is like a nostalgic time travel (Burström 2009), a trigger of existential questions and finally, entering into a prohibited and lost zone of the past. The motif of ruins, entering a prohibited zone has often been explored by the Hollywood films. A reference to at least one of them perhaps can shed some alternative light on archaeological approaches into modern ruins.

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Archaeology through the Lens of Sherlock Holmes

There is always something to learn from Sherlock Holmes. It is a good sign that an archaeologist has been often identified with the private detective:
The Sherlock Holmes type detective has become a common association with archaeology. Although the detective has been associated with other disciplines too […], the link with archaeology is nevertheless extremely close. As has often been pointed out […], both archaeology and (forensic) criminology draw, in parts, on seemingly incontrovertible material evidence, which is carefully documented and taken to provide significant clues as that what really had happened at the site under investigation (Holtorf 2007: 75-76).
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Figure 1. Bredarör on Kivik around 1760 (Drawing by Beckanstedt, ATA/Stockholm) (after Goldhahn 2012).
One of the archaeologists who looks closer at Sherlock Holmes’ logic and its usefulness in archaeology is Michael Shanks (1996: 37-41). The British archaeologist uses as a starting point of his discussion about Sherlock a quote from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Golden Pince-Nez. It is rather a typical story how Sherlock Holmes by approaching details unseen to the others discovers the truth at the end. What is worth mentioning is the fact that Sherlock’s impressive logic is at work in the very first story about the great detective who lived at 221B Baker Street, A Study in Scarlet (Conan Doyle 2003). The reader is already shocked in the first chapter where Sherlock, only by a quick glance at John Watson, knows that he is a doctor of medicine, who was in Afghanistan, and was injured there, etc. John Watson explains in the next chapter how Sherlock was able to do it only by scrutinising details. This aspect of a Sherlockian thinking is emphasised by Shanks. The British archaeologist (Shanks 1996: 38) describes it in the following way:
Sherlock Holmes, whose method is exemplified in the passage above [a fragment from The Golden Pince-Nez – D.K.] trifling details lead to deep insight. It is not that Holmes is a methodical scientist who calculates all possibilities, never guessing until the truth is clear. Sherlock Holmes in fact depends on inspired guesswork, and this is what makes him so fascinating: he observes, makes a guess on the basis of what he thinks is likely, then tests out the guess.
The above quote should be read as a symptom, that something is wrong in this very reasoning about Sherlock. In other words, when such sophisticated theoretician like Shanks repeats social clichés about Sherlock (trifling details lead to deep insight), then there has to be something fundamentally wrong about it .

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Against Gandalf the Grey: an Archaeology of the Surface

Archaeology has been for many years identified with its own method, that of excavation. It is the way the public sees archaeology and many archaeologists think of themselves too (e.g. Holtorf 2007). However, Rodney Harrison recently pointed out the crucial role of the surface in archaeological thinking (Harrison 2011, in press).
Metaphors are never just metaphors, so to speak. They shape and drive our thinking. A metaphor of archaeology-as-excavation is one of such tropes. It presupposes the idea of a distant and buried in the soil past (e.g. Thomas 2004). Harrison claims that there are different ways of thinking of archaeology. The Australian archaeologist proposes as an alternative a metaphor of archaeology-as-surface-survey. This allows the so-called an archaeology of the contemporary past (e.g. Buchi, Lucas 2001) to become a creative engagement with the present and only subsequently as a consideration of the intervention of traces of the past within it (Harrison 2011, 141).
I am totally for the archaeology in and of the present proposed by Harrison. This is the reason why I would like to add in this place some examples of such archaeological focus on the surface, what I call surface investigations (Kobiałka in press).
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Figure 1: Surface investigations

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