Thursday, May 17, 2012

Rock Piles, Archaeology and Vandalism

By Imogen Reed:

Rock piles are an important part of the New England landscape. As readers will know, they are also a semi-hidden part of it too. Rock piles come in many shapes and sizes and while their functions cannot be proven (is a rock circle a ship barrow like in Uppsala or the demarcations for a hearth?), but all of them are features of the landscape. They can be seen as simple markers and as fragments of the past.

Some people might wonder, why bother trying to preserve a small archaeological thing that is hidden except to those who know what they are looking for. Rock piles are archaeological truffles, that’s true, but landscapes across the world are full of similar things and destroying them removes character, history and the past from the landscape. What is the landscapes if not a collection, an accumulation of pasts stacked one atop the other?

For example, even people not versed in landscape archeology or any kind for that matter in Britain knows about Stonehenge. How many people know that there are dozens and dozens of stone circles dotted around the country? There is one surrounding and intersecting the village of Avebury in Wiltshire, one in the village of Ford in Gloucestershire. Many more have probably been lost.

The same goes for burial mounds known as barrows. The most famous ones being West Kennet near Avebury and Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. Many have names and many more are listed on maps as tumuli. Most have been found atop hills, but an archaeological survey of any parish or area will find that most burial mounds were erected closer to the river.

This is where the importance of understanding vandalism on the landscape comes in. Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said “what is essential is invisible to the eye” and this counts for the landscape to. If we take the visible, a barrow on a hill, you would assume all burials were made on hills so people could oversee the landscape in death. If most were buried by the river, this is therefore not the case and a wrong assumption has been made. Vandalism has changed people’s opinions on how the past landscape was used.

What type of vandalism? Well, in the case of barrows it was agriculture and landscape gardening. In fairness, it was mostly agriculture. There is only so much land and millennia after a death the importance of that burial lessens, even in Christian churchyards people are now buried atop forgotten burials. Farming with the plough and later with machine-driven ploughs has churned the soil and flattened many burial mounds in Europe.

Has the same happened with rock piles in New England? Almost certainly. It probably happened during the pioneer era when settlers cleared lands, chopped down forests and prepared the soil for ploughing. It makes you wonder how many rock piles have been lost forever? How much of the archaeological picture has been disrupted?

Modern vandalism is altogether different. Some rock piles might be developed later on, but most of the ones that people know about and protect, are in areas that are not going to be developed. The ethics of developing on archaeological site can take up whole books, so let’s look at actual human vandalism on a minor scale. Rock piles are smaller and amongst the most fragile of sites. We cannot know if the present arrangement of rocks represents how they were used or intended, but if someone moves the rocks to disrupt what has been left, they have destroyed a piece of archaeology that cannot be recovered.

The moral question is, should archaeological sites be preserved? Should a ruined fort or castle be left as if (in situ) or restored to its previous glory? Should we mourn the loss of a small rock pile? Yes, we should. The landscape is constantly evolving and this raises questions about whether we should preserve all archaeological landscapes, but rock piles are one that can easily be preserved.

In trying to do this, rock pile lovers are going to run into a catch-22 situation. This is a situation historical and archaeological sites the world over are trying to deal with. For example, the pyramids at Giza, a super version of burial piles and barrows, are visited by millions of tourists. They now have to limit how many people visit in order to stop pollution, wear and tear, footsteps and so on just eroding the sites.

Rock piles will have the same problem. Knowledge and money is often needed to protect something, but raising those things invites more people to check them out. The more people who take an interest in rock piles, the more likely they are to be disturbed or vandalized. Rock piles need to be recorded, photographed and mapped, so if any are lost, it is possible to restore them for future generations. Recording finds from rock piles to stone tools is the archaeologists way of insuring scrap to make sure its value is kept.


pwax said...

Don't ask.

Dennis Dee said...

well stated Pete