thinking about archaeology


Beatrice de Cardi

Corsica 1978.jpg

My obituary for Beatrice de Cardi has just gone live on the Guardian website, and I guess will be in the paper tomorrow. I have written a longer version for the Society of Antiquaries’ newsletter (Salon), which fellows will receive next week.

She was an astute and discrete lady. I suspect we will start to find out all sorts of things about her that few knew, and collectively that very likely no one person fully understood. She kept her work in the UK and the Middle East quite separate, but there’s a third area that may turn out to be at least as interesting: Corsica.

Through her father Count Edwin de Cardi (1875–1935) she was, it is said, the last in line of an aristocratic Corsican family; she was herself a Countess, though she never used the term. In the past few days I’ve not seen anything in which she mentions Corsica, and it didn’t come up when I interviewed her in 2004. So I was intrigued when I heard that one of her requests for her funeral was a Corsican liberation song.

So here, for Beatrice de Cardi, are two images of Corsica I took in 1978: the megalithic alignments in the maquis at I Stantari; and protest graffiti.

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And then there was her mother, a would-be opera singer from Pennsylvania. The Museum of London has some of Christine’s clothes, including this evening gown (left), and (right) an “opera cloak, satin, velvet, lace, ostrich feather, Jacques Doucet, early 20th century”, too delicate to unpack.



Photos: Museum of London






Beatrice de Cardi 1914–2016

Beatrice de Cardi in 1966

Beatrice de Cardi, distinguished and honoured archaeologist, founding secretary of the Council for British Archaeology, with a career that ranged from Mortimer Wheeler’s personal secretary to significant fieldwork in the pre-Islamic cultures of the Arabian Gulf and Baluchistan, died this morning, aged 102. A dear and dignified lady. Expect many tributes.

Below is an interview from British Archaeology in 2004.

Beatrice de Cardi 2004

For Jo Cox

And all she fought for and believed in.


Lawrence Johnston’s gardens at Hidcote, Gloucestershire, June 18 2016.

The New Tate Modern – and what it made me think about the British Museum


Listening yesterday to Nicholas Serota talk about Tate’s vision, and how that had led to the new extension which opens to all, for free, in two days, I thought of the British Museum. I couldn’t stop doing so, as Lord Browne (Tate chair) followed Tate’s director, and then Sadiq Khan (London’s mayor), Frances Morris (Tate Modern director) and finally Ed Vaizey (culture minister).


Twenty years ago, said Serota, this was a derelict power station. Now it offers a new view of the world, not just about art, but about the city, about London and what art can do for the community. This shows what we can achieve when we remain open to ideas and to the world, said Browne, in a barely veiled dig at a backward-looking little England currently making all the noise. Vaizey said the same, while managing to sound as if he was unaware of an impending EU vote: Tate is a statement of a confident Britain that looks out to the world.

Now is Tate’s moment and I don’t want to make it about the British Museum. I will return to the BM at the end, but most of this blog will be photos I took yesterday – I hope you can pick up some of the excitement I felt just about the new building and the spaces and views it creates.

It was like being in a great cruise ship before the first passengers embark. Unscuffed stairs and landings that will fill with people and noise. Silent, sparkling cafes where reputations will be made, memories created and lives changed. Empty rooms like levels in a softly furnished multi-storey car park. Great expanses of galleries, where anything might happen. And not just any cruise ship. The long angled windows, the swish of the automatic doors and a curious hum on some of the landings: we were on the Starship Enterprise, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new art, to boldly go where no gallery has gone before.

There are 11 floors (11 floors!) in the Switch House, from the basement to the top – and you can walk from 0 to 10 up deliciously designed stairs, which change their attitude as they rise. Entrance from the south is on the level of the bridge across the Turbine Hall, which now unites the two sides of an enormous museum. There is a real quality in the simple detailing and the acres of fine wood (despite the scale, there are more intimate corners than in the old wing, now named the Boiler House). But what most impresses are the huge spaces, many of them outside the galleries, and the heights, and the playful opportunities given to light which variously sweeps, glares and hides among the concrete frames and piers. There is nothing remotely comparable in a public building in London.

I’m going to open with the view out to the east, starting on the first floor. It was pouring heavily at that point, but by the time we’d reached the top it had cleared and the sky was rich and grey.




And then around the top, the Viewing Level.








Now some spaces.







Space enough for Will Gompertz to interview Jacques Herzog in the background (architect with Pierre de Meuron – the two men sat in the front row for the press speeches without saying a word), and another team to talk to Sadiq Khan in the foreground


A new bridge connecting the 4th floors offers a terrifying view down the Turbine Hall (that installation on the ground beyond Ai Wei Wei’s newly installed tree is the array of empty seats after the press speeches)









And finally a bit of art.





There were some things completely new to me that I liked a lot. Below is a room for a Romanian artist, Ana Lupas, showing her The Solemn Process (1964–2008). This must be a tiny part of what she made over decades. Working with straw and clay and rural craftspeople using traditional techniques for housing and fencing, she created wreaths and columns that look ritual and ethnographic, but apparently have no prior meanings. She photographed the installations, and over time and social changes, they decayed and she turned to more craftsmen to encase remains in metal. The solemn process apparently refers to the farming cycle. Land art meets pagan ritual, and folk and agriculture museum.


Next, Untitled (Ghardaïa), at the back of a gallery called Living Cities. By Kader Attia, born in France to Algerian parents, it’s a scale model of the historic city Ghardaïa in the M’zab Valley in Algeria. It’s made entirely of couscous. On the wall behind are photos of architects Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon, with a copy of the ICOMOS document that recommended the Vallée du M’Zab for world heritage site listing, and (the main text) explained why, dated December 1981. The ancient buildings inspire 20th century European architects, but while Le Corbusier and Pouillon watch the city, it dissolves and falls until it’s rebuilt with new couscous (prepared, we are to imagine, in a domestic Algerian kitchen). Tate’s “summary” describes further French-Algerian links in the work and the artist’s life. Ghardaïa itself is one of a cluster of five fortified villages with powerful medieval roots, topped by a minaret and grain stores. Concentric rings of houses embody a principal of social equality.



And my last, Louise Bourgeois’ cabinet of curiosities, the first display of Artists Rooms from Anthony d’Offay’s gift to Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Wonderful things. In a smaller room at the back is a voluptuous marble figurine (Femme), accompanied by a document hand-written in a fantastic mix of French and English talking about motherhood, femininity and death.



If you’re an archaeologist, you might have noticed where this is going. I selected these three works because I really liked them. They have clear archaeological resonances. That is no coincidence, but it’s not because I’m an archaeologist. So much contemporary art is like this. Modern artists and archaeologists are engaged in the same basic project: to understand who we are, where we came from and what it means to be human. We do it in different ways, but there is much overlap. Many archaeologists are would-be artists. Artists are frequently engaged with archaeological projects in this country. A prominent example in recent years is Drawing Stonehenge, where a number of artists were brought together by Helen Wickstead (an archaeologist who teaches in the School of Art and Design History at Kingston University) to respond in the field to excavations as they were taking place. I featured this in British Archaeology in 2008 (July/August); the flag below is part of Mark Anstee’s work about the Stonehenge Cursus.


Attia’s couscous houses reminded me of Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope. They had a one-year residence with the Cambridge Archaeological Unit at the North West Cambridge development. They and a team of volunteers built a scale model village out of cob (a traditional building material of mud and straw), on the site of large-scale excavations which uncovered remains of prehistoric and Roman villages, based on the development’s masterplan. Tomorrow, Today, wrote Guthrie in British Archaeology (May/June 2015), engaged with “the site’s present nature, and the fleeting, unique archaeological access to the past, as well as encouraging reflection on human transience and future communities.” And, she said, they got very muddy and extremely cold. This future vision, one of the largest art and archaeology projects yet seen, was left to weather and was then backfilled. Soon it will be built over.

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From left, Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope with archaeologist Christopher Evans. Photo Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Places like the New Tate Modern, said Lord Browne, are places where we form a common identity. Where we come to be informed and to be challenged. Referring to St Paul’s across the river, he compared London’s beating heart to its cultural cathedral.

The old power station is a site for weekend family visits, said Sadiq Kahn. Tate is re-imagining the museum, seeing the potential for change, putting people at the heart of what it does and leading the world. He even noted how it embedded culture in the planning system.

Most significantly, Frances Morris observed that since Tate Modern opened, art and the world have changed. The collection has to change too, she said, bringing in more countries, more diversity and more women. Expect our galleries, she said, to look very different in ten years.

All this is what archaeology does, and does well and does around the world – but particularly so, I suggest, in the UK. Archaeology informs and challenges. It entertains. It affirms and shapes identities, locally and globally. And fundamentally, it changes. Our understanding of the past changes daily, as research and excavations create new stories, make new finds. The questions we ask about the past change too, as discoveries and the world around us stimulate new ideas, and different people bring their own interests and curiosity. Archaeology is fundamentally creative and dynamic.

I love the British Museum and everything it stands for. But I think it would be fair to say that the sentiments of the previous paragraph are far from the way the museum presents itself to the world. It hosts one of the most successful archaeological projects, uniquely British and admired around the world, for combining research and public engagement and sometimes off-the-wall enthusiasm and eccentricity: the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Yet PAS thinking does not run through the rest of the BM. The museum has not shown convincingly that it wants to continue supporting it.

It’s too long a topic for now, but there are ways for the BM to continue on its current route while taking on the vitality of Tate Modern, and representing the dynamism and engagement of what is really going on in archaeology today. Not easy! But worth a shot.

#lookdown Boris Anrep


SPAB is running an excellent historic floors promotion which they are calling #lookdown, asking us to share images of our favourite floors. Here’s one of mine. If my experience is anything to go by, many people must walk over these every day without realising what’s under their feet – it was long after my first visit to the National Gallery in London that I really noticed these extraordinary mosaics. These are snapshots I took with my phone a couple of years ago.


The mosaics were created by Boris Anrep (1885–1969), a Russian artist who fell in with the Bloomsbury Group. Astronomer Fred Hoyle climbs a church spire in Pursuit. Ernest Rutherford admires an exploding atom in Curiosity. In Profane Love something seems to be going on between two men, a woman and a Pekinese dog, while Contemplation features what appears to be two men struggling with their love for each other. In Lucidity Bertrand Russell is poised to remove a blindfold from an otherwise naked woman. Another woman site on the back of a motorbike in Speed. TS Eliot contemplates Einstein in Leisure (“roll[ing] the universe into a ball”).

Profane love.jpg


The gallery commissioned Anrep to lay two pavements in the vestibule of the Main Hall, to illustrate The Labours of Life and The Pleasures of Life (1928–29). Later he was asked to do a third, The Modern Virtues (1952), which allowed him to reflect on the war: we see Winston Churchill personifying Defiance; in Compassion, Akhmatova (with whom Anrep had a damaging affair in Petersburg during the first world war before leaving Russia for good) is saved from death by an angel, while she gazes out of frame to Anrep’s gravestone (Here I Lie). Looking at them now, the designs have the air of a planned whole, despite the more than two decades over which they were made. There is so much in them. There are many more panels than I show here, but even in these few photos you can see details than cry out for explanation.


Particularly poignant is Delectation, featuring Margot Fonteyn (with, according to Wikipedia, Edward Sackville-West at the harpsichord). Last week I wrote in Salon about Jane Fawcett, who died in May. Around the world, the focus of her obituaries was encapsulated in a headline in The Economist: ‘The deb who sank the Bismarck’. Good stuff, but after the second world war she had an important career as an architectural conservationist and campaigner, which deserved more recognition. One of her passions was… historic floors. She wrote a survey of cathedral floor damage (ICOMOS 1991), in which she lambasted stiletto heels and tourists with “little interest in the cathedral as the House of God… destroying for each other whatever experience they might have expected by sheer noise and weight of numbers.” Margot Fonteyn? Fawcett shared studios with Fonteyn when they were training as dancers. One of those careers came to naught: Ninette de Valois told Fawcett she was too tall, and her parents sent her to Switzerland to learn German.




Boris Anrep


Here I lie.jpg

New British Archaeology

Cover with Spine

The new British Archaeology is out this week. The digital edition is online now, and printed copies are in the post and will in the shops on Friday.

There are two pieces that I particularly like as classic examples of archaeology at work: finding human stories we’d otherwise know nothing about.

First is the discovery of 400 wooden writing tablets from the early years of Roman London; the texts include the oldest reference to the city’s name, Britain’s earliest dated document (January 8, AD57), and advice to a moneylender.

BA 149 A'a.jpgThen there is A’a, a wooden figure of a Pacific god collected by Victorian missionaries. It’s been in the British Museum for over a century, but new scientific studies revealed many surprising – and, for some, challenging – insights.

BA 149 Ambrus.jpgI have profiled the distinguished illustrator Victor Ambrus, best known for his work on TV’s Time Team.

A303 at Stonehenge (c) Mike Pitts.jpg

Stonehenge may get a road tunnel: how do we judge the options? The CBA sets out some principles.

Another unexpected discovery, and one easily overlooked for its significance, is still under excavation, at Bulford in Wiltshire. There are two small henges (known since OGS Crawford’s time from air photos, but thought to have been bronze age barrow ditches) and lots of neolithic pits full of “ritual” deposits. The site is just back from the east bank of the river Avon, above the junction with its tributary the Nine Mile river. The relevance of that location becomes clearer if I add that on the west bank opposite, are Woodhenge and Durrington Walls. This is a news story, but I put it on the front cover (some of you may recognise Phil Harding and Alistair Barclay standing on the right, and Josh Pollard on the left). I hope the archaeologists will write about it at greater length for British Archaeology when the dig is over and analyses are under way. It’s an important addition to the world heritage site landscape (albeit the wrong side of the river!).

And much more. All in all another issue packed with the best of British archaeology!

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Fortune and victory sit on thy helm!


Photography. Leicester’s statue of Richard III was so much easier to photograph before they moved it from the park! Among the trees and flowers down by the river the light was kind, and the scene changed all the time. It’s appropriate where it now is, but its surroundings are harsh, and it could hardly have been better placed for bad light if someone had tried. In this shot the sun was glowing off the cathedral clock face, and with a long lens I was just able to position myself so the king’s crown framed the clock. But the statue was in complete shadow.

RIII statue.jpg





All the world in Shoreditch

invest stage.jpgI was back in London this morning, for an interesting media event that puts some perspective on the fears some have about proposed developments across the road in Spitalfields. Here, when it’s built, will be a truly monumental tower. It’s residential. It’s on the edge of the City, but the PR focusses on artists, fashion and clubs, young entrepreneurs and street buzz and vibrancy. I doubt that many young creative types will be living there: prices for its designer suites, apartments and penthouses range from £695,000 to £2,570,000, and they are being marketed solidly at investors.

Architecturally (there are two lower-rise office and retail blocks adjacent) it puts me in mind of a compressed version of the Barbican. The flats look as if they might be really nice, with some spectacular views, at least from the highest floors. There’s some green space on the ground (in the sky too) and – here’s the most interesting bit – a theatre.

Or at least, there was a theatre.

The development is on Curtain Street, a name that goes back to The Curtain theatre, a playhouse that opened in 1577 and was probably the venue for the first performance of Henry V. That being the case, when the Chorus introduce the play, saying “…can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram/Within this wooden O the very casques/ That did affright the air at Agincourt?” we are technically hearing a description of this very site. (The developer has said it was where Romeo and Juliet was first performed, though I understand that to have been at The Theatre, opened the year before.)

Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) completed their desk evaluation and excavated many small test trenches a few years ago (you can see what “small” means from the photo below). Here is what Julian Bowsher wrote in his feature about London’s Shakespearean playhouses in British Archaeology (Nov/Dec 2012/127):

“A long, thin north–south evaluation trench we dug in late 2011 appears to have cut across the centre of [The Curtain playhouse]. Stone and brick foundation pads, 22m apart, almost certainly represent the outer wall footings. At the southern end of the trench, thicker brick foundations, 12ft 6in (3.8m) from the line of the outer wall, defined the inner wall. There was a brick relieving arch in this wall which may indicate the presence of an ingressus [entrance from the yard into the galleries]. A gravel yard, some 54ft (16.5m) across, lay within the inner wall. Traces of brick – and knuckle bone – surfaces between the inner and outer walls were evidence for later reuse, and may corroborate references to the building being transformed into tenements by the 1640s. Otherwise, these remains were all sealed by 18th century dumps.”


The Curtain’s inner wall, with a possible ingressus on the right and the yard surface in front. Photo MOLA 2011

This is extraordinary. Any nearer the centre of London, instead of being preserved beneath 18th century soil and rubbish, the theatre’s remains would have been punctured, if not mostly removed, by basements and deep foundations. There is real hope here that the archaeologists might find substantial remains of a theatre known to Shakespeare – and one, ironically, about which otherwise almost nothing is known.

So far so promising. But it gets more interesting.

The Rose theatre on Bankside, built 10 years after The Curtain, was famously the subject of archaeological excavation in 1988–89. There was a heated public argument that pitched the developers of a new office block against archaeologists and public figures protesting against the remains’ imminent destruction. It was only the developers’ goodwill that saved anything. It caused such a stir that national planning policy was changed. We still benefit from that change – the policy is responsible for the fact the MOLA archaeologists were the first people to dig into the ground at The Curtain, not a bulldozer.

And this time the developer is interested in the dig. Really interested.

the stage

Ed Vaizey, culture minister (centre) has just trowelled out a bit of pot from an 18th-century drain, with Jonathan Goldstein, chief executive at Cain Hoy, and Heather Knight, MOLA senior archaeologist

Galliard Homes has called the project The Stage. Its press event today was to launch MOLA’s excavation. When it’s all done, whatever remains are found will be preserved in situ and “transformed into a local landmark”, in a semi-subterranean public visitor centre. Rather as Richard III has transformed Leicester and set the city onto football glory, Shakespeare, Galliard must be hoping, will add gold and glamour to its new buildings.

This is quite fascinating. I can understand some people being cynical. However listening to Jonathan Goldstein enthuse about Shakespeare and “thousand of visitors a week”, I felt he was genuinely thinking about heritage as a positive part of development, life even, not just as a PR exercise.

So let’s see what the dig produces. I will follow it closely.




A bit of “street buzz” that will survive, though possibly looking rather like the old man’s house in the movie Up

Added April 26. Here’s the plaque celebrating The Curtain, that came down with the building. Photo of latter from London Remembers, and plaque from MOLA.

Curtain plaque.jpg



London’s new marble arch

arch column.jpgYesterday was a thinking, walking day in London, pleasantly warm and sunny by the end, that began in the British Museum and ended in Spitalfields via Palmyra and Trafalgar Square. As usual, unless otherwise stated, all photos are mine.

Hartwig FischerThe new exhibition at the BM, “Sicily: culture and conquest” (from Thursday till August 14) set the tone, portraying the island as a sort of floating cultural hub, facing east, west and south – notably under Norman kings in the 12th century. It’s the first show to open under the directorship of Hartwig Fischer, who greeted us in the gallery (above). There are some lovely sculptures and ceramics; it’s not difficult to see why some of this stuff excites collectors, even to illicit dealings. These two pictures are from the BM:

Terracotta altar with three women

Terracotta altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull, Gela, 500BC, Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

12th century mosaic

Byzantine-style mosaic showing the Virgin as advocate for the human race, Palermo Cathedral, AD1130–80, Museo Diocesano

I also liked this older carving, from the museum in Syracuse, a carved door from a rock-cut bronze age tomb at Castelluccio (said to date from around 2000BC). The caption comes straight from old archaeology. “The designs on this tomb may depict the sexual act… The spirals may symbolise eyes, breasts or ovaries.” Or perhaps not. It reminded me (in parallel guessing mode) of Easter Island statues: open eyes at top, closed at bottom – closing, or perhaps opening, during the passage from life to death.


So on to Trafalgar Square, to see the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA) unveil a replica antique arch – the RomanTriumphal Arch from Palmyra, blown up by IS last October. The IDA and its arch have both created quite an interest in the archaeological community, not least because we are regularly being asked by journalists what we think about them.

I’m still not clear exactly what either are for (IDA and the arch), but there’s no denying the arch is fun, and a stunning illustration of digital technologies. It’s made, I think, by creating a 3D image of the arch from 2D photos, and using this to drive a stone drill – the replica is Egyptian marble. It drew quite a crowd, and there was much talk about loss of world heritage, conservation, meanings and rights. Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director of antiquities, credited the arch with raising world awareness about these things.

In any event, international solidarity has to be good. It was also good to see the mayor of London (as he does) talk up ancient civilisations and multiculturalism. “Monuments,” said Boris Johnson, “as embodiments of history, religion, art and science, are significant and complex repositories of cultural narratives” (take that Justin Trudeau and your quantum computing!). People in Trafalgar Square cheered when he raised “two digits” to IS (or Daesh as he calls it). Perhaps IS also cheered in their own way; they like publicity. Roger Michel, IDA’s founder and executive director, seemed to have enough confidence and charisma to match Johnson’s, and came across as enthusiastic and sincere. Good luck to them. Heritage needs champions.

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palmyra shofar

Peter, blowing a shofar: he worries the arch will bring down the wrath of Jesus

palmyra peace

Beri and Oliver, hoping the arch will further world peace

palmyra boris

Boris Johnson (left) arrives at the official tent to greet Maamoun Abdulkarim (right), with Jonathan Tubb, keeper at the British Museum’s Department of the Middle East

palmyra michel

Johnson and Roger Michel, with Alexy Karenowska behind Michel’s right

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In a video Alexy Karenowska (director of technology at the IDA, and a magnetician at Oxford University’s Department of Physics) gives an eloquent presentation of how this technology can help to restore Palmyra and other ancient sites. The new technologies make it easy, if not cheap. Here is where many archaeologists have doubts.  Karenowska seems to envisage replacing lost and damaged architecture with replica models. She recognises the need to “respect authenticity”, and not to confuse copies with antiquity – it’s important, she says, that visitors know which bits are real and which bits are new. But how much do we restore, and what do we leave alone? There are no simple answers.

In the same video Brendan Cormier from the V&A talks about the tradition of making casts of ancient art, which I think is a different thing. As we see spectacularly in the V&A’s recently restored cast court, in earlier centuries plaster casts allowed people to see antiquities and buildings up close that they would otherwise not be able to see at all (as they do for us now). Not only could they not visit remote sites, reproduction technologies were primitive in modern terms, and there were no comparable alternatives.

Old casts often preserve details now lost, and we’d expect digital copies now to do the same in future. But you don’t need to print them to examine them: online digital models can be studied in closer detail, and reach even more people than a printed replica. There’s something about making a physical model of the Palmyra arch that is reminiscent of the early days of the web, when we printed out web pages as seen on our screens. We don’t need to do that.

Here is what some archaeologist have said.

John Curtis, former BM curator, agrees to restoration “after overnight destruction… so far and no further… Many of these ruins had been restored over the years… Provided we know exactly what we are doing, I would certainly favour restoring them to what they were a year ago.”

In a thoughtful piece in The Conversation, Emma Cunliffe, who works for Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East & North Africa (EAMENA), University of Oxford, writes:

“…many argue that 3D printing fails to capture the authenticity of the original structures, amounting to little more than the Disneyfication of heritage. They also point out that the fighting is still ongoing… stabilisation alone should be the priority for now.

“Rebuilding also fails to redress the loss caused by the extensive looting of [Palmyra], focusing only on the dramatically destroyed monuments. Perhaps most importantly, it’s worth asking whether returning Palmyra exactly to its pre-conflict state denies a major chapter of its history? … As has happened after previous conflicts, there may need to be a memorial as a testimony to those beheaded in the arena, or tied to columns that were detonated, or to the [executed] former site director… These stories, and many more, are a part of Palmyra’s, and Syria’s, history.

“One thing is clear: while Palmyra may hold great significance to the world, the final decision should belong to those who have lived alongside it, cared for it, managed it, fought for it, and protected it for generations: the Syrian people.”

It’s important that reconstruction does not diminish the significance of the original monument, says Bob Bewley, project director at EAMENA – and there are always “questions of value for money”. “But if wealthy philanthropists wish to create these symbols of the cultural heritage, to raise awareness of the destruction of identity and cultural heritage, then that is their right.” “The biggest threat to archaeological sites in the Middle East is not Isil,” he adds in the Telegraph, “it’s ploughing and urban expansion.”

Abdulkarim also favours sensitive restoration, using digital imagery, Jonathan Tubb told me, to help rebuild recently damaged parts of Palmyra with original fragments – not to create replicas to erect on site. “We can never have the same image as before Isis,” he told the BBC. “We are trying to be realistic.”

“What I approve of is collecting a record of and documenting vast numbers of sites,” says Tim Schadla-Hall, reader in public archaeology at UCL. He’s less enamoured of the arch, however, which he finds “a bizarre expenditure of money, possibly with worthy but misinformed aims, to promote something which isn’t a real past, in an entirely reproduced form. I don’t get it; I find it very, very odd… [What’s needed is] getting people to change their attitudes to what’s important about the past, and the way you do that, if you’re talking about the preservation of monuments, is you make them worthwhile to the people who live there. It’s the economic benefit they get.”

“The publicity and so on is great,” says Bill Finlayson of the Council for British Research in the Levant.“I have no problem with [IDA’s marble arch]. I think there is a bit more of a problem with the issue of reconstruction on the site itself. The dangerous precedent suggests that if you destroy something, you can rebuild it and it has the same authenticity as the original.”

A Times leader warns that “Archaeological sites ought not to be seen as Disneylands of ruins… The question of exactly what is to be rebuilt and what effect that rebuilding would have on the rest of the site – discovered and undiscovered – should be a matter for archaeologists and historians to think about and then to act on.”

Roger Michel responded to the leader by writing to the Times Letters page, agreeing “wholeheartedly that any plan for the reconstruction of Palmyra must be thoughtfully conceived and carefully executed”, but expressing concern about delaying action, noting the drawn-out arguments over the destroyed Bamiyan statues.

Jesse Norman, chairman of the culture, media & sport select committee, wrote of the problems in pulling off IDA’s project “under ideal conditions, let alone in an active war zone”. He thinks “this is a moment when the British government and leading governments around the world should vigorously support Unesco in taking a lead… Palmyra is already a Unesco world heritage site. It is time for Unesco to demonstrate its leadership once again in this area, with our and other nations’ support.”

Like the Times, Boris Johnson puts archaeologists at the forefront. “We have some of the greatest archaeological experts in the world,” he says in a Telegraph column. “I hope that the Government will fund them to go to Syria and help the work of restoration. It is far cheaper than bombing…”

Ross Burns, adjunct professor in ancient history at Macquarie University, Sydney and author of Monuments of Syria (2009), has perhaps been the most outspokenly critical of printed digital replicas. “It is sad”, he writes in Apollo, “the extent to which… those who have access to copious funding want to prioritise the ‘re-creation’ of Palmyra using ingenious technology well away from Syria. Those efforts are misguided. The regeneration of Palmyra must serve (a) the regeneration of Tadmor and (b) restore Palmyra’s real lesson for humanity: that cities can survive for millennia only by building on the memories of their past.”

In the Guardian, Jonathan Jones sides with the majority archaeological view.

“It is always more moving to see the real stuff of the past, however damaged, than to see a faked-up approximation. The temptation to ‘fix’ Palmyra and make it look like it did at the start of 2015 is understandable. This fascinating place has been subjected to a barbaric onslaught, the thinking goes. Surely it should be as if Isis never did their worst.

“History is not like that. The Isis attack on Palmyra was not a counterfactual fantasy. It really occurred. This 21st-century tragedy is part of Palmyra’s history now. This too, for the sake of truth and as a warning to the future, must be preserved.”

The same paper quoted me in similar vein last year:

“Isis will one day be history. Palmyra will be its permanent lesson, about the darkness into which oppression, ignorance and corruption can sink. To over-restore the ruins would be to create a fiction, denying the tragedy and devaluing what had genuinely survived.”

It’s an important debate, and one that IDA and its marble arch in Trafalgar Square can be proud to have stimulated. Meanwhile there are many other projects using digital imagery, like EAMENA, to record ancient remains and landscapes. In the long term, surely the most exciting ones are those that involve or originate from citizens of the countries whose heritage is being traduced. Such schemes include:

  • the New Palmyra Project, “using digital tools to preserve the heritage sites being actively deleted by ISIS… hosting live workshops and building a network of artists, technologists, archaeologists, architects, and others to research, construct models, and create artistic works”
  • the Palmyra 3D Model, “using people’s unaltered digital holiday photos from Palmyra, before its deliberate destruction by extremists. Using these I am building a 3D model of the ruins to share with the world on open access” (he’s currently seeking funds through crowdfunding to buy a bigger computer)
  • Project Mosul, which “strives to preserve the memory of lost cultural heritage through the means of digital restoration”
  • Project Anqa, a joint CyArk/ICOMOS “emergency recording and archiving” scheme.

The British Museum’s Emergency Heritage Management programme deserves an honourable mention here. With significant funding from the Department of Culture, Media & Sport and led by Jonathan Tubb, this will bring 24 Iraqi scholars to the UK for intensive archaeological and conservation training, to be followed by further training in Iraq; the first group is due to start soon. “The effect of this rolling programme”, says the BM, “will be to create a large and well-trained team of professionals that can cope with the full range of archaeological heritage needs. A team which will be ready when it once again becomes possible to access [sites such as Nineveh, Nimrud and Hatra]. The scheme cannot stop further acts of cultural destruction but it can equip colleagues with the skills required to conserve and restore where possible and is an attempt to enable colleagues to preserve sites and objects of global significance.”

_MP25289.jpgAnd so to Spitalfields. There’s another debate running here about heritage conservation and change. Of course the situation is far removed from the world of the Middle East: but some of the issues are similar, and views are strongly held – not least by Boris Johnson.

There’s a patch of land up for development that has so far escaped the City’s relentless renewal and growth. In February a distinguished list of names wrote to the Times asking for “the communities and local government secretary, to call in – and hold a planning inquiry into – the planning applications threatening Norton Folgate in Spitalfields. This historic conservation area on the fringes of the City is imperilled by plans by British Land to demolish a swathe of buildings for a banal office-led scheme. The plans were rejected by the local council but this decision has been shamefully overruled by the mayor of London, one of a string of permissions he has handed to developers against the will of local people.”

After hearing the mayor of London speak so winningly in support of world heritage, I thought I’d have a look at this imperilled “historic conservation area on the fringes of the City”. British Land’s original scheme was revised and re-presented to Tower Hamlets council in 2015, and in this form gained Historic England’s support. “In our view,” it writes, “the scheme will bring back into use historic buildings that have lain empty and decaying for decades and make a positive contribution to the area… There are no listed buildings, only the cobbles on Blossom Street are listed and they will be kept… It is our view that change is necessary to bring these long-derelict buildings back into use. The diversity of new uses proposed has the potential to revive the area and reflect its residential and industrial past.”

The air photo below, from an exhibition by British Land in 2014, shows the area affected:

Blossom-Street-Board.jpgAs British Land sees it, what the Spitalfields Trust (the most vocal objector) describes as “glass and steel offices”, “corporate plazas” and “big corporate occupiers”, are proposals for “space for small businesses, contextual architecture, intimate courtyards, independent operators and the carefully considered restoration and retention of historic streets and buildings”.“British Land”, says the Save Norton Folgate Facebook page,“want to obliterate Norton Folgate under a hideous corporate plaza and we want to stop them.”

There are other objectors – among them Tower Hamlets council (over-ruled by the mayor acting as the local planning authority), who rejected the scheme “by reason of its bulk, scale and height [which] would fail to either preserve or enhance the character and appearance of the Elder Street Conservation Area”. Save Britain’s Heritage thinks the proposal “would devastate Spitalfields which is itself an urban success story”. The Huguenot Society objects “on the grounds that the site is one of the few remaining places where Huguenot ancestry and culture is preserved”. The Georgian Group says “the scheme does not respect the scale or materials of the conservation area and fails to demonstrate appropriate enhancement”. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings wants “a full review… in order to deliver a fully heritage-led scheme that protects the special character of the Norton Folgate area”.

There are supporters too, including (with qualifications) the Spitalfields Society, the Ministry of Start-ups (affordable start-ups workspace) which is “acutely aware of the lack of business space in the area which leads to rising rent levels”, and the Metropolitan Police, who welcome the extra footfall.

In February campaigners were granted a judicial review hearing to contest the mayor’s calling in of the council’s decision on the site. Their argument is that Johnson’s office could not have read all the required documents in the time in which it took to respond to the application – apparently the 13th it has called in, over-riding council objections in the other 12 – and as a result “erred in law” by failing to take into account a number of relevant matters. It will be the first challenge to the mayor of its kind, to be held in the High Court before May 5. The debate will be interesting.

First, affected buildings:





_MP25300.jpgAnd buildings immediately adjacent but otherwise unaffected (please correct me if I’ve got anything wrong):











Janet Hodgson

Hodgson stonehenge 156.jpgMore sad news. Tomorrow’s Guardian paper will carry Janet Hodgson’s obituary, online now. She will have been known to quite a few archaeologists, as among other things she worked at excavations, and some of her creations were explicitly archaeological: “Piltdown Bungalow” (1993) was an archaeological trench exposing the top of a house; “The Pits” (2005) features sand-blasted impressions of excavations in Canterbury; and “My passage through a rather brief unity in time” (2010) is a short film featuring Maud Cunnington behind the camera. The latter was one of the works she created at the Stonehenge Riverside excavations, to which Helen Wickstead invited several artists for Art+Archaeology.

Wickstead wrote about the Stonehenge project for British Archaeology. The work Hodgson did there included films that jumbled archaeological process and social life, using Harris matrices and GPS mapping. Her Cunnington film was screened at Touchstone, an exhibition about Art+Archaeology at Salisbury Museum in 2010. Her work played about with the confusing nature of time, and was witty, surreal and stimulating. “Temporal landmarks”, wrote Wickstead, “are simulated and relocated. Like her installations, Hodgson’s films generate the sensation of being lost in time.” She was only 56.

At top Hodgson films at an excavation beside the Cuckoo Stone, near Durrington Walls, in 2007

Hodgson time nap still

Still from TimeNap: an archaeologist’s hands refit pieces of struck flint (Hodgson)

Hodgson thomas

A screen from a presentation by Wickstead, showing Hodgson interviewing archaeologist Julian Thomas


From the catalogue to Touchstone (Salisbury Museum)

invitation janet Hodgson.jpg

The University of Kent has posted an obituary, with this photo of Hodgson as Cunnington at Stonehenge:



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