thinking about archaeology

The people’s plinth

Gravestone3

I’ve just got back from a walk with my daughter. She decided to spend a lot of time in what used to be a churchyard, and is now a small green space, and I started thinking about people. Gormley’s work on the plinth is like a graveyard, except instead of everyone being lined up together, they’re popping up one after another; we’re all alive now, but so once were the people under the ground, it’s just an inversion, the stone beneath us as we perform instead of above us as we decay, all sorts of people drawn together and in the grouping losing ourselves in our common humanity.

Already we’ve seen a number of people on the plinth promote single issue causes, from their own businesses to international campaigns created by others. I like to think we’ll see fewer of those as potential plinthers realise it just doesn’t work: the campaigns already have much better publicity machines, and there’s an element of manipulation that makes one want to turn away as a viewer. But if there were causes I’d promote from up there, amongst them would be that of graveyards.

For decades these profoundly moving places of community historyMarlborough stone6 have been disappearing and decaying. The marker stones weather and break up, and are taken down and moved about. As communities change and people migrate, there are fewer left who knew or remember those buried there, and few to care. Entire graveyards can be decommissioned and destroyed for redevelopment, bodies Black death cemeteryhoiked out and reburied in mass pits. Sometimes there are major archaeological interventions, and the study of the bones, stones and objects from the graves can be tremendously informative: a classic recent case is the analysis of over 600 skeletons from a neatly-ordered Black Death cemetery in London (click on the book for details). Such projects are immensely valuable and fascinating, but of course by the time a cemetery reaches that stage a great deal has already been lost.

Marlborough stone7

A 19th century memorial to an educationalist, with a spelling mistake

Here where I live, a small rural town, there is a typical range of burial places. One church, surrounded by weathering tombs, is now a craft centre. Another is still a place of worship, but most of the gravestones have been taken down and laid as paving, where Gravestone1feet wear away what’s left of any legible inscriptions. The cemetery on the edge of town is split into two parts, old and new. The older is wonderfully atmospheric, where lichen-covered graves of all sorts rise through the vegetation. But the memorials are flaking and crumbling.

If such places cannot be saved, they can be recorded. What a wonderful site for a school project would an old cemetery make: recording the different styles of tomb, the names and dates, the professions and quirks, tracing the echoes of local and outside events and tracking people down through records and living descendants – and occasionally finding family members. Recreating communities that have no other record of quite the same calibre, people united in their common humanity as they were not always in life.

Marlborough stone4

Marlborough stone5

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