Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Step by London Archaeologist.

In my memory, a clear picture of a handful of circles on a step. Copper, blood, saliva on grit. Around, the sound of a high street, the steps leading off. Could have been a child, I suppose, losing a milk tooth, drooling pain over dropped pocket money. Or old men, too, lose teeth naturally. Realistically, though, there was no need searching. It had been a junky or a wino in a fight over a clutch, a punch swung at a jaw.

It is not unimaginable, I considered, that there was once a people with a very specific belief concerning clouds. To many the question must have posed itself as to the limits to the variety of the possible forms of the meteorological bodies. Perhaps they could be infinite, perhaps they repeat. Arising from this uncertainty, the belief might have been that there is a specific place from which, looking up on different occasions, a person could, as an extreme rarity, catch an exact repetition of an earlier configuration. At that moment, that person, and only that person, became free from the otherwise endless cycle of birth and death.

Around me the sound of the high street was cars, a slight rustle from a nearby tree, and possibly children in a playground screaming. The victim would have reeled on being punched, perhaps fallen on his back as he released his hold on the money, of which his assailant would have taken all denominations above those expressed in copper alloy. On his back he would have heard the noises I heard and also the departing steps, perhaps not even running. He would have seen the houses that cleared where the path left the street to bracket a patch of sky, the branches of the tree extending into it. 

The path joins the course of the New River, itself no longer extant except in course, meandering round the backs of the houses. Myddleton, the man who laid what was never in fact a river at all but an open aqueduct or conduit, is represented on the high street by his statue. Further up the path you come across places where water has been restored, but lies still. Occasionally a flood will break out, from beneath a nearby road, reminding you that the course of the former water way now in reality lies underground, all that remains on the surface an act of illusionism.        

 I passed often up the steps on my way home from work, seeking the calm the course offers for the last five minutes to my door. Back at that time I did not have the habit of carrying my camera about with me, but, having done one or two domestic chores, would be happy to make the trip back with it.

For some reason that I do not remember, the household tasks took quite some while, and by the time I was able to return, it was not surprising that all trace on the step had been erased, the coins perhaps pocketed by a passer by, the saliva evaporated, the blood brushed away by feet.

I have long since moved from there to another part of town. However, at the time regularly, and now on the much rarer occasions that I find myself there, I still feel an irresistible compulsion to look and confirm. The cars come and go, of course, and the branches still sway, one time bare, another with shoots, thick with leaves, bare. Children’s voices come from the playground by the New River course. Clouds, planes, birds pass over head, but of course, as I know will be the case, never

 again coins there, blood or saliva in their eloquent configuration on the stair.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Barrier Billboard Gate by London Archaeologist

On a building site the function of the barrier has always been to stop the passer by from entering. It would be wrong to imagine that it is intended to stop them seeing in as well, since frequently there is a little window to satisfy the inquisitive gaze. I recall seeing some in which the window is in the shape of a keyhole, charmingly dispelling any doubt as to their function.

Usually. There are, too, barriers whose purpose would seem to be quite different.

When the boom ended, and development slowed, when I lost my employment in the field, then, seeing these barricades and peering into the site, I would imagine very differently the contents of the mud, the stone, clay, lime of London soil.

It has long been known to Londoners that the earth their city stands on is sufficiently rich in deposit to warrant emptying the place of people, removing the buildings, taking up the tarmac, the paving, everything but the earth, and everybody only looking, seeing once and for all everything that was really there, everything apart from the business of living, record rather of what had gone before, letting at last the predecessors emerge in their record, the record speak for itself. And we know that in the building site that happens in its own limited way.

The cult of Minerva we know about the evidence of in London through its statues, the cult of Dionysus. In churches, temples, mosques, of course, above ground, of Christ, Mary, of Buddha and Mohammed. But then there was the day in which they dug and found, in pottery, the legs, and nearby the torso, the arms, head, fingers, even, splayed, the mouth open, eyes wide, of a woman, hair tousled, ecstatic or in agony, and displayed it for view in the lab, as was the way with unrecognised finds, long enough for hypotheses to be formed, possible imports mooted. Perhaps Roman, perhaps pre.. Personal use, it was thought, but what was unknown, who it was and by whom used, what the purpose. These objects have no part in the stories we know about in the city. They can not all be displayed, considered or known, but neither discarded, and are kept, stocked, for a day when perhaps at last they will all be recognized, their place discovered, stories restored.

These gods, spirits, angels that go unrecognized abound. In the museum the drawers for them themselves are catalogued with drawers of cards describing what they look like, possible classifications, where and when it was that they were found, in what condition, by whom. The idea that a role for all of them should one day be found is absurd, but it is the end of archaeological science to try, and the pleasure of the task, in the absence of the satisfaction, is the hope.

But on Cheapside the barricade served a function so different that even the name was a travesty, seemed to turn itself inside out, open itself in the middle and form endless and unrecordable stories concerning the uncatalogued deities.

Red is the colour of a baboon's behind, and grey an old man's teeth. From this barricade, wall, fence, defense, or whatever insufficient and, worse than misleading, opposite name be given it, it would seem to have been in part the effect of the two colours to arrange to emerge, in inconvenient torrents of living flesh, such impossible pantheons as would always go without name.

Where they will go, with whom communicate, what their effect will be on their surroundings, their colleagues, friends and acquaintances, whether ever recognised, acknowledged or even themselves suspect what they are is impossible to tell, but the effect of their not being identified, of their being simply allowed to disintegrate into the surrounding masses, promises a change in the city whose scale, if unnoticed, will be unimaginable: to be living, moving among, addressing and being addressed by uncountable deities, unable ever to name them, address them as known.