Finding the New Rome
Voting for archaeology
Editor Simon Denison
On almost every excavation it's clear that someone has been there before: not Goldilocks but mysterious and unknown previous diggers. You've got a few stones in the foundation trenches - but where are the walls? Here's an exciting bit of drain - but where's the rest of it? This is the last of the pilae stacks - but where's the hypocaust floor? Whodunnit?
You would have thought that archaeologists would make more of the mystery, or that those TV programmes would play the X-files angle and tingle a few spines. But it seems there's no problem: the ruins were dismantled by stone robbers who left their famous 'robber trenches' all over archaeological sites. Those responsible merit little or no attention and no one really bothers with dating their activities. Only when it has been cleaned out does a robber trench engage archaeological attention and then as a useful wheelbarrow run or spoil tip.
Yet stone robbers were responsible for the conversion of our Roman towns to our medieval towns, and our medieval to our Tudor and Stuart towns - if you think of it, rather a stupendous accomplishment. All we see of it now is how they hoicked out tons of rubble and masonry leaving only their trenches behind. They are also incidentally responsible for saving a few archaeological blushes. For it's their nicely mangled trenches that make life easier for the digger, showing which way the walls went and where the foundations stopped and the wall proper began.
So it's time for greater appreciation of stone robbers. To start with this word 'robber' should be got rid of. How come that a sensible recycler, reusing existing materials, gets dubbed a robber while Homes and Highways Plc, who scoop everything out to chuck into landfill, get called developers? Stone robbers should be named recyclers and their robber trenches recycling trenches.
'Robber' would then be free to be applied to the developers and so we could have robber control in planning departments and robber-funded archaeology.
And who's to say stone robbers didn't think about the past while they were at it? With our trenches and relatively tiny area excavations we do not appreciate the scale of what they must have seen. By clearing out virtually every stone from town circuits, villas, temples and baths they exposed complete ground- plans in a way rarely possible today. Obviously no one thought it worth while to actually do a plan and stick context labels in the trenches - for they had new dreams to realise or at least new buildings to put up - but it would seem likely that at the end of the day a few archaeological discussions took place and various theories were put up and knocked down just as at the end of any digging day. In fact these predecessors of ours may well have sorted the whole thing out in the Middle Ages; all we're doing now is puzzling away at the edges of problems they solved.
Of course realising that we are rarely the first on the site but have been preceded by these robbers/recyclers makes one wonder whether future visitors will dismiss us as we dismiss the robbers. It's unlikely that some future shortage of supplies will mean people coming back to our sites in search of imperishable labels or trowel handles. More likely future scholars will look with horror at that 'ceremonially' disposed of pair of wellies or the broken wheelbarrow we discarded.
They may well wonder why we were doing it and put us on a lower scale of accomplishment than the industrious robbers who at least went on to build something more solid than an archaeological theory.
Actually, future scholars might conclude that stone robbers didn't label up and record everything like archaeologists because what they were putting up with their recycled stones was just as beautiful as what they removed.
We, on the other hand, have created such ugly environments that the only pleasant ones we know of are those imagined from the remains of an archaeological site.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005