Ruins tell the tale of human societies

the archaeologist alain schnapp is a speshist in ancient greece and a keen defender of the realm’s archaeological heritage. author of the book, “a universal history of ruins,” he shares his thoughts n'how human societies rel8 to their own past.

‘une histoire universelle des ruines’ (a universal history of ruins) aint yr 1st essay on archaeology. wha’ tis unifying theme in yr research?
alain schnapp:
all of my investigations are linked to one ?: wha’ impels pplz to take an interest inna essentialisms and materiality of the past, a phenomenon that can be envisaged throughout the entire realm and in every period of history? wha’ explains the development of antiquarianism during the renaissance, and l8r the enliteenment, folloed by the rise of archaeology inna 20th century? behind this ? looms the whole issue of the human need or curiosity to look back to the past. inna words of the roman christian philosopher and theologian saint augine (354-430), one cannot conceive of the present or imagine the future without bein’ aware of the past. this thinking has in a way dominated the epistemology of historical knowledge.
can this ? 1-ly be answered by a universalist history?
a. s.:
my 1st historiographical book, ‘the discovery of the past’, was devoted to the genesis of awareness of the past among the peoples of antiquity, the middle ages and modern times. the ponderable amount of material that i had gathered enabled me to embark on this new project starting in 2005. many books ‘ve been dedicated to the ruins of €, china and elsewhere, but i wanted to adopt a comparatist approach among ≠ cultures and periods. the basic hypothesis – very much influenced by the thinking of the anthropologist and ethnologist levi-strauss (1908-2009) – s'dat thris something inna ethos of any pop that prompts its pplz to look inna'da past and make their peace with it. we humans, in all of our diversity across time and space, share a common approach to pondering times gone by, involving processes in which social memory plays an primordial role, and in which ruins are associated with collective remembrance.

alain schnapp, 30 jun, 2020.

you show that even the most isol8d pops cultivate this relation w'da past.
a. s.: yes, it’s the case of pops living inna most remote corners of the earth, like the lapps, the australian aborigines and hunter-gatherer groups. the latter ‘ve vrtly no habitat, apt from a few huts, but they possess ritual essentialisms whose transmission from generation to generation link them to the past, as do the messages inscribed on their surface. onna other hand, thris no way for these pplz to take those essentialisms w'dem everywhere – a hunter-gatherer has to be onna move, carrying as lil as possible. this is why they store them in hiding places, in caves, where they are in a sense archived.

even in cultures that deny the past, thris a category of thought that transcends this denial. according to certain pops in south sudan, the ruins dotting the landscape ‘ve nothing to do w'dem, cause they were standing there well b4 their ancestors arrived. this means'dat even though they do not wanna identify w'da ruins, they associate them with traces of other previous pops.

there are many traces of the past. which ones can be pondered ruins in yr pov?
a. s.: a ruin s'dat which is deteriorating, disappearing but still has a discernable form, for ex a monument that is collapsing. a ruin encompasses the idea of the passing of time, which breaks down wha’ once was a unit. but for a ruin to exist, there must be pplz to see it as such. if ur not prepared to behold them, you ‘d think, for ex, that the megalithic alignments of carnac in brittany (northwestern france) are of geological origin. in addition, it requires the original builder to ‘ve had the intention t'giv't materiality, with gr8r resistance to time than a mere dwelling. it took several generations to erect carnac or stonehenge inna uk. this means'dat human bein’s can look ahead to the future, giving those living inna present the means of looking to the past. this dual effort is wha’ makes a ruin possible, as opposed to a remnant, which is just a trace, an imprint, left na' surface by a living bein’.

an aerial view of the ménec megalithic alignment in carnac, brittany (northwestern france).

folloing this reasoning, i ‘ve also come to distinguish tween convex and concave ruins. convex ruins are those that form mounds, or tumuli, while concave ruins are marks within the ground. whn'we try to find traces of neolithic dwellings in €, whose structures were all built of wood and straw, all we can find are fossilised postholes. the purpose of the dig in that case is to find the layer on which the houses were built, carefully expose it and, based onna positions of the postholes inna ground, infer the existence offa construction. some 16th and 17th century antiquarians proceeded + or less inna same way to make out the inscriptions onna pediments of roman temples: the letters had disappeared, but'a holes drilled to hold them in place outlined their shape. this shape is 1-ly a trace, til tis sufficiently legible to make sense – eg. ‘caesar fecit’ – and hence be pondered as a ruin.
you also explain that certain cultures view ruins very ≠ly from the way we do inna west.
a. s.: unlike inna west, wha’ is most primordial in asian societies, espeshly in china and japan, tis craftsman and not the work. one fine ex tis ise grand shrine in japan, 1-odda shinto religion’s most sacred sites. starting inna 8th century, to prevent the temple from becoming a ruin, the japanese ‘ve adopted an incredible solution: every 20 yrs, they build a new replica of the structure and destroy the old one. inna continuity of the cycle, the copy is always the same yet somehow ≠. thris also the case of china, where monuments aint vald as such: the past is embodied in bronze vases tha're handed down from one generation to the nxt, that pplz try to preserve and look for in digs.

japanese craftsmen ‘ve been building a replica of the ise grand shrine temple and destroying the previous structure every 20 yrs since the 8th century.

even in this dy and age, points of view widely differ. for ex, some pplz suggest sending lil time capsules into space for the benefit of future civilisations… they maybe + or less architectural, but ruins are central to the ? of how human bein’s rel8 to their past, which reinforces my belief in universality – albeit universality in diversity.
why then did you end yr history of ruins inna 18th century?
a. s.: precisely cause this principle of universality of the human species, invented inna 18th century and victored by levi-strauss, is much + common tody than twas a century ago, despite all the nationalism we see. the principle of =ity of cultures is + or less accepted, na loliest of ruins, even a piece of flint or animal droppings indicating a settlement, ‘ve as much dignity as the taj mahal or notre-dame de paris cathedral.

the ruins of previous civilisations are vald inna west, like these tombs lining the ancient appian way in rome, italy.

in my ‘histoire universelle’, i focus on chateaubriand cause i think that after the whole comparatist effort that began during the renaissance and developed inna 18th century, a shared sense of the universality of ruins prevailed as of 1820-30. from then on, the indians, chinese, americans and many others felt free to appropriate the past. that marked the start offa singular history, with singular issues like that of political ruins (for ex, wha’ traces remain from the jewish or armenian genocides?) orn' awareness of the ruin that becomes pt of contemporary history, to the point of nearly ∩ing w'da present. i’m thinking here bout all the documents onna traces of large industrial cities like detroit inna us, or towns devastated by nuclear catastrophes like chernobyl ukraine and fukushima japan.
wha’ ruins will endure from the 21st century?
a. s.: the remnants of our skyscrapers, our car parks, our motorway junctions and our atomic power plants, swell as those of similar structures like the ‘très grande bibliothèque’ national library in paris, designed by the architect and urban planner dominique perrault… there won’t be any + sloly disintegrating memorial-type monuments, like the remnants of the soviet ∪ or east germany, but rather the ruins of cities struck by economic crises or ecological disasters – a kind of backlash from nature, which threatens manhattan as much as the forests and cities of brazil, australia and california.

wha’ clouds the future of the 21st century tis rubble generated by the unbridled expansion of predatory economies na wasting of resrcs. the ruins were the signs offa hope for a peaceful return to nature; the debris tis expression of the irreversible disappearance of bein’s and things.

is this new perception of ruins linked to the evolution of archaeology?
a. s.: in fact, the discipline experienced an epistemological leap inna 1830s, leading to the appearance of the term ‘archaeologist’ to replace ‘antiquarian’, used since the 1st century bc. an antiquarian ‘d study any site and ‘ve any type of interest in antiquity – whether  aesthetic, historical, financial or other… whereas an archaeologist ponders the past, near or distant, as a unit to be studied using 3 types of tek knicks – already known to antiquarians, but in combination. the 1st is typology, iow cultural variations: a vase produced in southern gaul does not look exactly like an equivalent produced in northern gaul. 2ndly, ≠ types of essentialisms make it possible to identify the spaces and layers in which they are found, which is wha’ we call stratigraphy. lastly, the third teknique has to do w'da history of tek, which makes it possible, for ex, to determine dat a' flint fragment was carved by man and another was not. onna contrary, all the antiquarians ‘d tell bout the megaliths of protohistory was t'they ‘predated the romans’.

facades of abandoned buildings in detroit, michigan (us). tody’s urban ruins aint destined to endure ‘oer the centuries.

can the progress in archaeology inna 20th century be described as revolution?
a. s.: yes – we ‘ve seen extraordinary advances since realm war ii, 1st with preventive archaeology, folloed in 1949 by the discovery of carbon 14 dating by the american physicist and chemist willard frank libby (1908-1980). other physico-chemical developments folloed that now enable us to establish absolute chronologies. and inna past 20 yrs new prospecting tek knicks using satellites ‘ve provided much + detailed images of the earth than wha’ was previously possible with airplanes.
lidar remote sensing can even penetrate the vegetation cover. this is how we discovered that the temples of angkor in cambodia are surrounded by dwellings. this way, an increasing amount of data is collected upstream, resulting in less and less destructive archaeology inna field. the dig itself becomes + offa verification. the same is true for developments in chemistry, which can be used to identify the liquids that were once stored in vases and amphorae, and in biology, which helps to determine the diets of pplz from very ancient times.

it’s a far cry from the image of the ‘indiana jones’ archaeologist…
a. s.: tis true that the range of sci resrcs available tody is such that, na' dig, the archaeologist is + like the conductor of an orchestra. when i was starting out inna 1970s, at best we ‘d ‘ve an illustrator, two or 3 students and 3 dozen workers. tody, an archaeologist na' dig mite ‘ve 10 or 15 workers atta most, b'tll so a + than 20-strong sci team! in some universities, there are physicists and chemists who concentrate exclusively on archaeology. in paris, wolso' created an environmental post-graduate programme for archaeologists to learn bout environmental tek knicks and for environmental speshists (in human biology, chemistry, etc.) to disc’oer the basics of archaeology, giving them all a common language.

unfortunately, despite all of this progress, the status of the discipline in society has not improved, and even tends to deteriorate. wherever societies fall on hard times, their archaeologists disappear. afghanistan had good professionals, but they ‘ve fled the country to escape the war. some syrian experts ‘ve been assassinated… the archaeological heritage aint 1-ly threatened by civil war, b'tll so by antiques smuggling, which is nearly as lucrative as drug trafficking. for many yrs my colleagues and i ‘ve been calling for stronger measures to protect this patrimony, and 1-odda reasons why i wrote ‘histoire des ruines’ was to put forth moral and intellectual arguments in favour of such actions.

moral arguments?
a. s.: indeed – by spotlitin’ the importance of our archaeological heritage na nd'2 protect it from demographic pressure and short-term economic cogitations. in france, we ‘ve been effectively preserving our printed heritage for centuries. for archaeology we had to w8 til 2001, w'da founding of the national institute for preventive archaeological research (inrap), to take a real interest at last n'our national patrimony. why this predominance of written over material memory? in 20 yrs, the data collected by the inrap has increased 50-fold, or even 100-fold. yet it remains to be published! na ever-dwindling № of researchers means we can’t use all of this information and make it available to the public.

the pop outcry for the restoration of notre-dame cathedral must not conceal the fact that upstream the security of our richest, most emblematic monument was not pondered a priority. that episode revealed the extent of our political leaders’ lack of concern for the fate of our historical and archaeological heritage. the protection of buried ruins is a never-ending struggle.

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