Ruins: sites showing neglect and disrepair, those held in stasis through heritage conservation, and those restored to former glories, can constitute fragile, threatened yet beautiful, powerful, educational and evocative links to the past. In this regard, one might think of the grace and serenity of a monastic ruin like Valle Crucis Abbey (Denbighshire), Buildwas Abbey or Lilleshall Abbey (both Shropshire), the proud grandeur of a ruined fortification like Castell Dinas Bran in the Vale of Llangollen or Beeston Castle in Cheshire, the stark and intriguing monumentality of a hillfort’s banks and ditches like Foel Fenlli or Penycloddiau (both Denbighshire), or the mysterious ruination of ancient ceremonial sites like Stonehenge or Arbor Low.
Saving Archaeology from Oblivion
Archaeologists live their lives in ruins and exploring other material fragments of the past. We explore them, analyse them, seek to explain them and reinterpret them. Most of all, archaeology offers hope that all is not lost and that fragmentary written and pictoral sources need not be all we have to interpret the past for people today and generations into the future. Whether we are dealing with the interpretation of prehistoric remains constructed long before writing, or times and places seemingly ‘familiar’ but hitherto unexplored historic places and landscapes, archaeology promises to save the past from neglect and forgetting.
How does archaeology do this? Through working, through thinking and by engaging people today in the past all around them. By reinterpreting old discoveries as well as exploring these ruins afresh through new surveys and excavations archaeologists might use both tried-and-tested methods as well as new and innovative techniques to explore the past. We also try to look at the past differently, debating and exploring new theoretical perspectives that can bring the past to life. In these fashions, archaeologists in partnership with communities can bring hope to the present and hope that all the past is not dead and gone.
In this regard, archaeology is the most optimistic of the humanities, defying death and shouting out that oblivion will not triumph and the past can be kept ‘alive’ for modern people. This is a powerful and passion-rousing way to think about our heritage. It has become a cliche and it is heavily rhetorical. Yet it remains powerful and important for how our society and its many diverse communities can be engaged with, learn to understand, respect and value heritage, including the work of archaeologists themselves.
Ambivalent Heritage of the Modern World
Yet the salvaging of lost pasts is almost always contested. Many seek to destroy the material traces past through indifference, looting or active government-sanctioned development. The significances afforded to the past become even more ambivalent and heavily politicised the closer one gets to the present. Also, ruins become more disturbing too the closer they are to the present. This applies to the heritage of the industrial era: a recent past seemingly going and gone, on the edge of ‘living’ memory.
Heritage of the modern era can be found everywhere, not simply in designated ‘heritage sites’. The archaeology of the industrial era incorporates so many lines of evidence, from terrace houses, railway lines, war memorials, factories, churches, a country house and its garden. Here, ruins abound , whether it is an old winding gear of a mine, an old iron works or quarries, surface-workings or massive spoil heaps. These kinds of ‘ruin’ can evoke fear, disgust, fascination and nostalgia: a wide range of emotions and significances. Yet through archaeological and interdisciplinary research, they too can offer more than a melancholic and maudlin mourning for lives lost and communities fallen from grace. Industrial heritage too can offer us hope.
However, there is a special kind of disgusting melancholy surrounding industrial heritage sites closed to the public. This is the worst kind of horror: an apocalyptic terror akin to that experienced by watching zombie movies and shows like The Walking Dead.
I saw this in recent visits to Bersham Ironworks, and Minera lead mines, both now closed heritage sites within Wrexham borough. These are landscapes that are not simply ruins, they have the terrifying appearance of just-shut post-apocalyptic wastelands. The zombie-horror of shut and locked heritage sites including the following elements:
- The locked doors of visitor centres
- locked toilets.
- perfectly good car parks blocked by boulders and now showing the signs of nature taking over like the parking lots.
- heritage boards inaccessible to visitors
- locked gates of not only displayed ruins but also of a church
- opening times that must relate to previous years, still on display and not even taken down, themselves stark reminders of happier heritage times.
Together they provoke a sense of sorrow at the loss of the past that is not simply sad, but tragic. These sites have been brought back to life, conserved, opened to the public only to be then shut and put into stasis: left to rot. They were made viable as heritage attractions and as natural conservation areas drawing visitors local and from further afield, and yet they became unsustainable in the face of local government funding cuts in our age of austerity. They may be open on demand for specific visits, and for activities for local kids, but they are not open in any real and proper sense.
So we have created heritage zombie landscapes. Moreover, the material components within the locked gates and doors are now zombie-heritage: the walking dead, neither in the world of living heritage nor fully dead and gone. Thus, the abandoned and locked elements are tragic not because they exist, but because they create the zombie heritage they contain. Now trapped within these spaces, like the shambling dead of the film J’accuse, or the hospital zombies of the opening episode of the Walking Dead, it is the heritage traces themselves that are zombie-like. The winding gear, the furnaces, the buildings, little trucks on the railway lines, are now apparent and material heritage dimensions struggling to break free from their shackles, to be open again, to be alive again, to be appreciated again. They are mindless yet they are to be pitied, trapped as exhibits in a zombie heritage apocalypse.
How did it come to this? How did we create these heritage zombies? Simple. We voted for it! Not once, but now twice! Well, the people of Wales didn’t vote for it, but nonetheless, the funding and priorities available to local councils remain set and heritage is under threat everywhere.
Call me naive, but I am a Herschel in this regard, not a Rick Grimes. I believe in the goodness of people. I believe in the moral and social value of heritage. Hence, I believe these zombies heritage landscapes can be saved from a fate worse than oblivion. They can be resurrected as living heritage!
The Walking Dead and all zombie apocalypse stories are about what it means to be human. What makes us who we are, as individuals and as communities. Having a past is key to having a future. We need our archaeology, history and heritage. If we lose it, we ourselves will join the zombies too: mindless and without memory of who we are.