Part 1: What in hell am I doing here?   Leave a comment

This winter when the weather permits, I head across the plain to the Montagnes Noires and up onto Les Causses de Minerve. Since January I’ve been up there six times and it’s beginning to feel like commuting to work. I’m looking for the dozen or so ‘lost dolmens’ that others have visited and researched since the late 19th. century – but which have gone unreported for over forty years now. And one by one I am retrieving them from oblivion.

The flocks of sheep and herds of goats that once kept the garrigue at bay have been gone for a half-century and the ‘chaos of stone’ that Germaine Sicard described in the 1920’s has reverted to a jungle of box and ilex, juniper and dwarf oak. But I refuse to believe that the dolmens and their tumuli have dissolved into karst, or been obliterated by scrub : they must still be there in some form. With our modern tools – satellite and internet – and with effort and luck, they can be found again.

Some of them of course are not lost at all :  chasseurs know some of them as landmarks and even shelters; potholers and botanists may be aware of some but pass them by with a shrug – someone else’s obsession. It’s rare that people venture off-track – impenetrable garrigue and fear of wild boars keep most to the marked paths. And anyway their interests lie elsewhere and they leave no written record of the locations of these old tombs.

I steer clear of hunters, and boars steer clear of me – and I never see another soul out there in the wild. And I don’t think archaeologists bother with these places anymore – archaeology has moved indoors : it’s colloques and symposia, meetings and papers and jostling for position in the shrinking academic landscape. The money for archaeology has suffered numerous cuts (why dwell on the past?), and archaeologists are often no more than agents of a wasteful State, dependent on the next ‘developement’ – motorway or lotissement or grand surface. Dolmens are probably not interesting at the present time, to students or their profs – ‘it’s all been done to death’.There’s very little online, and you’d be tempted to think that discussing archaeology was, outside of permitted/academic constraints, a crime. [Part 2 addresses these and other French anomalies]

And older prehistorians are not fit enough to manage the rough terrain. They content themselves with publishing guidebooks that leave out half the story.

So what am I doing here? Why put myself through this?

Not a pretty sight – and another reason why my Mary doesn’t always want to come walking with me. I now wear an old waxed jacket and thick jeans and gauntlets – items essential on les Causses, but too hot in the sun.

So why do it?

There’s no answer : it’s an obsession. I would seem to be one of the few people with enough time (for the online research, the library reading, and the hillwalking) and enough stamina for the hunt. This makes me unusual, but not peculiar : an interest in the built landscape, in humanity’s respect for the dead, in ruins and what ruins tell us about the fragility of our hope for the future – these concerns are shared by many, in all countries, in every age.

I found these two quotes on Punk Archaeology. Pogue Harrison on the sight of ruins:

“One could say that, in its world-forming capacity, architecture transforms geological time into human time, which is another way of saying it turns matter into meaning. That is why the sight of ruins is such a reflexive and in some cases an unsettling experience. Ruins in an advanced state of ruination represent, or better they literally embody, the dissolution of meaning into matter. By revealing what human building ultimately is up against -natural or geological time- ruins have a way of recalling us to the very ground of our human worlds, namely the earth, whose foundations are so solid and so reliable that they presumably will outlast any edifices that we build on them.”
Robert Pogue Harrison, The dominion of the dead 2003: p. 3

And this from Stephennie Mulder, Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas (she’s writing to Kostis, an old university colleague on his Facebook page) :

Ruins have the ability to conjure a certain type of melancholy that is like nothing else in human experience, I think. Did you know mourning over ruins is a major theme in Arabic poetry? One of my favorites:

At the way stations
stay. Grieve over the ruins.
Ask the meadow grounds,
now desolate, this question.

Where are those we loved,
where have their dark-white camels gone?

-Ibn Arabi

Punk Archaeology a collaborative project between Kostis Kourelis, Architectural historian and archaeologist,  Assistant Professor in Art History at Franklin and Marshall College, William Caraher and others.


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