Bone Room Meditations VI: How Much Lies Buried?

April 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Suarez Miranda,Viajes de varones prudentes, Book IV,Chapter. XLV,
Lerida, 1658

– Jorge Luis Borges

Train journeys are great times to think and I have spent much time on the train during the course of this residency. One idea that occurred to me recently is the vastness of the extent of archaeological data and of the limits of the visible archive. Though this in no way approaches the literary reductio proposed in the above quote from Borges, this is (in a way) true of all archival material; i.e. there is only so much knowledge or evidence available to scrutiny at a given moment in time. Most of what is dug up (metaphorically or literally) is soon reburied within the corpus of documentation or storage. Imagine a vast museum archiving all of the sieved and sorted archaeological specimens and how it might be ordered and arranged in various strata of classification, how deep some information might get buried beneath new discoveries. How, in times to come, the very arrangement of this data and material evidence might become a subject for study by future archaeologists (perhaps a kind of meta-archaeology?).

For example, at the moment The School of Archaeology is engaged in research involving a considerable amount of pig bones – when I next visit the department I need to ask what happens to these specimens once processed. Will they be burnt or buried, and if burnt what will happen to the ash? If buried will they go to landfill and be rediscovered in a few thousand years time as a weird anomaly – neolithic pig mandibles with stone-age butcher’s marks lieing in amongst the rotting white goods and plastic refuse of the 2nd millennium AD?

Then, of course, there are all of the artifacts that are waiting to be uncovered by the shovel and the trowel, that haven’t yet been consumed by foundations, turned up by the plough or cast aside by treasure seekers with metal detectors.

So much is buried in the darkness waiting to be brought to light. Not all of it in the ground beneath our feet.


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