Finding the Past in Holes

The past is not behind us – it is beneath us. Layers over layers of earth are resting over it. Buildings, relics, and human bodies are all hidden in the ground. And the only way to find them is to dig. Holes of different kinds are dug in order to explore, to travel, to build. Yet archaeologists dig them not to explore space, but to explore time, to find our past, and to build our knowledge. We find people in the holes we dig, be it through their own bodies or through the objects they used. Sometimes we recognise ourselves in them, we find ourselves in the holes. And sometimes we cannot understand what we unearth – objects uncovered which we cannot ascribe meaning to.

That holes can contain the past is most spectacularly obvious when they are dug for different purposes. We walk in cities without thinking that, besides sewers and subways, beneath us there are hundreds and thousands of years of humans who have lived there. When we take away the soil from under our feet, we can find things that have been lost or unthought of for centuries. Even if most digging in cities is done for construction or maintenance, we can sometimes find ancient runes when digging in order to install lightning conductors, ancient buildings when digging the foundations of new residential ones, or necropolises in the foundation pits of future five-stars hotels. Holes sometimes reveal so much that they overwhelm us, such as when the building of an apartment bloc in the centre of Philadelphia was stopped by the discovery of tens of 17th-century coffins.

Digging to build new things discovers old ones, so it is no wonder that immense projects such as metro tunnels are bound to reveal the past of their cities: a new underground line in London, for instance, triggered one of the biggest archaeological projects in the city. Rome’s vertical history is deeply ingrained in our imagination of the city, with metro lines unearthing antiquity in both reality and fiction. Only earlier this month the digging of a ventilation shaft for a new metro line uncovered Rome’s oldest known aqueduct, recreating, albeit less spectacularly, a scene from Fellini’s 1972 Roma in which awed workers drill into a gigantic ancient room with frescoes and statues. Fellini also shows, however, that holes can be destructive. The past is fragile and the layers of the city had sometimes better be kept separate, as it only took minutes before the air from the surface destroyed the images on the walls.

The takeaway is that holes are always more than what they look like. Archaeological investigations in cities are never easy to make, while digging for foundations and underground structures abounds. Yet one cannot have the latter without the former: digging the soil reveals what is hidden in it. Holes are not just lacks, they are opportunities, and sometimes we get lucky to find treasures of many kinds when what we walk on is forced to give way.

Andrei Belibou (Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick)

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