The NYT reports that a stone wall, dating somewhere between the late 1600s and 1760s, has been found during excavations to create a new subway line. It’s thought to be a remaining part of the Colonial defence structures from that time, probably used to protect the settlement from sea-based attacks using cannons and known as the Battery (some records show that the walls were manned by Duracell bunnies, and rumours suggesting that those records are written in my hand are all lies).
This obviously poses a problem, because a 45 foot wall of archaeological interest right in the path of your very expensive subway is always going to slow things down. I can’t say for sure, but in the UK we would measure, photograph, and record it as much as possible, then put a hole through it where it needs to be; if we didn’t know about the wall for centuries then the data will be preserved and overall there will be a gain. This is the most sensible option and has been suggested, with a twist, by the people on the project: ‘One idea the authority floated was to remove a three-foot-long section of the wall to be preserved elsewhere, and then go ahead with the excavation.’
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m getting massive flashbacks to a Sheryl Crow lyric: ‘They pull up all the trees and put them in a tree museum’. Sometimes historical items only really make sense in context. How about moving Stonehenge to central London to make it more convenient for tourists to visit? It’s nice to know that the wall is there, but it loses all meaning when you move it somewhere else. Warrie Price, president of the Battery Conservancy, summarises the strangeness of this attitude:
“If these stones are able to be reused,” she said, “it would be wonderful to be able to actually touch this history.”
Yes, shock news indeed; stones have been around for a long time. How many generations would it take before the surface of the stones would be worn down by tourist hands, leaving nothing of the original workings? So instead, it would likely be in a cabinet, and then you have created a strange relic: ‘Come See The Original Stones!’ The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote about the idea of simulation, suggesting that natural authenticity is being replaced by icons that represent authenticity. These icons simulate the properties of the original object or experience but repackage it out of context so that it loses its meaning. A wall only has meaning when it is in the place that it was built, because that is the defining feature of it, so by removing it from that location you get a distancing from the original purpose; it becomes a symbol of an old wall.
Perhaps I’m misjudging Warrie Price, maybe she means that it would be good if the stones could be put in as part of a new building, which is a different activity. Reusing them as a part of a wall, not as part of an exhibit as is suggested by the article, adds to their meaning rather than subtracting from it. They become a part of the continuous history of being, repurposed into an ongoing historical narrative. Yes, their value as a building material is equal to others, but the meaning of the stones is added to by their reuse rather than subtracted from by being placed out of context. In other words, a wall that is no longer a wall is just a pile of stones, and we already know that rocks are old.*
*unless everything was created 4000 years ago by a supernatural/alien being, of course.