Building 500

by Timothy Webmoor

Ever since the early antiquarians traipsed across the European countryside and less than gingerly applied their picks, spades and shovels to any number of large prehistoric barrows, the locus of where archaeologists apply their trade has been a rigidly defined space separate from that of their own daily lives. In the 1970’s this separation was opened to debate, contestation and redefinition. Lines were redrawn in the work of Bill Rathje and other Schiffer disciples. In tandem with Binfordite proselytizing of ‘ethnoarchaeology’, historical archaeology, especially in the states, was progressively challenging the standard, professional ’50-years old or more’ dictum of past-present divide. The cumulative effect was for the present to become more than a ‘baseline’ for old Cultural-Historical retro-projections in the Direct-Historic approach. The present was becoming interesting for archaeologists in detailed, explanatory ways. It was becoming valuable as more than just the counter-definition to clarify what archaeology wasn’t. More recently an archaeology-propelled material culture studies seem to consolidate the opinion that the ‘present’ and ‘contemporaneity’ were valid subjects for an archaeological eye. More lines were crossed with the ‘abject’ work of Gavin Lucas and Victor Buchli in an abandoned Council Flat in London. It seems that the ‘field,’ where archaeologists applied their trade, was becoming less exclusive to a separate, demarcated and distinct past. We could conduct ‘the archaeology of us’.

Such an acknowledgement seems to have happened none to soon. For ‘moderns’, it seems, dream of relegating the abject, unwanted and matter-out-of-place – Mary Douglas’s dirt – to far away places, hollowed-out city centres, or other quarantined and difficult to visit locales. Places where such ruins will not be seen and our consciences expunged of the burden of accumulating junk: plastica, poured concrete, iron filings, contaminating silica and other fast pasts.

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Academic Abandonment

Ruins are figured in terms of what lingers, what lasts after modern projects have moved on to the ever newer. Archaeologists of modern ruins are making good documentation of these proliferating sites. Extrapolating the archaeological sensibility to imprint traces in circulating format. Yet we ought to consider how modern ruins may be dissimilar to such obdurate materiality that lasts. Pasts that don’t persist. Just like the transformation of ruins into documents for transport – photographs, maps, finds drawings – these ruins undergo perpetual upgrades, refits and remodels. We feng shui the past to suit contemporary aesthetes. To think of ruins as temporary events in the ongoing flux of people and materials, rather than as retrograde or enduring ‘endings’, suggests that ruins pop-up, percolate and evanesce everywhere, all the time. And that ruination is often close to home, even next door to our archaeology departments.

Working within this vein, several archaeologists ‘caught’ a ruined event one afternoon in the Spring of 2005. We documented a 15,000 square foot academic building abandoned by the engineering department. The building would soon be transformed into the new Archaeology Center at Stanford University. After the mechanical engineers left the building, the archaeological team had several weeks before the process of ruin refurbishment began. By the Autumn of 2005, the temporary ruin was opened as the current Archaeology Center. In this project we discuss the archaeology of the study, the center, the locus of where archaeologists produce knowledge. This is an archaeology of Building 500 – the transformation of ruins for archaeology.

After the refit: The Stanford Archaeology Center Metamedia Lab (zoom in-out | pan around)

Imagery by Webmoor. QT-VR by Michael Shanks. Thanks to the other project members: Ashish Chadha, Bjørnar Olsen and Chris Witmore.

It seemed like an endless string of review sessions and proofreading but you know this thing is good

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