Ephemeral ruins, transient landscapes

by Alfredo González-Ruibal and Manuel Sánchez-Elipe

We tend to think of ruins as something durable and solid. They are, in fact, defined as that which remains: a material core that is left after everything else has corroded, eroded and gone. Yet there are also ephemeral ruins, which are part of transient cultural landscapes. Consider the ruinous geographies that appear whenever large construction works are undertaken: buildings are torn down while others begin to rise from the ground, piles of brick, cables and bags of concrete lie around, temporary infrastructures are built or half-built—roads, barracks.

We have been conducting archaeological excavations for three weeks in the island of Corisco (Equatorial Guinea) amidst a ruinous world that will soon disappear—to no regret. The works for the construction of an international airport, a harbour and hotels have been transforming (and destroying) the island for five years now and they will continue for at least four more years. In this long period of time, some new buildings are already collapsing, unused spare parts decay under the tropical rain, and trees and vines invade warehouses and barracks.

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However, this post-apocalyptic environment will be effaced and little of it will remain in the archaeological record once the buildings are finished, the roads paved and the trees and grass grow again. Yet for several years this will be a very tangible world, a real cultural landscape for three hundred people: locals and foreigners, Moroccan and Malian workers, Portuguese engineers, Guinean policemen, Gabonese prostitutes and Spanish archaeologists. Of the piles of rubbish and industrial debris, the flimsy shacks with makeshift bars, the old bus running through the dusty road with workers and islanders, and the workers’ barracks nothing will remain. Little, if any, material remains and just a few faded memories: perhaps little more than the documentation produced by our project. The industrial soundscape will vanish as well: the noise of the electric generators, the trucks and bulldozers trudging through the mud, the multilingual shouts of foremen and workers. The smell of grease and oil, the couscous and the workers’ sweat will leave no trace either. The construction project has created a new world, new relations between people and things, between different spaces, and between past and present, as the bulldozers cut through the soil and bring to light prehistoric pots and historic porcelains.

This is an original social world and a paradoxical landscape, because it is a living ruin, and a ruin that will exist only as long as the project is alive. When the work stops, the ruins will disappear and with them the old bus and the bars, the couscous, the archaeologists, the concrete bags and the oil puddles. The megalomaniacal development project will probably fail, as others are already failing in Equatorial Guinea. The half-ruin of the construction works also allows us to envisage another ruin which still is not.

As archaeologists of the contemporary past, we should document and try to understand these transient cultural landscapes of ephemeral ruination and decay.


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