Ruin Memories at Society for Historical Archaeology

Members of the Ruin Memories team held a session at the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) conference in Leicester, UK in January 2013

Session Abstract

The decaying debris of the modern era, derelict factories, closed shopping malls, redundant military installations and abandoned mining towns enjoy the growing attention of archaeologists and material culture scholars. This is, nevertheless, still a marginal and often somewhat ambiguous concern; despite their lure ruins of the modern are generally seen as environmental problems preferably eradicated or as aesthetic disturbances in need of drastic management should they be promoted to the level of heritage. In this symposium we present some fresh results from the recently completed research project Ruin memories: Materiality, aesthetics and the archaeology of the recent past ( Important to us is a critical consideration of the normative categorization of modern ruins and how this may have grounded their academic and public marginalization. More crucial, however, is to explore their ruin value and the role things themselves play in expressing ineffable dimensions of the recent past and present.


Approaching Eyri: Photographs, Memos and Ruin Memories 

Þóra Pétursdóttir

University of Tromsø, Norway

The use of photography and the meaning of the photograph in our dealings with modern ruins and ruination has been a much discussed topic in workshops, seminars and less formal contexts during the four year life of the Ruin Memories project. This discussion has often been driven by a critique of how photography has come to dominate our approaches, hinting that it may be an “easy way out” – touching the surface of things instead of properly digging them for knowledge.

With reference to my work with modern ruins at Eyri in Iceland I will in this paper seek to move from this critique towards a consideration of why this method is of value when dealing with modern ruins, and how its loyalty to the surface of things may also be a significant and constructive factor in our approaches and concern for things.

Modern Ruins: Revealing the Other Face of Things

Bjornar J Olsen

University of Tromso, Norway

Modern ruins hold an ambiguous position in both academic and public discourse. By blurring established cultural categories of past and present, purity and dirt, waste and heritage, they become matter out of place and out of time. In this paper I draw attention to another source for this ambiguity, at the same time disturbing and attracting, and which is argued constitutes a crucial aspect of their ruin value: the manifestation of things in their released otherness.

Palliative curation in the reluctant ruin

Caitlin DeSilvey

University of Exeter-Cornwall, United Kingdom

The ruins of the recent past pose a management riddle for those who must decide their fate. Options for action oscillate between removal and eradication on the one hand, and restoration and elevation to the status of heritage object on the other. While some sites have actively embraced a philosophy of continued ruination, this approach must contend with continual calls for stabilisation (or demolition). Ultimately, those who manage such spaces must be seen to be ‘doing something’, beyond accepting the influence of active processes of entropy and decay. This paper poses the concept of palliative curation as a way of acknowledging (and even embracing) the gradual loss of material integrity in ruined historic sites. Within this framework, acts of ephemeral interpretation become critically and creatively significant. This paper explores these ideas through reflection on two recent art interventions at former UK military installations—Orford Ness, Suffolk, and RAF Drytree, Cornwall.

Modern Ruins in the Age of Sustainability

Mats Burstrom

Stockholm University, Sweden

Preservation is an essential part of heritage management; sites and monuments are protected in order to be kept intact for the future. Accordingly site managers encounter difficulties dealing with sites whose foremost qualities are the processes of change and decay that they are undergoing. It would seem that cultural heritage should be forever or not at all. The belief in this kind of ‘eternal’ perspective is in no way new, but the present preoccupation with sustainability has reinforced it and placed it in a new discourse. Some of the problems which follow from this perspective are accentuated when dealing with modern ruins. Their lure is often related to the gradual disintegration of the familiar, the very process that must be stopped if the remains are to be preserved.

Conduits of Dispersal. Dematerializing an early twentieth century village in Iceland.

Gavin Lucas

University of Iceland, Iceland

This paper explores the process of ruination in terms of networks and channels of dispersal; how the materiality of a whole village is stripped by various agencies which move things along. Drawing especially on recent work in human geography and new mobility and materiality turn, this study takes an industrial fishing village on an island in the bay of Reykjavík to examine the processes and conduits through which the village is de-materialized. The village was established at the beginning of the twentieth century to house workers associated with an industrial scale fish processing factory; the enterprise was shortlived and before mid-century, the entire population had left and the village and factory was completely abandoned. Through archaeological excavation, survey, oral history and documentary research, this paper explores the forces and networks involved in its abandonment. It asks not, What was once here? But rather, Where did everything go?

A thousand ruins: an alternative history of contemporary Spain.

Alfredo Gonzalez-Ruibal

Spanish National Research Council, Spain

An alternative history of late modern Spain can be narrated through its ruins. In this paper, I will examine the debris of different modernist dreams that were shattered by the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent dictatorship. I will argue that the ruins of utopia are not exactly remnants of the past, but of the future – or rather, an alternative time that is made of both. From this point of view, they allow us to problematize notions of temporality in archaeology and envisage richer archaeological narratives.

My Father’s Things

Hein B. Bjerck

Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway

In the morning of April 5 2009 my father died; he was almost 86 years old. He lived alone, was in good health, and died suddenly. The confrontation with his silenced house was perhaps the worst moment of all. It was here, amidst his material realm, that I could see for myself that he was gone. At the same time, I realized that I had lost more than my father. My father’s home was changed into a material construction.  The human component – my dad – was the coherent force that had kept this complex integration of human-thing-relations in place as a functional whole – a “home”. In a single day the home had transformed into a ruin in the making, an initial stage of an archaeological site. His absence accentuated the presence of his material world – and enhanced an awareness of how he was mirrored in his things.

Participant Discussion: 20 minutes

Þóra Pétursdóttir

University of Tromsø, Norway

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