Norbiton: Ideal City has no significant archaeological record. You cannot dig into its fragmentary prehistory of potsherds and burial urns and walls. Similarly, it will leave no physical remnant when it disappears.
Then again, there is no such thing as virgin soil. Nothing emerges wholly untrammelled from the past. Nothing you erect upon the land this minute will not be conditioned by the crushed and compressed litter of dead civilisations that underlie its foundations. You may, for all you know, be walking about on the ruins of cavernous underground cities, Roman baths and temples, silted over in some deluge. You may be about to fall through to the painted caverns of the remote past.
The Ideal City, then, may have no archaeological record, but it does have archaeological practice and an unavoidable archaeological agenda. Archaeology, after all, lends itself uncomfortably well to metaphor.
When I was 13 my brother persuaded me that our lives would become more elegant if we removed the dust jackets from our books. He thought it would give our not very extensive shelves the feel of a 19th century library. So we did, making a pile of disjecta dust jackets in the middle of the floor, less a bonfire of (very marginal) vanities than a memorial cairn to them.
What did we do next? I don’t remember. Picked them up in armfuls perhaps, and tossed them in the bin. Stuffed them in sacks and marched them over to the dump. It wasn’t exactly the burning of the library at Alexandria, but it was an act that in tiny measure reduced my not-extensive world.
Many second-hand books without jackets have come in on top of the victims of this purge, so it would be impossible for anyone else to trace the line of folly around my shelves. But I can see it, the ghostly shape of the stupidity of my youth, the indelible record of early and irredeemable failure.
In the regio of the Campus Martius in the time of Julius II [1503-1513], while a certain barber was digging a latrine in the garden of his little house between S. Lorenzo in Lucina and the house of Cardinal Grassi, he discovered the pedestal of the biggest obelisk that has ever been seen in the city. The obelisk had been thrown down, and it was not possible to see whether it was in one piece, since all of it could not be seen… . I learned from the people living in the neighbourhood that every time they excavated the ground for their wine cellars or drains, they had come across various celestial signs, wonderfully designed in bronze, which were in the pavement around the gnomon.
A. Laelius Podager (after 1521), quoted in The Egyptian Renaissance, Brian Curran, Chicago University Press 2007
Archaeology has come to be associated with digging. In the nineteenth century, intellectually rapacious Europeans hired teams of natives who dug for them, scooping out and carting off the sands of Egypt or the rocky soil of Greece and Asia Minor, uncomprehendingly uncovering ancient cities, royal tombs, spectacular treasures.
In the Renaissance, archaeology was more open cast. The ancient world was lying about on the surface – in Rome, mostly – and you did not need to dig, much, just brush the dirt off, pull away the brambles.
Niccolò Niccoli and Poggio Bracciolini, two of the great Florentine humanists of the quattrocento, spent time in Rome in the early 1420s piecing together (in their heads) the remnants of the ancient city. This was a question of correlating ancient texts with lapidary evidence and the ruins poking up all over the place. I think they did considerably more musing than digging, but they did clarify the interrelation of these ruins, seeing through the jumble to differences of provenance and age.
Take, for example, the obelisks. There are eight Egyptian obelisks in Rome. They had been imported by order of various emperors, each keen to adorn his capital with emblems of impossible absurdity. To uproot a hundred-foot, four-hundred-and-fifty ton lump of stone and ship it across the Mediterrean in one piece and then set it up again was a notably proposterous feat of engineering, and Pliny and Ammianus Marcellinus, among others, were keen to detail the process.
By the late middle ages, all but one of these obelisks had fallen down. They lay around broken into bits, their particularity, as with that of the ruins among which they lay, eroded into a sort of garden of mythical stones, each generating its own aetiologies and mythological spin-offs. For instance the one standing obelisk – that near the Vatican – was supposed to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar in three brass balls at its summit, and to have been transported into its place by the miraculous intervention of that celebrated magician, Virgil.
The peasants in the campus martius whose ploughs were blunted on chiselled marble and carved frieze probably recognised at some level that all this material must once have made sense as buildings and roads and monuments, that here was simply a city of collapsed geometry. But they had a scratchy living to make. They and the small time princes and prelates who ruled them asked themselves, not unreasonably, what use they could make of it all. And so the garden of stones was quarried indiscriminately to supply building material for the tawdry jumble of churches and palaces that characterised medieval Rome.
the vatican obelisk. Giovanni Marcanova Collectio antiquitatum MS Garrett 158, fol.6v
The obelisks were just stones now like any other. That Niccolò Niccoli and Poggio Bracciolini were able to read them accurately was not so much a triumph of philological or archaeological skill as evidence of a quickening need for clarity. Each stone, they reasoned, could be exactly replaced, if not in fact then in imagination. Each stone came from somewhere, was cut for a reason, and that reason could be recovered; in so recovering the provenence and purpose of the sleeping jumble of stones, in sorting and organising them, a measure of sanity could be restored to the modern city, which had just grown on top over the years and squatted there now any old how.
They could construct, in other words, a rational and linear history, and know where they stood.
Norbiton, unlike Rome, does not have a rich archaeological heritage. If the deciphering of Rome was a multi-dimensional challenge in which interested parties could hope to decode the ancient city through a cross-referencing of the lapidary, literary and material remains, the deciphering of Norbiton is a simple, if elusive, zero-dimensional challenge, where there are no remains, no written or oral record, no interest, no importance to guide us. We have no funds, no knowledge, no technique. We uncover no celestial signs when we plant our cabbages.
However, on my first day in Kelley’s garden I did make a modest archaeological discovery. I had been digging over a vegetable patch or flower bed where the soil was waterlogged and I found, a couple of feet down, a broken old plastic bucket. This was the root of the problem. It stank of slurry. Digging around it I started to pull up off cuts of mottled stone, granite and marble, pieces an inch thick and a few inches long. I washed them off and built a neat little border to the putative vegetable patch with them, for my own amusement.
Kelley’s family house was the house of his father-in-law, long dead, who had run the masonry business before Kelley. I surmised idly that the business used to abut the house and its garden, many years ago. Perhaps the garden was the site of the business. Perhaps the whole garden sits atop slagheaps of marble off-cuts, smashed up gravestones and memorial bird tables, granite angel’s wings and concrete lyres. South London was always London’s graveyard. Or perhaps the father-in-law brought home pretty bits of stone for the amusement of his daughter, or just absently-mindedly in the pocket of his dusty work jacket; perhaps his daughter asked the workmen at the yard if she could keep them when she occasionally visited, perhaps she found them to be pretty, collectible.
I call it an archaeological discovery, but of course it was nothing of the sort. It was a chance find. Archaeology invokes system and process beyond picking about in a flower bed with a shovel. Archaeology is not digging; it is the study of the material culture of the past, or a study of the past through its accidental material remains. A study that (these days) privileges contextual accuracy above narrative interest. Refreshingly so.
Here is a story about Michael Ventris, the man who deciphered Linear B:
Linear B was the name given to an unreadable script first found during excavations at Minos in Crete by Sir Arthur Evans at the end of the nineteenth century. Evans judged it to be Bronze Age, and was convinced for one reason or another that the underlying language was not Greek but particular to an indigenous Cretan culture which he called, with a flourish of moronic inventiveness, Minoan. Evans, in the great tradition of nineteenth century archaeology, had found (founded?) a civilisation.
The script was quietly deciphered in 1952 by Michael Ventris, an amateur philologist and professional architect who had been obsessed with the problem since boyhood. The language was found to be Greek after all. The breakthrough came when he was able to cross reference similar tablets found at Pylos on Mainland Greece by the American Archaeologist Carl Blegen in 1939, in which certain groupings of symbols present on the Knossos tablets were absent. Ventris intuited that these might be Cretan place names, and this gave him the necessary key.
Ventris died at the age of 34 in a car crash which might have been suicide. He was a lonely, isolated, brilliant young man.
This is what one of his collaborators, the archaeologist John Chadwick, had to say about him:
"If we ask what were the special qualities that made possible his achievement, we can point to his capacity for infinite pains, his powers of concentration, his meticulous accuracy, his beautiful draughtsmanship. All these were necessary; but there was much more that is hard to define. His brain worked with astonishing rapidity, so that he could think out all the implications of a suggestion almost before it was out of your mouth. He had a keen appreciation of the realities of a situation; the Mycenaeans were to him no vague abstractions, but living people whose thoughts he could penetrate. He himself laid stress on the visual approach to the problem; he made himself so familiar with the visual aspect of the texts that large sections were imprinted on his mind simply as visual patterns, long before the decipherment gave them meaning. But a merely photographic memory was not enough, and it was here that his architectural training came to his aid. The architect's eye sees in a building not a mere facade, a jumble of ornamental and structural features; it looks beneath the appearance and distinguishes the significant parts of the pattern, the structural elements and framework of the building. So too Ventris was able to discern among the bewildering variety of the mysterious signs, patterns and regularities which betrayed the underlying structure. It is this quality, the power of seeing order in apparent confusion, that has marked the work of all great men." John Chadwick, the Decipherment of Linear B, CUP 1958
Michael Ventris then: genius, depressive, suicide.
What is beautiful about the decipherment of linear B is how meaningless it all turned out to be – and by meaningless I intend something quite specific. Meaning inheres in stories. As stories aggregate, simplify, so meaning swells to grandiose proportion. When Ventris unscrambled the Linear B tablets from Knossos and Pylos it turned out there was in fact no story. Rather what they had in their hands were records of taxation, conscription, and inventories of grain.
As you move in the opposite direction and approach the furthest edges of research, scientific and intellectual endeavour, stories disappear, become irrelevant, falsifying. You are simply in a place, and you potter around in it. The only stories are the speculative frameworks you use to hold it together over a whisky. For your amusement.
What Evans had wanted above all else was a story: a story, I conjecture, to rival those of Schliemann. This of course marks him out as a man of a different sort of (potty) ambition.
Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) was a millionaire businessman and archaeologist who was obsessed with Homeric legend. He made his fortune in Russia and then California where he opened a bank during the gold rush. He also did well in the Crimean War, cornering markets in saltpetre and sulphur. He retired in his late thirties and joined Frank Calvert in his excavations at Hisalik, gaining his doctorate on the suggestion that Hisalik was Troy. It was on the site of Hisalik, or Troy, in 1872 that in the process of obliterating the stratigraphic record of the city he found a cache of bronze items, which he named Priam’s treasure. He subsequently smuggled 'Priam’s treasure' out of the country, perhaps under pressure from his wife, Sophie (my own supposition). In 1876 he discovered grave goods of such richness at Mycenae in Greece that he was naturally moved to insist that they were Agamemnon’s.
He named his second and third children Andromache and Agamemnon, and validated their baptismal ceremonies by reading a hexameter of The Iliad over their heads.
Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) knew Schliemann, and his own Minoan civilisation was perhaps in part a corollary of the pressing need to differentiate his work from the Great German. He did not find hoards of treasure belonging to Minos or Daedelus or the Minatour, but he took the trouble to rebuild and redecorate the palace with the help of a father and son team of French painters, the Gillérons. To striking, ahem, decorative effect.
Both Evans and Schliemann believed that at some level you could see all around the objects of knowledge – so the Homeric legends and the bronze age sites at Mycenae and Pylos derived from the same small world, a world that could be encompassed by a few (immense) stories. Evans perhaps thought that in the Linear B fragments he had the key to such a story. Ventris exploded that thought into a million fragments. What Evans in fact had was the merest corner of something immense and dull, something which would take an industry of scholars only to begin to understand.
When Harvey laid down the principles of the circulation of the blood it must have seemed to many of his contemporaries to conform to current humoral theory. They must have thought themselves close to finally understanding. Had they know how far they had to go, perhaps they would never have bothered. Similarly with all of us. It is never-ending.
Que sais-je? asked Montaigne, four hundred and fifty years ago. We can now answer that for him.
You knew absolutely fuck all.
Ventris, lurking oedipal threat, destroyed that story. There were no stories. Just an accumulation of detail. Beautiful, empty, clean, accurate, and meaningless.
On the back of my archaeological find, I proposed to Clarke and Hunter Sidney that we conduct a systematic excavation of Norbiton. We could map a transverse trench as fully as possible from Kelley’s garden (not strictly in Norbiton) to, say, the allotments or some point beyond. It would involve digging up people’s gardens by night, or posing as council operatives searching for broken drains; I could take more carefully selected gardening jobs; and if we found anything that told us anything about anything it would a scientific miracle, but that didn’t matter, we would do it anyway. And document it.
We were sitting in my room, drinking a beer. It was the end of my first day’s work and I had washed the mud of Kelley’s garden from my hands but was still wearing my moderately soiled work clothes. We discussed my proposal for a while – there was some disagreement over the general purpose of the excavation which it wasn’t actually necessary to resolve – and then they left.
I sat on for a while and fell to thinking about the disposition of books on my shelves, idly wondering if I could rearrange them in chronological order, and whether it would be better to arrange them in the order in which they were written (by year) or in the order in which I had acquired them (with a scar like a mass extinction event around my 13th year); for the first six months or so after I had quit my job and put at issue the Distribution of my life, I had spent, say, 20 hours of each day in this room, watching Star Trek, eating here in front of my computer, reading a bit, endlessly tidying and dusting, trying to keep the place habitable. I do not know if all this was more about forgetting than remembering or the other way around, but in its extreme concentration it had been a life denuded of proper context.
It was not such a leap from this mental grazing ground to the decision I then took, to appropriate this particular archaeological project for myself. There would be no transverse trench. I would simply set myself, somewhat in the manner of Bracciolini and Niccoli only with more digging, to excavate Kelley’s garden. I would not discover context; I would create it.
I am unsure whether the phase variance between Norbiton: Ideal City and Empirically Real Norbiton is sufficiently slight that you can hope to study the archaeology of the one by excavating the other.
This is in part what the citizens of the Renaissance thought about the classical world. Classical history, like Biblical history, was not merely a significant point on a line stretching back but a typological map of the present. Both the Classical world and the Biblical world lay under their feet, they could hear the chatter of togaed ghosts or the martyred prayers of St Peter if they put their head to the soil.
By sorting through the ruins you could perhaps bring them into some sort of cabbalistic relationship where the ancient wisdom and skill would be restored. Or by providing an explanation or a description rather than a controlling myth or story you could at least lay the ghosts to rest.
You could go further of course, and actually move the stones around. Alberti and Nicolas V had visions of rebuilding Ancient Rome (to their own specifications) before the jubilee of 1450 – those who have ascribed the Ideal Cities to Alberti have them down as town planning blue-prints. By the sixteenth century Bramante was promulgating plans to spin St. Peter’s 90 degrees on its axis so that it would align with the Vatican obelisk and the courtyard of the Belvedere in some richly attuned psycho-geography. Sixtus V actually consummated that priapic project by moving the obelisk, a gesture of vast insanity which the Egyptians and Imperial Romans would have approved.The musing, scratching, unambitious, fundamentally Failed archaeology of Bracciolini and Niccoli would have to wait for the demise of quarrying popes and earth-shifting industrialists; until it could re-emerge with Ventris and Kobel and Chadwick and their countless unnamed colleagues.
The farmers of the Campus Martius were not the only ones reading celestial signs in the earth every time they tried to plant a cabbage.
Towards the end of the quattrocento the accidental discovery of the domus aurea of Nero meant sudden, direct contact with the frescoed art of antiquity. Dumb-struck painters had themselves lowered into its chambers on creaking ropes and swinging planks out of the noise and dust and sunlight above into a world of dark cool caverns; and there they hung, suspended in globes of torchlight into which intruded portions of the white, seemingly fresh-plastered walls with their easy, playful and grotesque decorative figures inhabiting a pictorial space at once coherent and pragmatically sane, properly modelled yet attendant to the picture plane, quite untroubled by the rationalising demands of linear perspective.
This was not archaeology, insofar as archaeology means understanding the past through the study of its material remains; nor was it antiquarianism. This was simply seeing with your own eyes. It was as though they had broken through to the repository of all Ideas (located, ironically, in a cave), the search for which had been guiding them for generations; and it was nothing like what they had, or could ever have, imagined.
How would that feel? You would swing there in the damp and mouldy space, rope creaking and twisting above you, establishing your Furthest South; you might enquire of yourself, like Alexander cresting the valley of the Indus - or, indeed, as I asked myself in a grossly over-vegetated corner of Kelley’s garden, ankle-deep in a virgin trench, leaning on my spade - how can I best comprehend, or encompass, or incorporate this boundless new land, this tremendous freedom?
And you would simultaneously and pre-consciously brush away the spider’s web fear that things might just snap back to their previous state, once you yanked on the rope and had yourself hauled up and out into the bleaching sun. Things, you would reason, were not only different now; but could and would remain different. All things change. It was so of necessity. This was your Furthest South, this was your turning point. You have seen all this, and now it will be different. Your previous enquiries were by comparison a form of navigational correction so fine they amounted to no more than a calibration of instruments. This is an experience of a different order of magnitude.
The question would remain, however, as you were hauled out – will I remember?