I recently saw the report of a “phylogenetic” study of fairytales that determined that some fairytales were 6,000 years old, reaching into the Bronze Age. We have long known that certain tales – Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, flood myths – are shared across hundreds of cultures and geographies. I read the report (linked here) the same day I went to see the ancient Greek show at the Field Museum, where many tales are illustrated in the more durable forms of pottery and stone.
So fired clay survives, and of course metals, especially precious metals. The most stunning items in the Agamemnon to Alexander show were gold diadems, wreaths worn on the head with the gold worked into intricately detailed simulacra of myrtle branches and leaves. Unlike the rusted dagger and swords, the gold pieces looked brand new.
It reminded me of the incredible Scythian Gold show I saw at the Lavra (that’s a World Heritage Site and monastery in Kiev). Yeah, gold survives.
Yet most of these artifacts are younger than “The Devil and the Smith” which is the tale researchers peg at 6,000 years ago. Heck, it is even older that this ancient Egyptian dress. In my professional career I have dealt with older artifacts and mostly with much younger ones, but the question kept coming back to me: What Survives?
In Ciudad Perdida in Colombia the rammed earth platforms and their myriad stone steps survive, but nothing else, because this is high jungle, ever humid. Wood, reeds, thatch, cloth, leather, all resolves and dissolves in the dew.
You can see the blog post about it from 2013 here.
Part of the challenge is geographic – jungles tend to swallow and digest everything but stone, while deserts can even preserve someone’s 3000-year old scones. It is not fair, but we get more knowledge from ancient societies that were in climates suitable to preservation, be they Scandinavian bogs or Iraqi deserts.
And I thought I kept stale bread too long.
Stone survives quite well, in both building form as well as sculptural form, although I can assure you that pretty much every Greek sculpture I have ever seen was a 2C AD Roman copy of a Greek original. Perhaps we need a phylogeny of sculpture as well as folklore.
Another challenge is that more permanent materials are more likely to be re-used. The Collosseum’s marble coating was scavenged to build Renaissance Rome, and the 13th century Quwwat ul-Islam mosque in Delhi was composed of demolished Hindu and Jain temples.
Below is Fountains Hall, a lovely 18th century manor in Yorkshire, composed of marble stripped from the nearby Abbey, which had been “dissolved” in ecclesiastical terms and was then flayed in architectural terms for its skin. A kind of Frankenstein building, if we can handle one more reference to the early 19th century forebears who gave us heritage conservation, museums and the modern discipline of history.
The heritage field has a bias against intangible heritage, evident in the Athens Charter of 1931. We only really started integrating folklore, music, dance and other “intangible” cultural heritage in the last twenty years or so. This is somewhat ironic because our very first efforts to save historic buildings and our efforts to preserve fairy tales dates from the same time, time of Frankenstein, the Brothers Grimm, the Elgin Marbles and the Louvre. The onset of the 19th century when an emergent modernity spawned a great fear of loss.
Ahh, the dark Satanic mills of Coalbrookdale – no wonder the Devil and the Smith survived
In the Western tradition and especially in the United States, we favor tangible heritage like buildings over intangible heritage like folklore. We especially like architecture. I used to assign this to the peculiarities of American preservation practice from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in the Progressive Era and the Historic American Buildings Survey in the Great Depression, but I think it is actually broader than that.
Architecture becomes a “real” profession in the 1890s. So when something becomes official and important you want experts. Architectural history is of course even younger.
The fabulous stone architecture of the Ossola Valley, Italy.
We needed a proper social science to guide our conservation work, and architecture fit the bill. Even where there is a professional practice based on archaeology (France, Western U.S.) that is more interested in the broad material culture than in architecture, there is still a bias against the intangible – witness all the conflicts between archaeologists and indigenous peoples.
It has become increasingly clear to me that we need to redouble our efforts to save intangible heritage, and this phylogenetic study is a great example – because some stories do survive as well as stone and at the end of the day culture in any form is transmitted by people. As my late colleague Dr. Clem Price noted, there are stories and oral traditions that are essential to the conservation of African-American cultural heritage. Intangible heritage.
I just noticed this morning that the house where Medgar Evers lived – and was assassinated – is being considered for National Historic Landmark status. I applaud the preservationists I have worked with over three decades who have sought to save Rosenwald Schools and Civil Rights sites and landscapes sacred to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This is a good step but we will not reach historic truth and contemporary reconciliation through tangible heritage alone.
Rosenwald school, Kentucky
We have to redouble our efforts because the many of the most important missing landmarks of American history were erased – by conquest and racism. In my years of working on the Diversity Deficit in heritage, I regularly encountered What Does Not Survive Because We Buried It.
Recently installed, thanks to Equal Justice Initiative
Slowly, people are working to uncover this once-tangible heritage. We must remember that many sites were forcibly, deliberately removed. These were acts of cultural oppression and until we make their truth known widely, we cannot move forward the process of reconciliation. This is one of many reasons that intangible heritage remains important today as it was two centuries ago.