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Restoration work on Stonehenge

Visions of the Past – How Far Should We Go in ‘Restoring’ Ancient Monuments?

To most of us in the 21st century, the architectural ruins of the past possess somewhat of a magical aura. While the humans who built them have long since turned to dust, the buildings they left behind act as a portal through which we might better understand our long-dead ancestors – or, alternatively, allow us to mistakenly overlay our own beliefs upon them.

But until the 20th century, many of these ancient ruins stood in disrepair – whether due to their remoteness, or lack of the industrial machinery to fix them, as the image below of the Mexican site of Chichen Itza shows, it is only in recent times that we have been able to re-present these sites in pristine condition.

Chichen Itza in the past, and now

But how far should we go in rebuilding ancient sites, and how does the work we have done so far impact on our understanding of ancient cultures? Take for example, the Stonehenge of the 19th century, compared to the site now:

Stonehenge, Before and After
In placing the fallen megaliths into place, are we modifying both the past, and the passing of time? And, if we have done it, who else has done it since Stonehenge was first constructed. Alternatively, are we simply helping to preserve an important site for the future? But how far do we go to preserve things? The legs of the Great Sphinx in Egypt have become more brick than stone in recent years; given that restorations have been happening for millennia it does raise the question: at what point does the original disappear and a facsimile take its place?

This idea is taken to its limit when it comes to sites such as Newgrange in Ireland. The gleaming white wall that surrounds the entrance to Newgrange is a modern construction, despite the fact that debate continues as to whether the quartzite rocks found on the site were actually used to form a wall, or something else, such as a plaza surface.

Newgrange, Before and After
But perhaps concerns over our ‘vandalism’ of ancient structures is an illusion…after all, in another four millennia, we will be considered yet another ancient people who modified an even more ancient structure, just as King Tuthmosis IV’s repairs to the Sphinx a thousand years after its construction (or at least, the orthodox date of construction…) have now become a part of the monument as we know it.

  1. Teotihuacán

    It was in the early XXth century that Leopoldo Batres started the Restoration process in the ancient city of Teotihuacán, as part of the program to celebrate Mexico's hundredth anniversary of our independence –ironically the festivities were quickly followed by the bloody Revolution…

    But anyway, now most modern anthropologists conclude Batres made a god-damned mess. He practically rebuilt the pyramid of the Sun in its entirety, something that probably goes unnoticed by the myriads of tourists who congregate there each year.

    Pyramid means 'inner fire' in Greek, and I still seriously consider the possibility that the ancient pyramids of Mexico generate some kind of energy –not to power Giorgio's ancient spacecraft, mind you, but perhaps to elicit altered states of consciousness– but since archeologists of the past centuries have always assumed these are nothing but 'ceremonial centers' erected by skilled but primitive cultures, in trying to preserve them we might be losing the keys to understand these monuments.

    1. These monuments are being
      These monuments are being “prettied up” for tourist consumption. It is strange that such liberties would be taken with these antiques when this sort of thing is not tolerated with smaller artifacts.

      1. toruism
        Unfortunately that is true. However I would not compare restoration to vandalism as the latter is usually done with malicious intent. Many artifacts were damaged by humans to begin with, such as Napoleon’s army who used to take potshots at artifacts as they marched through Europe. I also think that by restoring them, the archeologists who actually take these ruins seriously and not as a tourist attraction, they learn how these people lived and built these monuments. I’d have to believe we’d know a lot less if the Mayan temples were still covered in green. The problem is that these sites are more tourist attraction than history and often they are disrespected by these visitors…

        …pick up your trash people…

  2. Ancient monuments
    I think they should be left untouched. Research can be done productively without resorting to desecration. But we all know it’s capitalism rearing it’s ugly head once again.

    1. Capitalism
      Though I can relate with the sentiment that these sites might be ‘desecrated’ by the affluence of tourists trampling all over these ancient monuments, I think we should keep in mind that the funds gathered by the visitors is not only used for the maintenance of the ruins, but they also help fund further excavations & archeological projects. Thus tourists become patrons of future discoveries 🙂

  3. Newgrange
    I just visited this site a week ago and it is astonishing. And they are very candid about how much was reconstructed. And if you go to Knowth, which is a similar burial mound, they have the quartz and granite stones laid out on the ground.

    We visited a lot of castles and cathedrals in Ireland and every one of them isn’t “real”. Every ruin has been stabilized, repaired, or excavated. Furthermore, our impression of say, a castle as a gray stone building as what castles are is not representative. Trim Castle (featured in “Braveheart”), like many others, was covered in lime plaster, and would have been gleaming white inside and out during its use.

    I think if anything I’d like to see more buildings constructed with the techniques and style of old buildings, and maintained the way they would have been. That might bring us closer to understanding how people lived, but of course it too would be a simulacrum. One example I can think of is the rebuilt Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee.

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