When I tell people I’m an archaeologist they always ask me about my most exciting finds. Excitement, the extraordinary and the beautiful are really important aspects of what people look to archaeology for. They can be really important for heritage too, helping people create pasts they feel proud of can support futures to look forward to. But most of what archaeologists deal with is far more subtle, and rarely beautiful. Do these things have a role in heritage as well? Of course!
One of the things that archaeology offers to heritage is a focus on change; on what happens after something is built. The evidence for how things are used give us more understanding of a place and its past than the monumental visions that may be more ‘exciting’. As a case in point I give you two types of dented pavement and what they say about community. Both examples are from Portsmouth.
First, lets look at this dented pavement which can be seen in most towns.
These slabs are broken by the weight of cars mounting the pavement. So they indicate places where drivers feel a need to park, but where planners don’t want them to. In this case, there was a public toilet on the corner. The public toilet has since been taken down, so in some ways the dented pavement acts as a record of the toilet in its absence.
So, for me, this dented pavement speaks about the disjunction between local government and community. In the first instance, the public toilet was no doubt intended for use by pedestrians, so there was no parking near to it. But two groups were not considered in this. Firstly, the cleaning service for the toilets, who parked their vans close. Secondly, professional drivers, such as taxi drivers, who would park on the pavement while nipping in. At this point the dented pavement also reminds us of the closure and demolition of the toilet. The loss of public toilets is a hot issue in Portsmouth at the moment, and this piece of dented pavement casts an interesting light on it.
This second type of dented pavement is unusual, perhaps unique to Portsmouth and tells a more positive story about people in Portsmouth. Its a record of the winter of 2009-2010.
It snows rarely in Portsmouth and when it does it almost always melts within a day. So when it snows there’s a real carnival sense. Snowball fights, hot chocolate and desperately looking for a slope to sledge on. No one thinks of clearing a sidewalk and no one worries about ploughing the roads. But in 2009 it snowed and didn’t melt. The same was true for all of the UK and very quickly there was no salt left in the country.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_of_2009–10_in_Great_Britain_and_Ireland#Effects) Not only no rock salt, no salt at all. Even the corner stores were out of the little table salt canisters. People quickly realised that compressed snow is ice and is very difficult to clear without salt. So after about 3 days, many people cleared the ice on the pavement by hammering at it with a spade, leaving these dents in the pavement.
So, for me, this pavement fits with the ‘Strong Island’ (http://www.strong-island.co.uk/about-strong-island/) trope of Portsmouth identity. People getting on and using what they have to deal with a situation. Also in contrast to the other dented pavement it shows people thinking of their neighbours. There is a perception that people in the UK are anxious about clearing their pavements of snow because it leaves them liable to being sued if someone slips anyway. These little dents are evidence of people putting in a lot of effort in defiance of that view.
Regular readers will know that I am not suggesting for a moment that dented pavement should be preserved, simply that they contribute to heritage and sense of place. An archaeological eye looks at subtle things, at evidence for use over planning. Sometimes we see the workarounds, how people get out of a tight spot. That heritage may be increasingly important as we work together to deal with changing climate.These little dents are what resilience looks like to me.