Is it possible to make sense of archaeological traces when nothing remains? Can we extract meaning about the past from the places where the past played itself out? Or, do we have to acknowledge that when it is gone, it is gone? To examine these problematic issues, I want to draw on some rather diverse sources: an urban landscape associated with an infamous Victorian serial killer, a weird parapsychological theory on the fringes of geology, a science fiction TV show, and the application of science in contemporary archaeology.


The recently re-issued book, The London of Jack the Ripper Then and Now, by Robert Clack and Philip Hutchinson (DB Publishing, 2010) presents a detailed analysis of the so-called Whitechapel Murders in their spatial context. The book includes a series of photos of murder scenes then and now, juxtaposing the poorhouses, institutes, slums and public houses of the 1880s with the fast food outlets, car parks and modern housing of today. I wanted to explore this urban landscape in a little more detail, to spend some time in places where notable events once took place but have since been radically transformed. This is a common experience for the archaeologist, although usually relating to rather different kinds of past events.

the ten bells

These murders took place in or on the fringes of Whitechapel in London between 1888 and 1891; some, but by no means all, of these murders have been attributed to Jack the Ripper. The quantity, frequency and unsolved nature of these 20 or so murders speaks volumes for the attitude towards, and lifestyle of, many unfortunate women, many of them prostitutes, living in extreme poverty at that time. These murders, the foggy streets of London and the grime of the East End feed a flourishing tourist activity – Jack the Ripper walks and tours. Whether self-guided, or with a formal group, these tours evoke the spirit of the age, and depend on the power of visiting the very locations where horrible crimes took place well over a century ago. This seems to me an inverse form of topophobia, a landscape of dread and bad memories that has become persistently attractive. Massive urban re-generation and the Blitz have rendered this a very different Whitechapel from the 1880s, yet visitors (some of them ‘Ripperologists’) appear to be seeking out the essences of those crimes, surveying the murderous geography.

mary kelly murder scene

A few days ago I visited Whitechapel, with a knowledgeable friend guiding, and spent some time absorbing the vibrant atmosphere of contemporary Whitechapel and Spitalfields, while at the same time recognising ‘infamous’ Ripper-related place names such as Hanbury Street, Fournier Street and the Ten Bells public house (shown in the first photo). Despite the gentrification, these narrow streets and the pub still managed, for me, to evoke something of the atmosphere of how this place used to be, although it is difficult to tell whether this was my projection, or was being projected onto me (a theme I will return to). We looked at one murder location, that of Mary Jane Kelly, supposedly the final ‘Canonical Five’ Jack murder (although doubt has recently been cast on this by some scholars.) In 1888, this location was a hovel called Miller’s Court, where Kelly met a gruesome end. But now it is a multi-story car park, on Duval Street (shown above). The location of the murder, essentially crowded slum dwellings, was demolished in the 20th century and eventually replaced by a new street and car park. This is not much different to the fate of many prehistoric sites and monuments swept away by urbanisation: cemeteries beneath housing estates, roads which were once ritual monuments, bridges built on top of Mesolithic houses. These are places that have changed in role and function through time, the same places and yet different places. But what remains?


In the foreword to The London of Jack the Ripper Then and Now Stewart P Evans writes about ‘Victorian terraced dwellings, whose mute walls had seen Jack the Ripper at work’. Here, we have the evocation of the stones of the walls themselves being witnesses to the crimes, perhaps the only witnesses, and that they hold these secrets even today, beyond our reach. This is redolent of an idea called the Stone Tape Theory, an idea made popular in 1972 by the BBC TV sci-fi show The Stone Tape, written by Nigel Kneale. (Kneale had previously created Quatermass, where in one storyline a more tangible horror lurked beneath London’s streets.) This theory is based on the premise that materials such as stone are able to record traumatic or highly emotional events that took place in their vicinity in the form of energy; in some cases this energy is released creating phenomena such as ghosts. In other words, ‘ghosts are not spirits but simply non-interactive recordings similar to a movie’. The TV show follows a group of researchers developing a new recording technique in a Victorian mansion, where they come across a ghost that is somehow projected from the stone walls of a reputedly haunted room. But the ‘recording’ need not be visual. Don Robins, part-geologist, was especially keen on the notion that sounds could be captured by crystals, which I suppose could include the screams of a murder victim, or the chanting of shaman in a stone circle. This idea was promoted in his 1988 book The Secret Language of Stone, another strand of the wider concept of ‘residual haunting’. This loose connection of sources and ideas have been influential in parapsychological research (with current explanations focused on things like magnetic energy) and capture the sense that physical, material places can retain essences, or residues, of the past. Such theories developed because hauntings tend to have a spatial association, although the same could be said about most human activities. The murders of Jack the Ripper were grounded in the locations that they occurred, ‘place memories’ that transcend place-change.

There is, of course, no scientific of rational basis for believing this theory. If this were true, then all of the efforts of archaeologists would be concentrated on trying to rewind standing stones, or plug megaliths into DVD players. Yet archaeologists do treat stone (and other materials) as if they have recorded, or encoded, information about the past. The measurement and characterisation of atoms and molecules through petrological analysis allows us to source standing stones and Neolithic polished stone axes. The analysis of quartz and feldspar crystals allows us to determine when buried rock was last exposed to the sunlight. Such scientific techniques extract pre-recorded information from places and objects that tell us something of their history, and the activities involving them in the prehistoric past. What’s more, our chemical processes examine traumatic events: the death of an organism, the extraction of stone from the living rock, the burial of things. Yet as archaeologists we are trained not to think like this: the scientific data we collect from materials (in the past, surgically removed for thin sections) may have inherent properties that we can record, but we still need to make sense of that data.

pumpkin chalk graffiti

Walking around Whitechapel today is a bit like walking through a landscape where prehistoric monuments once stood. Prior knowledge, documentary and map research and survey work by others allow us to build up a mental map of how this space was once used. Dots have been placed on this map at locations where important sites once existed. These places have fundamentally changed, yet they retain memory and significance of what went before. These impact on modern land-use and activities in this urban location, from the tourist industry, to inspiring street art, graffiti and literature. The pastness of Whitechapel has a direct correlation with the identity of this place today as well, for good and ill. Yet it is unlikely the residues of the Ripper are really encoded or trapped in Whitechapel bricks. Rather, we generate these essences through our engagements and experiences; we keep them alive through our interest and our gaze. Without us, the past would cease to exist.

Sources: Thanks to Alan for guiding our walk around Whitechapel, and to Aphrodite, Chris and Gavin for accompanying us. I looked at various online sources for information on stone tape theories, and found a very useful summary in a paper by Pamela Rae Heath called A new theory on place memory, found in the Australian Journal of Parapsychology 5.1 (2005), 40–58. The Stone Tape screengrab is widely available online.

One thought on “The only way is essence

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