This blog post contains selected extracts from a paper I gave at the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology (SPMA) ‘congress’ at the University of Glasgow. More details on the session, The archaeologies of now, organised by James Dixon and Sefryn Penrose, can be found at the end of the post.
For a decade now, I have been exploring various ways that my interest in prehistoric sites in urban places might intersect with a Ballardian worldview. English author JG Ballard’s fiction and non-fiction writing is often characterised as prophetic and dystopian, covering themes such as climate change, consumerism, middle class isolationism and violence, auto-erotica, hidden pathologies, and the excesses of supermodernity. These teased at my brain, something awaiting unlocking.
There is no better indication of the crashing together of prehistory and our modern urban world than roads and cars competing for the same spaces as standing stones. Sometimes this can take on a visceral form, such as a documented attempt in the 2000s to drive a car over the reconstructed Bronze Age barrow at Huly Hill near Edinburgh.
The images above show the outcome of a collision between a BMW and Bedd Morris standing stone in Dyfed, Wales, in October 2011. The stone was broken, and the toppled half initially removed for safe-keeping before later being reinstated. This crash resulted in a small excavation which recovered material culture from the stone socket and two C14 dates. This was not the first time this has happened, the stone being situated on a bend on a fast country road. This event is doomed to be repeated multiple times as if on a loop.
To pursue my Ballardian pathology, I purchased a copy of Simon Sellar’s book Applied Ballardianism on the mistaken belief that it was a textbook or academic treatise about the application of JG Ballard’s ideas in the humanities.
What I got was something very different and yet it unlocked something in my brain that I am still trying to come to terms with: Ballard as a way to rethink our engagements with the material outcomes and traces of the ancient past in the present. A Ballardian archaeology.
Ballard’s obsessions with gated communities, boundaries, social disorder, antisocial behaviour, subversion and urban decay are all obsessions we should have as archaeologists. His focus on urban edgelands and dystopian developments mirror the working environment of many in the heritage sector. These are our desire lines to the past.
The place where the thin line between past and present is at its thinnest is in the urban environment, a point of singularity, starkly shedding light on the condition of being an archaeologist, performing as a prehistorian, rooted in the present.
I have gradually come to realize that urban prehistory is nothing if it is not Ballardian.
Ballards’ writing offers for me the clearest and most coherent means to understand the juxtaposition between past and present which dominates archaeology. All our encounters with traces of the past – material and otherwise – happen in the contemporary, the modern. The past and present meet at a stark and jagged edge, a tear, that for a moment gives the illusion of a past that still exists in a degraded form.
Prehistory offers a heightened state of time-consciousness.
These points of fusion – wormholes that lead nowhere – are the places where the magic happens. The powerful intersections between the ancient and the supermodern occur in places that Ballard would recognize and frequently wrote about – motorway intersections and roundabouts, suburban gated communities, industrial estates, shopping malls, golf courses and leisure centres.
Our encounters are here, in the shadow on the destruction machine.
These renegade essences of the past offer uncomfortable glimpses into the nature of our consumerist society: our prehistoric heritage is routinely damaged, or destroyed, often surgically excavated, to allow development to occur and to maintain our consumer commuter society.
Some of the most fascinating engagements – our weird rituals – with prehistory in the contemporary happen in relation to travel infrastructure projects and that is what I want to focus on here.
Roads and the car. Railway lines and stations. Airport runways and terminal buildings.
These are all places and things that could be described as supermodern, and thus require special consideration.
In order to apply Ballardian logic to prehistory, we must accept that we are now in the age of Hyperprehistory.
Hyperprehistory is a concept that describes the role of prehistory in the supermodern environments we live in today. Supermodernity, as defined by anthropologist Marc Auge is ‘the acceleration of history’.
It is a period of what he called excesses: factual, spatial and self-reflective over-abundance. Gonzalez-Ruibal has gone further and suggests that the super (or hyper) modern includes also material abundance.
An outcome of this is an increased and dynamic world of things and places, which serves and perpetuate these excesses. It is within these processes that prehistory has become entangled.
The supermodern is physically defined by non-places, parts of the landscape that are irrational, ahistorical and that have no identity. These primarily consist of places of transit and consumerism. This concept echoes the work of the geographer Edward Relph who argued that we have created urban spaces that have a sense of placelessness, bereft of emotional attachment. Our urban cityscapes consist of impersonal places where transactions are carried out and facilitate movement to another place, often another non-place.
Hyperprehistory reflects the intimate connection between urban development, the needs of our consumer society, and the material traces of prehistoric lifeways. It suggests that in the creation of non-places, we often encounter prehistory.
And hyperprehistory also contains within it the potential to place non-places, to add emotional attachments where there are none, to replace surface gloss with the depth of deep time.
We should expect to find prehistory in urban places and in association with transport infrastructure. We should actively seek it out, rather than despair on its ruination.
I always look at roundabouts. They are a legitimate fieldwork target.
Ballard wrote that high rises constructed around his hometown of Shepperton resembled the megaliths of Stonehenge.
There is no such thing as coincidence.
How can we derive meaning from such encounters? What is the social value of hyperprehistory in a supermodern urban world?
One of the most captive audiences you will ever have (except for audiences who are literally captives) are those on public transport, whether on trains, planes, trams or omnibuses. That is why so many commuters spend much of the journey blankly staring of a window picking their nose. They have the disbenefit of having even less agency that car drivers.
More captive still are those who have to pass through and / or spend time in travel hubs, from the humble bus stop to suburban railway stations right up to massive international airports. These placeless places not only have designated waiting / lurking areas, but are also replete with connecting passages, walkways and tunnels. In other words, all sorts of spaces that become venues for consumption, as advertisers and those who own these transit hubs recognise the value of having a bored audience just where you want them.
JG Ballard commonly wrote about such transactional commuter spaces. He noted in an essay on airports for instance that Shepperton was not a suburb of London, but of Heathrow Airport. He wrote:
I have learned to like the intricate network of car rental offices, air freight depots, and travel clinics, the light industrial and motel architecture that unvaryingly surrounds every major airport in the world. Together they constitute the reality of our lives, rather than a mythical domain of village greens, cathedrals, and manorial vistas.
Ballard would I suspect have been delighted that the expansion of Heathrow Airport in the 2000s created prehistoric landscapes: great primeval forests within which hunter-gatherers thrived and great beasts roamed, geometrically rigorous cursiform vistas, farming landscapes swollen with fecundity. The additional terminal building, an expansion of this sky-city (as Ballard has called it), in its construction passed from non-place to place and back to non-place again.
The hiatus in the middle was the invigoration of excavation, a kind of ecstasy of data gathering.
Heathrow Airport is a place of deep time and shallow lives lived. Ballard noted: I welcome the landscape’s transience, alienation, and discontinuities.
Ballard has also noted that:
At an airport like Heathrow the individual is defined not by the tangible ground mortgaged into his soul for the next 40 years, but by the indeterminate flicker of flight numbers trembling on a screen.
A flickering screen is the medium by which the prehistoric eruptions that accompanied the construction of the terminal building are communicated to the trapped commuters. Enforcedly at leisure, numbly holding onto their travel documents to enable even the most minor of purchases in Boots and WH Smith, holidaymakers and business people offer the required captive audience.
The stasis of the departure lounge is used as a vehicle for the presentation of a short film about the excavations that took place in advance of the construction of Heathrow Terminal 5. This video, and associated online content, had subtitles rather than sound, a visual essay in deep time.
This short film can also be viewed on any device via youtube, where you can provide your own soundtrack.
In 2018, I stumbled upon an explicit attempt to ‘culturally contaminate’ a ‘non-place’ while travelling from Milan to Milan Malpensa airport via train. The railway station at Terminal 2 contained a detailed exhibition on prehistoric lifeways, material culture and burials. This exhibition is located in that most placeless of places, a concourse between two travel hubs.
The purpose of this bland tunnel-space would be impossible to determine should one be blindfolded and led here. The exhibition space had the qualities of a hospital and an airport waiting space, illuminated by shiny surfaces and energised by the low hum of escalators and the mechanical whirr of elevators.
The material on display was discovered during excavations in advance of the construction of the railway line between Terminals 1 and 2. These objects and this information were revealed because of an infrastructural need, a direct result of supermodernity.
The exhibition has the explicit aim of making a place of this non-place.
The railway station has been chosen as the place to exhibit the finds … making them accessible 365 days a year, 24 hours a day for a very large audience. Passing through the exhibition, even the most hasty and distracted traveller will notice the presentation of a wide selection of finds … accompanied by immediately comprehensible communication.
It is almost as if JG Ballard had written the text to accompany this commuter museum, this intercity exhibition.
Amongst Ballard’s writings include the novel Millennium People, and the collection of essays and reviews, A user’s guide to the millennium. But I increasingly find myself wondering – what millennium was he writing about?
If this pathology has a name, it is archaeology.
Prehistory is the scar tissue of the past.
Hyperprehistory is our framework for navigating ourselves through the coming millennium, whatever it may bring.
Archaeologies of Now session
A twitter moments summary of the session, posted by James Dixon, can be found here.
Sources and acknowledgements: I would like to thank James Dixon for inviting me to take part in this fantastic session, and for the positive feedback my paper got. Thanks to the other speakers for stimulating papers.
I would like to thank Brian Kerr for allowing me to use his photo of me giving the paper.
Image sources, where known, are noted in captions. The first photo of JG Ballard (BBC4 still) comes from an article about Crash in The Reprobate. The second (Shepperton) was sourced from an article about Ballard in The Spectator. In both cases, I don’t think this is the original source of the photo.
The Huly Hill photo source is unknown. Sadly I don’t think it is one of my photos – it is too good!
The Ballard quotations in the post come from an essay he wrote called ‘Airports: the true cities of the 21st century’ which can be found here. His comment about Stonehenge came from a Guardian interview.
This paper was also referred to in the post: Gonzalez-Ruibal, A 2014 Supermodernity and archaeology. In C Smith (ed) Encyclopaedia of Global Archaeology, 7125-34. New York: Springer.
My paper was also summarised in this twitter thread.