Facing our dystopian future

6 Apr

This post reproduces a short provocation that I gave during the last workshop of the Royal Society of Edinburgh funded Scotland’s 3rd Millennium Archaeology workshop series. Abbreviated as 3M_DO_2019 (#3M_DO), this event took place in Edinburgh on 10th December 2019. The workshop series, organised by Alex Hale of Historic Environment Scotland, and co-organised by Antonia Thomas, UHI, and myself, had the aim of ‘contributing valuable archaeological perspectives to the political, economic, and environmental challenges facing Scotland in the present day.

The final workshop was a chance to reflect on the three previous workshops, and consider future directions for contemporary archaeology in Scotland. These issues are yet to be resolved, with a final event delayed by Covid-19, but we hope to produce an output, or outputs, from this workshop series in the coming months. I would like to thank Alex and Antonia for inviting me to speak at the final workshop, and Gavin MacGregor for support and inspiration.

My brief was to summarise thoughts on workshops to date, and future directions and issues, and I called my provocation Facing Our Dystopian Future. Some of the ideas and even words in this short presentation have been used in earlier blog posts. Links to sources and related material have been added to the text where you might want to follow up on these snapshots and I have slightly edited the text in places where it was rubbish.

When these workshops started, I was not sure if archaeology was part of the problem – or part of the solution.

Of course, it is both.

And not only can archaeology affect change for the good, but it can also document change as it happens.

We are uniquely positioned to document material history and future site formation processes.

As Simon Sellers wrote in his novel Applied Ballardianism, archaeologists see ‘history as in the stratified layers of an archaeological site’. 

It is time to rethink what an archaeologist can be and should do. This is what this workshop series has been about.

Tackling problems.

During this Brexit Age everyone is seeking the comfort of the past. Nostalgia is in abundance. There is more nostalgia than we need. Supply has out-stripped demand.

Some wish for a fantasy Britain, of the 1950s, or perhaps the 1930s. Others seek the comforts and strictures of the Victorian era. Steampunk memories.

Still others seek the relative golden hour of Blairism and the years around the turn of the millennium.

But where will this nostalgia lead?

And is there any comfort to be had in the past? Or is this a delusion?

Welcome to Brexit Britain, where practices, materials, lifeways, are inexorably becoming prehistoric.

Our dystopia is not that of the Orwellian vision of Big Brother. Or Huxley’s Brave New World.

Our dystopia is that of Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, of Will Self’s Book of Dave, of a regression to prehistory.

We need to be ready for the Second Iron Age – and who better to prepare us for this task than archaeologists?

Middens are indicative of accumulation and disposal, rise and decline. They are the ultimate material expression of consumption.

Middens mark the rise, fall, and will indicate our return to, prehistory.

Middens are contingent on abandonment, emergent in every place that humans exist, from a deserted military island to the urban core.

Middens passively grow, while awaiting collapse.

Middens are our cultural scar tissue, which we cannot help but touch.

Cairns of calcium and carbon. And plastic.

Because middens are not just of the past. Everywhere around us are middens-in-waiting, potential-middens, partial-middens, middens-in-hiding, proto-middens.

Living is an act of maddening middening.

If we must stumble into this prehistoric dystopia, then let us offer ourselves, the archaeologists, as expert tour guides.

We are not just over-producing nostalgia. We also have an abundance of plastic. Plastic has outstripped demand, and gone beyond need.

The focus on single use plastic and the Anthropocene will be defining issues by which archaeologists can demonstrate the effectiveness of our techniques but also the efficacy of our critical thinking.

Plastic democratises archaeology because everyone can become collectors of it. We have our own hoards, our own deposition strategies, our own stratigraphies and contexts.

Beach combers document the madness of what we have done. The frustrating pointlessness of what we use plastic for. The sea spews up our iniquities and shortcomings on daily base, each tide revealing a new charge sheet.

Collections of plastic adorn social media. Arranged in tableaux that have a creepy aesthetic.

But our typologies need to be more sophisticated than ‘blue plastics’ or ‘toy soldier plastics’. We need to arrange plastics that are found according to their potential for re-use and recycling. We should be considering moral categories for plastics that are collected too.

And as archaeologists we should be part of the conversation about the how we can put less stuff into the archaeological record, to compress our material footprint, and shrink future assemblages.

We need less single-use archaeology.

As archaeologists we are especially well place to document processes of collapse, entropy, decay, dissolution.

We know that nothing last for ever, that even the most enduring structures will return to their constituent parts.

Our job now is to reflect on recording the mighty structures of today in expectation of their inevitable crash tomorrow.

I was told once by a planning officer during a public inquiry related to Orcadian windfarm development that had wind turbines been erected in the Neolithic, the local tribes would have bowed down and worshipped them.

What seemed ridiculous to me back then, now seems an essential insight.

Wind turbines on Orkney are just another incarnation of the grey upright megaliths erected in prehistory. The turbines are the true Heart of Neolithic Orkney.

They are our source of salvation. We put faith in them. They will ensure our future wellbeing and fecundity, while staving off disaster.

They stand watch over us to remind us of what we have done – and what out futures may become.

How can we have anything but awe for these mighty structures? We have a duty to document them now, and after the collapse, surveying the future ruins of our civilisation.

Underwater sources of power are potentially more powerful than the on-shore farming of wind. But fishing for energy, sinking machines to the depths, does not provide the visual fix that we need to ensure that something is being done. That we are protected, and that our future is seen to being protected.

This is our equivalent of Neolithic pit deposition, putting significant objects beneath the surface to work for the benefit of the community, interceding with the gods on our behalf. It is an act of faith, of sacrifice.

Underwater machines offer the hope of safety but ultimately, when dystopia comes, what is left will be picked over by underwater archaeologists. Measurements will be taken, objects recovered from scatters across the ocean floor. Pipes and tubes will have become occupied by crabs, encrusted with barnacles. Conservators will have to deal with salt-rust and corrosion. 

We will probably document a futile gesture that was at least untroubled by sea water level rise, except for the destruction of the secret bunker that controlled it on a nearby beach, an achilles heel built into the system.

Water will gradually seep into the mechanisms of these underwater machines, causing malfunction, the source of power also being the means of their destruction.

We are on a collision course with the sun.

In his book The Crystal World, JG Ballard writes about an environmental crisis where everything in the world gradually turns to crystal. This was one of a series of early novels that he wrote with a focus on climate emergency and the ways that humans are changing the world. He wrote these books half a century ago.

Ballard foretold the future, using his creativity to diagnose society’s pathologies, and make portentous prophecies about the outcomes. As with archaeologists, he observed human – material interactions, and he was especially interested in how people entangled with machines.

Human-machine interactions are a key aspect of contemporary archaeology, as fundamental as human-ceramic or human-megalith relationships are key for prehistorians.

Our insights should allow us to become advocates and activists for what we need to do to avert dystopia. We need to become prophets of the contemporary past.

In summer 2019 I visited Crystal World near Innsbruck in Austria. Ostensibly this is a showcase for the Swarovski crystal makers.

This is a deeply Ballardian experience. The main focal point of the whole gated compound is a huge green passage grave with the face of a Green Giant. From this earthwork mound poured a stream of recycled water, vomited into a placid pond.

Entry to this passage grave is affected behind this saliva-fall, where a straight passage opens up ahead, with golden walls. Walking along this passage brings you into a chamber, where amongst other things are displayed skulls of crystals, and a lifeless figure propped onto the back of a gem-adorned horse.

Inside this Green Giant passage grave, a series of disorientations and otherworldly experiences can be had.

This is a thoroughly retro-futuristic experience, at its heart cold crystal consumerism dressed up in art installations with Ballardian names: Emotional Formation. Transparent Opacity. Chandelier of Grief. Into lattice sun. Crystal Dome. The Mechanical Theatre.

These are the arenas in which the hypermodern are enacted. These should be our fieldwork destinations. These passage grave utopias.

Always start your investigation at the green, grassy mound, for this will be the nerve centre.

In the 2007 book Images of Change: An Archaeology of England’s Contemporary Landscape Sefryn Penrose and colleagues considered the archaeology of modern structures, buildings, and landscapes of England. Places that defined modern consumer and leisure behaviour featured highly – shopping malls, theme parks – but also places of transportation – railway stations hubs, airports, motorway intersections.

This Ballardian vision of what archaeologists should be studying and researching is inspiring and suggests that we should collectively be shifting our gaze from the past to the contemporary past.

The contemporary past is where the past now resides, all of it, and we are making new pasts on a daily basis.

One of the categories of place that was considered in this book is Television landscapes.

Recently I spent some time at Salford Quays in Manchester, a canal-side space station dedicated to the recording and broadcasting of television programmes. The skyscape was dominated by huge corporate logos – BBC, ITV, Granada Studies.

Bladerunner meets Coronation Street.

Moving through this landscape, amidst glassy broadcast buildings, felt like being on a reality TV programme. I assumed that I was being observed by cameras from various angles, monitored in a way I found uncomfortable. Groups of people sat in a park, ate in expensive bars, and I could not tell if they were merely visitors to the area, or extras in a film documenting my visit.

In the Blue Peter garden I noted memorials and monuments to dead pets, children’s TV as Pet Semetery.

Salford Quays and other places like it offer blurred experiences, neither reality, not the product of a team of creatives. I felt myself flickering in and out of solidity, almost as if I was being pixilated, about to be broadcast like Mike TV in the Chocolate Factory.

Penrose wrote of the television utopia, the Teletubbies set:

The mythological fantasy land of Teletubbies (1997), devoid in reality of preternatural greenness and baby-faced sun, was embedded incongruously in Warwickshire farmland. Field boundaries were marked by hedgerows that shielded camera operators, tracks and multi-coloured bouncing beings before the field was ploughed back to farmland – as if the teletubbies had never actually existed.

These colourful alien beasts with television screen stomachs and antennae ears are of course the perfect vector for the televisual age, and by gazing into their oblong glass bellies we can see our own futures being broadcast back at us on a loop.

The Teletubbies occupy a monumental landscape, focused on a grassy dome which is reminiscent of the Green Giant passage grave at the Crystal World.

Children must be used to seeing prehistoric structures. In the show In the night garden, the creature Makka Pakka lives in a riverside dolmen. It is almost as if our television producers and creatives are subliminally preparing our children for their dystopian future, but in a metaphor for Brexit Britain, this is being sold as a utopia.

This accords with Penrose’s observation that this is a landscape of deceit and deception.

Goodnight children and don’t have nightmares.

We have our own equivalent of the centrally placed grassy mound phenomenon – the now defunct Archaeolink Prehistory Park near Aberdeen.

Here we have the ruination of a set of ruins, a visitor attraction that was utopian in so many of its ideals, but has now become an overgrown dystopia.

Like the ruinous Bangour Hospital near Livingston, Archaeolink is about to be sold for housing development.

Houses will eventually be built on top of where a roundhouse once stood, although as documented by Gavin MacGregor, this had its door hanging off as early as 2013. The hearth has not been lit for some time.

Various urban explorers have been to this place, broken in, and carried out photographic and documentary surveys.

In some cases, they are literally archaeologists, in other cases they act like archaeologists, documenting the ruination and decay of this place. Urban decay, as with plastics, democratises what we do, and encourages diverse forms of archaeological engagement with the world.

This is a ghost village of confusing temporality. Everything has gradually slipped into a state of disrepair, with stuff left lying about as if the place was abandoned overnight. Timber posts are strewn about like limbs. Roofs have fallen in. The green mound has grassed over, and its glass façade is boarded up, looking like something from the set of an Italian science fiction movie from the 1960s rather than a defunct visitor centre.

Archaeologists document decay, although are not usually able to see it in real time as is the case at Archaeolink.

We must be the biographers of all emergent ruination.

I recently visited the Temple of Mithras in London.

Located beside the now buried stream of Walbrook, this Mithraeum has gone through various incarnations since its discovery in the 1950s. The most recent being funded by Bloomberg, with the Temple relocated to its original location beneath a golden office block.

This is a place that stinks of money.

A display of artefacts found during excavations ahead of the construction of this office compound includes a Roman table and stylus dated to 8th January in AD 57. This records the earliest written evidence for a financial transaction in Britain.

A reference point for visitors to visualise the stratigraphic depth of the Temple is the Bank of England, which is situated a few minutes’ walks away horizontally, and 7m vertically.

Before going down to the gloomy basement within which the Temple can be experienced, one has to pass several huge golden artworks.

Central to the myth of Mithras is the slaying of the bull – the tauroctony.

A sacred secret killing for the approval of the sun god sol. Eyes averted, hand wet with blood, creation in death. The myth remade in temples underground by lonely men trying to become gods.

In our archaeological practice, are we willing to get our hands dirty, to slay the bull, to take on the structural forces that shape and constrain us all today? Or will we be complicit and happy to remain within the bosom of capitalism?

What is contemporary life but an accumulation?

What are humans but constant accumulation and deposition?

Rubbish in, rubbish out.

We live on the dirty edgelands of the future.

We are all middening, us town and city dwellers.

Cultivating our prehistoric sites, curating our legacy, hoarding our single-use plastic debitage, accumulating our very own midden.

And when our machines have collapsed or been overwhelmed by water, our material culture turned to dust, our bodies broken down, all that will be left of us are our middens, our broken machines, our single-use plastic, and bulls slayed by overwhelming circumstances.

Our middens will become the focus of ritual extraction and deposition by birds. We should not depend on there being archaeologists of the future age, just curious and liberated animals.

It is all accumulating today.

We cannot be bystanders in this formation of the archaeological record.

We are tomorrow’s archaeology. Today.

One Response to “Facing our dystopian future”

  1. Bernie Bell April 7, 2020 at 7:15 am #

    Did you know…that there’s an island off the coast of Corsica made entirely of oyster shells, dating back to the Roman Empire?

    https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05ss2ld/player

    How’s that for conspicuous consumption and midden-making!

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