Bethlehem Steel, photograph © Shaun O'Boyle
The material archaeologists dig up and that ends up in museums sometime seems like it appears by magic. You dig a hole and bits and fragments of the past appear. Sometimes, even among archaeologists, we begin to believe that these objects are the past, rather than objects in the present, the result of a long series of postdepositional processes. One result of this disconnect between the present and the past is that I am often asked why we can find the things we do. Why does digging into the ground reveal a two-thousand year old house? It's not intuitive that such a result would naturally follow. We can, of course, easily visualize the kind of event that 'flash freezes' the past, such as the volcanic eruption that buried Pompeii (although even here it would be incorrect to view the excavations as producing a true snapshot of the ancient city as it was lived in). The long, slow processes of erosion, scavenging, sedimentation and decay that produce much of the archaeological record, however, proceed at a pace that is usually imperceptible, and about which we usually remain unaware. The photographs of Shaun O'Boyle help bring those processes to light, and remind us that the archaeological record is being constantly created, all around us, as we live and talk and breathe.
What O'Boyle does is photograph modern ruins. Born out of an interest in archaeology, he has chosen to record the present past, places and things that still exist, and in some cases, such as the Bethlehem steel yard above, were still in use until quite recently, but today are abandoned and undergoing the slow transformation that will, perhaps, end in their discovery by later generations of archaeologists. His photo essays remind us that the ways places are abandoned are varied and complex. Some places are deliberately abandoned, and objects that still have value are salvaged (or 'curated,' in archaeology-speak) by the owners or others, a process that can take years. Some places are left in a hurry, due perhaps to natural disaster or invasion, and most of their contents are still in place. If a place is abandoned, but legal ownership can still be defended, the contents may remain for a long time, until eventually they are discarded, such as the furniture of this abandoned hospital ward (original image here):
Abandoned Hospital ward, photograph © Shaun O'Boyle
Sometime buildings are reused, by new owners or squatters, sometimes they just sit until an earthquake or fire causes them to collapse, and sometimes they are demolished, and new structures built on the foundations of the old. Understanding these processes are key to interpreting archaeological material. How did the material get where it is? Was it originally part of the same assemblage, or did later occupants add to the debris? Did some of the items originally occupy a second floor and fall to the ground when the building burned? Answering these questions can be difficult but is an important part of what archaeologists do.