Romecore

[Image: A Greenland ice-core at the Hayden Planetarium; for further reading, visit the U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory. Photo by Planet Taylor, used under a Creative Commons license].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

The Crypta Balbi is a relatively recent, low-profile addition to Rome’s museum compendium. It’s billed variously—and confusingly—as a museum of archaeology, a museum of ancient Rome, and a museum of the Dark Ages. All of these descriptions are, in fact, cumulatively accurate, because the site is actually a city-block-sized core sample of Rome, threaded through with staircases, tunnels, and elevated walkways for visitors.

Crypta Balbi is located in an irregular pentagonal plot in the Campus Martius, an area that, unlike many regions in the ancient city, remained largely inhabited through the Middle Ages. In fact, according to Filippo Coarelli’s authoritative Rome and Environs: An Archaeological Guide, the Campus Martius was originally supposed to be kept free of buildings altogether and “reserved for military and athletic exercises.” However, historian Suetonius describes the city’s gradual encroachment, explaining that: “During his reign Augustus often encouraged the leading men of Rome to adorn the city with new monuments or to restore and embellish old ones.”

[Image: A satellite view of the city-block core sample, via Google Maps].

As a successful military general and favored member of Augustus‘s entourage, L. Cornelius Balbus the Younger stepped up to the plate, building a theater and attached crypta—a rectangular porticoed walkway where the theater’s scenery could be stored and around which the public might stroll, protected from the elements. Apparently, the Balbi Theater’s grand opening in 13 BC took place during one of the Tiber’s regular floods—meaning that it was, briefly, only accessible by boat. Nonetheless, the Theater and Crypta thrived, and they are depicted intact on a chunk of the Severan Forma Urbis, an amazing 60′-x-43′ incised marble map of the city created for public display in 203 AD.

Eventually, Rome’s earthquakes, fires, barbarian raids, and radical population shrinkage (from a million people in 367 AD to just 400,000 less than century later) combined with architectural re-use and the passage of time to take their toll. There isn’t much of the original Crypta left to see—a reconstructed stucco arch, and the massive travertine and tufa walls that now serve as foundations for modern houses in Via delle Botteghe Oscure and Via dei Delfini.

[Image: A fragment of the Forma Urbis, showing the Balbi Theater. For more on the Forma Urbis, visit the seemingly great but non-Mac-friendly Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae project].

However, layered above the Crypta’s original floor plan are traces of this city block’s shifting usage—a condensed narrative of Rome’s destruction, accretion, and evolution. It is this series of transformations and reuses of both the Crypta and the urban space it occupies, rather than the fragmentary ancient ruins, that the museum aims to make visible. Like a series of stills from an impossible time-lapse film, the visitor who descends to the basement or climbs to the third floor can see this awkward cuboid chunk of city ruined, reshaped, reused, and reoriented over two thousand years of urban history.

Equally amazing are the expansive historical detours prompted by even trace elements in the urban core sample. For example, as early as the time of Hadrian, a “monumental” public latrine was inserted into a section of the Crypta. From the quantity of copper coins that fell, and weren’t worth recovering, archaeologists have extrapolated the amount of coinage in circulation in Western Europe during the latrine’s life-span. (Astonishingly, it was only in the 19th century that small change was to be this common again in Western Europe).

[Image: Museum display panel diagramming five distinct road levels wandering across the Crypta’s ruins (apologies for the quick snapshot)].

Two centuries later and a few feet higher, two graves bear witness to a city in ruins between the 5th and 7th centuries, as the prohibition against burial within city walls lapsed, and the dead were buried singly in abandoned buildings or beside roads. Ironically, in a museum that preserves the urban structures of each era equally, during the medieval period the Crypta actually housed one of the city’s largest lime-kilns, where the marble inscriptions, statues, and building blocks of classical Rome were brought to be crushed and melted down into lime (a key ingredient in the cement needed to build the city’s new Christian architecture).

In the 1940s, the convent that had occupied the site for the past four hundred years was demolished for a planned new Mussolini-era construction, which thankfully never materialized. Finally, in the 1980s, the Soprintendenza archeologica di Roma authorized the excavation of the abandoned city block; and, in 2002, the northwest corner was opened to the public, even as work continues on the rest of the site.

[Image: An interior view of the Crypta Balbi].

Aside from the execution, which is excellent, the very idea of a museum built into an urban core sample—a stratigraphic investigation of the shifting use of space over time—is incredibly exciting to me. Imagine a similar hollowing-out of urban space in Istanbul, Cairo, or Paris—residents as disoriented as tourists as they clamber through the hidden foundations and forms woven underneath and around their own city.

In New York, this might even be an idea whose time has come: as The New Yorker pointed out in December 2008, the expiration of a residential construction tax-abatement law encouraged builders to dig foundation trenches early, so as to secure better financing, but the subsequent recession has put many of these projects on hold, semi-permanently.

“What will become of the pits?” asks Nick Paumgarten, speculating that they could turn into “half-wild swimming holes, like the granite quarries of New England” or even “urban tar pits, entrapping and preserving in garbage and white brick dust the occasional unlucky passerby.” These are both attractive ideas, but with a little expenditure on zip-lines, elevated walkways, and interpretative signage, visitors could circulate around several millennia of Manhattan’s history, from the collision of the North African and American continental plates to the tangled evolution of New York’s water mains, via retreating glaciers and the housing bubble.

Meanwhile, back in Rome and less than a mile away from the Crypta, engineers have teamed up with the Soprintendenza to sink several new urban cores, this time in the guise of excavating the elevator and escalator shafts for a new subway line.

Angelo Bottini, director of the Soprintendenza, can hardly hide his excitement, telling the Wall Street Journal that, under usual circumstances, “We never get to dig in the center of Rome.” Sadly, it seems as though most of the finds will be documented and then destroyed, due to a shortage of museum space and the already astronomical construction costs (an estimated $375 million for one mile of track in the city center).

But how amazing would it be if the new subway station walkways and escalator shafts could themselves become Crypta Balbi-like museums of buried stratigraphy? Rome would be riddled with urban cores, awestruck tourists ascending and descending through sampled spatial histories across the city. Meanwhile the Sistine Chapel lies miraculously empty…

[Previous guest posts by Nicola Twilley include The Tree Museum, The Water Menu, Atmospheric Intoxication, and Park Stories].

Stonehenge Beneath the Waters of Lake Michigan

[Image: Standing stones beneath Lake Michigan? Via Mark Holley].

In a surprisingly under-reported story from 2007, Mark Holley, a professor of underwater archaeology at Northwestern Michigan College, discovered a series of stones – some of them arranged in a circle and one of which seemed to show carvings of a mastodon – 40-feet beneath the surface waters of Lake Michigan.

If verified, the carvings could be as much as 10,000 years old – coincident with the post-Ice Age presence of both humans and mastodons in the upper midwest.

[Image: The stones beneath Lake Michigan; via Mark Holley].

In a PDF assembled by Holley and Brian Abbott to document the expedition, we learn that the archaeologists had been hired to survey a series of old boatwrecks using a slightly repurposed “sector scan sonar” device. You can read about the actual equipment – a Kongsberg-Mesotech MS 1000 – here.

The circular images this thing produces are unreal; like some strange new art-historical branch of landscape representation, they form cryptic dioramas of long-lost wreckage on the lakebed. Shipwrecks (like the Tramp, which went down in 1974); a “junk pile” of old boats and cars; a Civil War-era pier; and even an old buggy are just some of the topographic features the divers discovered.

These are anthropological remains that will soon be part of the lake’s geology; they are our future trace fossils.

But down amongst those otherwise mundane human remains were the stones.

[Image: The “junk pile” of old cars and boat skeletons; via Mark Holley].

While there is obviously some doubt as to whether or not that really is a mastodon carved on a rock – let alone if it really was human activity that arranged these rocks into a circle – it’s worth pointing out that Michigan does already have petroglyph sites and even standing stones.

A representative of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology has even commented that, although he’s skeptical, he’s interested in learning more, hoping to see better photographs of the so-called “glyph stone.”

[Image: The stones; via Mark Holley].

So is there a North American version of Stonehenge just sitting up there beneath the glacial waters of a small northern bay in Lake Michigan? If so, are there other submerged prehistoric megaliths waiting to be discovered by some rogue archaeologist armed with a sonar scanner?

Whatever the answer might be, the very suggestion is interesting enough to think about – where underwater archaeology, prehistoric remains, and lost shipwrecks collide to form a midwestern mystery: National Treasure 3 or Da Vinci Code 2. But only future scuba expeditions will be able to tell for sure.

Mayan Muons and Unmapped Rooms

[Image: “Guatemala Tikal D8006” by youngrobv].

Easily one of the most interesting things I’ve read in quite a while is how a team of particle physicists from UT-Austin plan on using repurposed muon detectors to see inside Mayan archaeological ruins.
In the new issue of Archaeology, Samir S. Patel describes how “an almost featureless aluminum cylinder 5 feet in diameter” that spends its time “silently counting cosmic flotsam called muons” – “ghost particles” that ceaselessly rain down from space – will be installed in the jungles of Belize.
There, these machines will map the otherwise unexplored internal spaces of what the scientists call a “jungle-covered mound.”
In other words, an ancient building that now appears simply to be part of the natural landscape – a constructed terrain – will be opened up to viewing for the first time since it was reclaimed by rain forest.
It’s non-invasive archaeology by way of deep space.

[Images: The muon detector, courtesy of the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group].

From the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group website:

The first major experiment of the Maya Muon Group will bridge the disciplines of physics and archeology. The particle detectors and related systems are designed specifically to explore ruins of a Maya pyramid in collaboration with colleagues at the UT Mesoamerican Archaeological Laboratory. The Maya Muon Group will travel to La Milpa in northwest Belize to make discoveries about “Structure 1” – a jungle-covered mound covering an unexplored Maya ruin.

Pointing out that dense materials block more muons, Patel explains that a muon detector can actually detect rooms, spaces, and caves inside what seems to be solid:

A detector next to a Maya pyramid, for example, will see fewer particles coming from the direction of the structure than from other angles: a muon “shadow.” And if a part of that pyramid is less dense than expected – containing an open space for, say, a royal burial – it will have less of a shadow. Count enough muons that have passed through the pyramid over the course of several months, and they will form an image of its internal structure, just like light makes an image on film. Then combine the images from three or four devices and a 3-D reconstruction of the pyramid’s guts will take shape.

Referring to a muon detector already at work on the campus of UT-Austin, Patel writes: “The detector sees in every direction, so it also records muon shadows from the adjacent university buildings, and can even identify empty corridors. Silently, with little tending, it takes a monumental x-ray of the world around it.”
“The resulting image,” he adds, “will be almost directly analogous to a medical CAT-scan.”

[Image: The muon detector, courtesy of the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group].

Install one of these things in New York City and see what you find: moving blurs of elevators and passing trucks amidst the strange, skeletal frameworks of skyscrapers that stand behind it all in a labyrinthine mesh.

[Image: A diagram of how it all works; from this PDF by Roy Schwitters].

Patel goes on to relate the surreal story of physicist Luis Alvarez, who used muons “to scan the inside of an ancient structure” – in this case, Khafre’s pyramid at Giza. “Working with Egyptian scientists in the late 1960s,” we read, “he gained access to the Belzoni chamber, a humid vault deep under the pyramid.”
Like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft story, “Alvarez’s team set up a muon detector called a spark chamber, which included 30 tons of of iron sheeting, in the underground room.”
Foreign physicists building iron rooms beneath the pyramids! To search for secret chambers based on the evidence of cosmic particles.

[Image: An illustrated depiction of Luis Alvarez’s feat; view larger!].

Indeed, we read:

Suspicion of the research team ran high – here was a group of Americans with high-tech electronics beneath one of Egypt’s most cherished monuments. “We had flashing lights behind panels – it looked like a sci-fi thing from Star Trek,” says Lauren Yazolino, the engineer who designed the detector’s electronics.

Alvarez’s iron room beneath the monolithic geometry of the pyramid – it’s like a project by Lebbeus Woods, by way of Boullée – apparently took one year to perform its muon-detection work.
One day, then, the team took a long look at the data – wherein Yazolino “spotted an anomaly, a region of the pyramid that stopped fewer muons than expected, suggesting a void.”
There were still undiscovered rooms inside the structure.

[Image: Wiring up the muon detector, courtesy of the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group].

Excitingly, when Roy Schwitters sets up his muon detector next to the tree-covered mounds of the Mayan city of La Milpa, he should get his results back in less than six months. Sitting there like a strange battery, the detector’s ultra-long-term abstract photography of the jungle hillsides vaguely reminds me of the technically avant-garde photographic work of Aaron Rose.
Rose has pioneered all sorts of strange lenses and unexpected chemical developers as he takes long-term exposures of Manhattan.
New York becomes less a city than a kind of impenetrable wall of built space.

[Images: Four photographs by Aaron Rose. View slightly larger].

Again, then, I’m curious what it’d be like to install one of these muon detectors in Manhattan: the shivering hives of space it might detect, as delivery trucks shake the bridges and elevators move up and down inside distant high-rises. What would someone like Aaron Rose be able to do with a muon detector?
Are muon detectors the future of urban art photography?
Perhaps it could even be a strange new piece of public art: a dozen muon detectors are installed in Union Square for six months. They’re behind fences, and look sinister; conspiratorialists leave long comments on architecture blogs suggesting that the muon detectors might not really be what they seem…
But the resulting images, after six months of Manhattan muon detection, are turned over as a gift to the city; they are hung in massive prints inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art, near the Egyptian wing, and Neil deGrasse Tyson delivers the keynote address.
Or perhaps a muon detector could be installed atop London’s fourth plinth:

The Fourth Plinth is in the north-west of Trafalgar Square, in central London. Built in 1841, it was originally intended for an equestrian statue but was empty for many years. It is now the location for specially commissioned art works.

For six months, a shadowy muon detector will stand there, above the heads of passing tourists, detecting strange and labyrinthine hollows beneath government buildings where sprawling complexes from WWII spiral out of sight below ground.
Or perhaps muon detectors could even be installed along the European coast to discover things like the buried neolithic village of Skara Brae or those infamous Nazi bunkers “that lay hidden for more than 50 years” before being uncovered by the sea. As the Daily Mail reported earlier this month:

Three Nazi bunkers on a beach have been uncovered by violent storms off the Danish coast, providing a store of material for history buffs and military archaeologists.

The bunkers were found in practically the same condition as they were on the day the last Nazi soldiers left them, down to the tobacco in one trooper’s pipe and a half-finished bottle of schnapps.

So what else might be down there under the soil and the sands…?
I’m imagining mobile teams of archaeologists sleeping in unnamed instant cities in the jungles and far deserts of the world, with storms swirling over their heads, running tests on gigantic black cylinders – muon detectors, all – that stand there like Kubrickian monoliths, recording invisible flashes of energy from space to find ancient burial sites and old buildings underground.

[Images: Tikal, photographed by n8agrin: top/bottom].

Perhaps all the forests and deserts of the world should be peppered with muon detectors – revealing archaeological anomalies and unexpected spaces in the ground all around us.
Architecture students could be involved: installing muon detectors outside Dubai high-rises and then competing to see who can most accurately interpret the floorplan data.

[Images: “Sobrevolando Tikal, Guatemala,” photographed by Eddie von der Becke].

Till one day, ten years from now, an astronaut crazed with emotional loneliness, riding through space with his muon detector, begins misinterpreting all of the data. He concludes – in a live radio transmission broadcast home to stunned mission control supervisors – that his space station has secret rooms – undiscovered rooms – that keep popping up somehow in the shadows…
More to the point, meanwhile, you can read a few more things about Roy Schwitters over at MSNBC – and, of course, at the UT-Austin Maya Muon Group homepage.

The Elephants of Rome: An Interview with Mary Beard (pt. 2)

This is Part Two of a two-part interview with Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge University and general editor of the Wonders of the World, a new series published by Profile and Harvard University Press.
Part One can be found here.

In this installment we discuss cultural authenticity and the rise of archaeo-tourism; China, the pirating of ancient history, and plaster casts of statuary; A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum; the little-understood lost lifestyle patterns of the pyroclastically entombed Pompeii; and the urban military spectacles of imperial Rome.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: I’d like to ask you about different cultural attitudes toward copying and historical reproduction. There’s an essay by Alexander Stille, for instance, called “The Culture of the Copy and the Disappearance of China’s Past,” where he describes how meticulous copies are often used in China as stand-ins for ancient artifacts – without that substitution being acknowledged. Stille writes that, in China, copying “is a sign of reverence rather than lack of originality.” Do you foresee any sort of interpretive conflict on the horizon between these different cultural notions of authenticity and the past?

Mary Beard: This idea, of the meticulous copy being used as a stand-in for the ancient artifact – and that, somehow, this substitution can be its own historical object – well that’s one we actually find our own past. It’s not just a Chinese thing.

I’ve been thinking recently about the role of the plaster cast, and about collections of plaster casts; and, in a sense, it seems to me that the cult of the plaster cast, in seventeenth to early mid-nineteenth century Europe, had much in common with what Stille’s describing in China. Now – and I mean since the total commitment within modernism to “authenticity” – we regard plaster casts as cheap and perhaps awkward copies of the original. But, certainly, in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, plaster casts were the object that provided people with “real” connection with the classical world. The plaster cast was, in a sense, the fount of classical art and classical knowledge, and people like Goethe were inspired not so much by what we would think of as the authentic marble object, but by looking at plaster casts.

At one point in the Parthenon book – I mention it just very briefly – there was a moment, in the 1930s, when the British Museum had got all of Elgin’s marbles there, but the bits they didn’t have they filled in with plaster casts from Greece. It wasn’t that the casts were actually valued the same, but that viewers could happily see these things, side by side, in order to experience the Parthenon sculptures.

I think it’s actually quite moving sometimes, reading people’s accounts of Greek and Roman sculpture in the eighteenth and nineteenth century – because they’re describing plaster casts using a language which we would not now use for copies. They’re not framing it as a copy – they’re framing it as if it was it – or at least as if was sufficiently like the “real thing” to be able to prompt some of the same language and emotions.

[Image: A view of the Elgin Marbles, via the Wik].

BLDGBLOG: That seems to be as much about the desire to encounter the thing itself as to use convenient stand-ins for that thing, when “authenticity” is simply too expensive to afford.

Mary Beard: That’s partly it – but one thing that’s curious is that the modern city of Rome produced and displayed loads of plaster casts until quite recently (and there is still a great collection in the University gallery in Rome). They went in for making plaster casts of sculpture when they’d got the real stuff sitting right there in front of them. “Authenticity” is always a trickier idea than we think it is – which is, I guess, one of the things that “post-modernism” has been about telling us.

BLDGBLOG: Do you see educational value in things like merchandising, then? Do souvenirs obscure the past or give people access to it?

Mary Beard: I tend to be pretty laid back about it. I mean, I can do the argument about commodification if you like. I can say: goodness me, what you are doing? You’re re-presenting a tawdry cheap object, to make a vast amount of profit, and it’ll be bought by somebody else in the belief that, somehow, they have just bought into cultural property. I can do the gloomy side of it.

But I think it also goes back, more positively, to the idea that these objects are sort of shared. How do you share a monument? One of the main ways that you share a monument is by replicating it and letting people own the replica. It’s a way that people can feel they have a relationship to the original. That’s been going on since antiquity itself. One of the things that’s quite extraordinary is the number of relatively small-scale replicas there are of the cult statue of Athena from the Parthenon – hundreds of them.

Of course, in some ways, you say, tourists are being palmed off with plastic souvenirs instead of with knowledge – and, of course, some of these things, the middle class cultural critics can say, are horrible and cheap, and people think they’re buying culture when, in fact, they’re buying a nasty little replica. Obviously there’s an ambivalence there, but it never seems to me to be wholly bad.

You know, you have your photograph taken at the Colosseum next to somebody dressed up like a gladiator. Is that a terrible bit of exploitation because you’ve just paid a ridiculous amount of money? Well, that’s exactly what it is in one way – but it’s also a way of writing yourself into the history of that site, and saying “I was there.”

[Images: Tourists having their picture taken “next to somebody dressed up like a gladiator.” Photo by Robin Cormack].

BLDGBLOG: For a lot of people, there’s also a sense of irony there – in the idea that you’d get your picture taken next to a gladiator. It’s like a joke: look at me, wearing shorts, standing next to an Italian guy dressed like a gladiator.

Mary Beard: Yes, that’s right. I don’t think one’s capacity for self-ironization is necessarily incompatible with the idea of ownership. When I buy my ouzo bottle shaped like the Parthenon, it’s another way to the same end.

We tend to think that tourists are dupes being flogged crap which they don’t realize is crap. Actually, I suspect that most people, like you and I, do realize that it’s crap. The point is to buy crap, because that’s part of what the deal is – that’s the transaction which you’re doing.

I suppose it’s all part of what I’m thinking in general: people are much smarter about their engagement with these places than we often give them credit for. They/we have quite a highly developed sense of what the touristic game is all about. I might be an expert when it comes to the Parthenon, but I go to hundreds of places where I know nothing at all – but I still know what the contract is, between the tourist and the monument.

[Images: The streets of Pompeii, via Wikipedia].

BLDGBLOG: This changes the subject a bit, but I understand you’re also writing a new book about Pompeii. Is that for the Wonders for the World?

Mary Beard: I am writing a Pompeii book, and it’s for Profile and Harvard, like the Wonders. However, it’s not in the series because it’s going to be rather longer than that – and there’s a practical consideration here. If you’re going to tell your authors not to do more than 50,000 words, then you can’t have the series editor deciding she wants to do 100,000 words!

I suppose I’m trying to do some quite specific things. I’ve worked on and off on Pompeii for 20 or 30 years, and it struck me that, apart from the study of volcanology (where everybody will talk till the cows come home about “pyroclastic flows” and all that), by and large there’s an increasing gap between what academic studies of Pompeii are doing and the kind of stuff that popular books on Pompeii feed people. I wanted to see if I could close a bit of that gap between what people normally get given, if they’re not specialists, and some of the ways of thinking about the city that are current within academic debate.

I think that one of the problems about going to Pompeii, once you’ve done your first wander round it – and, even now, it’s gob-smacking to go to the ancient town – there’s a question of: what do people look at? And how do they look at it?

I think, as we were saying before, tourists are pretty canny – but their canniness and sharpness is often crushed by the sense that there is a particular set of questions that are somehow the right questions to ask. I suppose I want to help people see that their puzzlement about how this town worked – their puzzlement about the city – is legitimate. You know, they should go on asking those kinds of questions.

There is a huge distance between us and what went on in this town (whatever that was); yet, on the other hand, there is a dialogue that you can have with it. It’s a dialogue which is, in part, mediated by novels and films and so on – Last Days of Pompeii and the like. And that is something we have to work through, not against. It’s that way of thinking I’m interested in exploring.

BLDGBLOG: You’ve written on your blog about Pompeii’s ancient traffic patterns, and about some more mundane questions, such as how Pompeii actually functioned.

Mary Beard: Yes, that’s right – you know: where did people go to the loo? Why is there so little “stuff” there? Why was so little found in Pompeii? Well, that really is interesting – and that is what archaeologists are sometimes honest enough to worry about. Where do these stairs actually go? Did anything happen up there? How many people lived here?

So you want to say to tourists: your questions aren’t foolish. We don’t know what the upstairs was like. Estimates of the population of Pompeii vary by thousands, according to whether you think all the slaves lived up there, squashed together in dorms, or whether there were some elegantly spacious master bedrooms, or whether it was mostly storeroom. We really don’t know. We don’t even know how Pompeii related to the sea!

But I think there is a very difficult trade-off here. In the end it’s a terrible downer for people always to say, “We don’t know, we don’t know, we don’t know.” You’ve got to tell them something that we do know!

I suppose I want to write a book that doesn’t fob people off with simplifying stories that I know not to be true. I think that’s the nasty power relationship between popular books on the ancient world and their readers: an author, who knows how complicated it is, tells the ignorant reading public a simplified story that he or she doesn’t really believe. That then makes writing – and disseminating what you know about the ancient world – an act of bad faith. So you want it to be good faith – without saying: the conclusion of this book is that we know nothing.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs] That reminds me of Robert Irwin’s book, where he begins with two full pages’ worth of incorrect “facts” about the Alhambra.

Mary Beard: Yes. Jolly good.

[Images: A Triumph through the streets of Rome following the sack of Jerusalem. For more on Roman Triumphs, don’t miss Mary Beard’s forthcoming book; for more on the sack of Jerusalem, grab a copy of Simon Goldhill’s The Temple of Jerusalem].

BLDGBLOG: You’ve also got another forthcoming book, published by Harvard, about the Roman Triumph – about Roman military processions. Could you tell me more about that? Is it similar in tone to the Wonders of the World series?

Mary Beard: In a funny way, although it’s a longer book, and it’s heavily footnoted, it’s written partly for the same kind of audience. It’s for the specialist as well as the intelligent ignorant.

What the book is saying is: look, here is a Roman ceremony which, much in the same way as these monuments, has been reworked and reappropriated throughout history. You know, Napoleon does the Triumph, every blasted princeling in the Renaissance does a Triumph, Mantegna paints the Triumph – it’s still a cultural form that we share with the Romans. So how can we make sense of it? Particularly now, how do we think about celebrating military victory – and what form is possible, legitimate, in bad taste, in good taste…?

This relates, of course, to how we now package the Romans. Certainly for the last hundred years or so, they have been seen as the poor relations of the Greeks: Greek culture, we believe, was intellectual and self-reflexive, whilst the Romans were thugs who built roads and won battles. It’s a convenient dyad for us but, in many ways, it undermines and disguises so much of what’s really interesting about Roman culture.

One of the things I’m wanting to say about the Triumph goes like this. Here you’ve got the most fantastic parade ever of Roman wealth and imperialism. The Romans score disgustingly big victories, massacring thousands, and they come and celebrate it in the center of the city, bringing the prisoners and the spoils and the riches and all the rest. At one level, this is a jingoistic, militaristic display that would warm the heart of every European dictator ever after – but, at the same time, scratch the surface of that. Look at how the Romans talked about it. That very ceremony is also the ceremony in which you see the Romans debating and worrying about what glory is, what victory is. Who, really, has won? It’s a ceremony that provides Rome with a way of thinking about itself. It exposes all kinds of Roman intellectual anxieties.

For example, there are constant anecdotes, which I think are very loaded anecdotes, about how risky a celebration it is, and how the celebration can always go wrong. There’s one General, Pompey, in the sixties BC, who decides to outbid all of the previous triumphant Generals. Instead of having his chariot yoked to horses, he decides to have it pulled by elephants. It looks fantastic – it looks kind of divine (that’s how the god Bacchus drove his chariot) – until he comes to go through an arch and the elephants get stuck in the arch. So he reverses a bit, and he tries it again – and they still can’t get through. They finally have to unhitch the elephants and bring up the horses – and you think: why is this anecdote being told? Not only is this obviously a humiliating moment – wouldn’t you feel a real fool if it happened to you! – but it’s also being told as a way of saying, remember, glory has to be carefully negotiated. Where is the boundary between glory and foolishness?

Another question is: who do you look at when you’ve got this great procession? Who’s the star of the show? Is it the General in his chariot? Well, sometimes it is – but sometimes it’s the victims. Sometimes military victory makes stars of the defeated. That was also a problem in the gladiatorial arena: who was the star? Well, it was the gladiator, not the emperor. In the Triumph those exotic but pathetic captives regularly stole the show, or were said to, and Roman poets and historians recognized this, and wondered about it, and played with it, and they turned it into a metaphor just like we do. And that is so topical today. Take Saddam Hussein’s execution – you know, what was the upshot of those films? Who won?

Militarism often goes hand in hand with everything which undermines militarism. The Romans were actually – if you know how to read them right, and if you’re not expecting them to be Greek and to talk about it in the same way – they’re actually looking at the nature of military victory, and military display, and they’re wondering about it some of the same ways that we do.

So that’s what the book is about – or, at least, those are some of the questions that have driven it.

[Images: A poster for 300 and scenes from 300 and Gladiator].

BLDGBLOG: Finally, could you talk a bit about the present state of pop cultural knowledge about the Classical world, from the film 300 and David Beckham’s new tattoo to cable television documentaries? In the most general sense, are these things useful for teaching the Classics?

Mary Beard: I’m very keen on it, of course. I have to be. Partly, you know, if you’re a classicist teaching Classics at a British university, self-interest is a factor here. All these things, from Gladiator on, have been a tremendous recruiting ground, and so we go around talking about whether Gladiator’s true or not, and 300, and all the rest – and encouraging people to get interested in “real” Classics that way (there, I’m talking about authenticity!).

More generally, though, one of the things that these movies and so on remind us is that classical culture simply isn’t the bastion of elitism that it’s often made out to be. Certainly in the UK – and, I expect, it’s largely the same in the U.S. – the study of Classics, as an academic discipline, is thought to be the upper echelons of privilege and elitism. To some extent that’s true – and to some extent it’s unfair. What that view overlooks is the fact that there has been enormous amounts of mass engagement with ancient culture from the end of the 19th century onwards. Books like The Last Days of Pompeii, or Ben-Hur, sold fantastic quantities. They were absolute bestsellers, in the way that Gladiator is a bestselling movie.

What’s interesting though is that every generation has always claimed that it was the first to rediscover the Romans for themselves, and for mass culture. You can see that very clearly with the Broadway musical, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum. It was a fantastic success, but it sold itself in very similar terms to Gladiator – that here, for the first time, the wee masses were going to see Rome as it really was.

So what interests me, beyond the hope that this brings other people into Classics, is the idea that Classics is a subject which is actually quite democratic. It isn’t only this kind of toff, upper-class subject it’s often thought to be. Every generation enjoys rediscovering it – but, each time it comes around, we claim that now, for the first time, we’ve got privileged knowledge which we’re going to share with you all over again. In fact, there are hundreds and hundreds of movies, and hundreds of novels, and thousands of cartoon strips about the Romans. They never go away – but we always think that it’s us that got them first.

In the UK, when kids discover Asterix the Gaul – a wonderful cartoon series about plucky little Gauls fighting the Romans – each 10-year old finds it anew, and rediscovers the Romans for themselves. Which is just how it should be.

[Image: The Colosseum, photographed by Robin Cormack].

• • •

I owe a huge thank you to Mary Beard for taking the time to have this conversation, and for following up with images and with edits to the transcript.
For more Mary Beard, meanwhile, don’t miss her blog, A Don’s Life; her essays at the London Review of Books; or The Roman Triumph, due out this Autumn.
Finally, titles in the Wonders of the World series now include:

The Parthenon by Mary Beard
The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard
The Tomb of Agamemnon by Cathy Gere
The Temple of Jerusalem by Simon Goldhill
Westminster Abbey by Richard Jenkyns
The Alhambra by Robert Irwin
The Rosetta Stone by John Ray
St. Peter’s by Keith Miller
St. Pancras Station by Simon Bradley
The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme by Gavin Stamp

Collect them all—and don’t miss Part One of this interview while you’re doing so.

The Wonders of the World: An Interview with Mary Beard (pt. 1)

Mary Beard is a Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, where she is a fellow of Newnham College. She also writes a blog for the Times, called A Don’s Life, and she is the editor of an excellent new series of books, The Wonders of the World.

The latter is “a small series of books that will focus on some of the world’s most famous sites or monuments.” It is published by Profile in the UK, and by Harvard University Press in North America.

A few notable titles in that series include Mary Beard’s own book about The Parthenon; her collaboration with Keith Hopkins for The Colosseum; Cathy Gere’s extraordinary look at The Tomb of Agamemnon (previously discussed on BLDGBLOG here); and many others, including books about Westminster Abbey, The Temple of Jerusalem, and The Alhambra, with other titles ranging from the birth of Egyptology to the history of British railways and the First World War.

Meanwhile, Beard has another, highly anticipated book forthcoming from Harvard University Press: The Roman Triumph. Among other such questions, that book will ask: “what are the implications of the Roman triumph, as a celebration of imperialism and military might, for questions about military power and ‘victory’ in our own day?”

In the following two-part interview, Mary Beard talks to BLDGBLOG about the Wonders of the World series, including how and why the particular buildings and monuments have been chosen. We discuss the politics of archaeology and the often misguided reappropriation of the past; whether or not sites of historical horror can be transformed into places of both wonder and critical reflection; why we still know so little about the ruined city of Pompeii; how museums, guidebooks, and films, from Gladiator to 300, represent the Classical past; and even ancient Roman analogues for the death of Saddam Hussein.

Part Two can be found here.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: To start with, what are the basic editorial intentions behind the Wonders of the World series? For instance, who are the books for?

Mary Beard: You sometimes wonder whether you reinvent your editorial intentions as you go along! But I suppose there are three intentions. The first is that I want these books to open up culture and history, as well as dissent about culture and history, through the contested life stories of individual monuments and wonders – real or imaginary. I think it’s about using a single object – a single monument, a single wonder – as a kind of window onto not just culture and history but also the controversies of culture and history. That’s number one.

Number two – and these are not meant to be hierarchical – is quite a simple one, and it’s to show that bricks and mortar, or concrete and marble, are always more than that. A great building is always more than the sum of its parts: it’s about mythology; it’s about argument; it’s about cultural re-use and re-presentation.

And I think the third intention is that you want to help people to enjoy looking at monuments, and at the complexity of monuments – and to see that the complexity and the arguments are what’s fun about this. Sometimes, when people write for what they think of as a popular market, they think that they should make it simple, whereas I think that what you should be doing is helping people to enjoy how complicated it all really is.

Of course, some of these buildings work better for one of those functions rather than others – but that’s the overall theme.

BLDGBLOG: When it comes to choosing an author to produce these books, do you go after people whose scholarly work you already admire – or do the authors come looking for you, pitching you ideas for a new monument or Wonder?

Mary Beard: Increasingly, as people know the series, they’re starting to come forward and say, “I’ve got a great idea.”

I think the key to it, though, is: one, they can’t be dull. I call it “academics with attitude” – they’ve got to have some sense of chutzpah about them. But I don’t think attitude is enough; I think the key is the kind of marriage you make between the writer and the monument – how you can make it work by getting the pairing right. That is, I think, quite difficult.

One of the best examples I can think of is that we’ve been looking for someone – and may possibly now have found somebody – to do the Tower of London. Years ago I went out for lunch with Simon Bradley, an architectural historian, to talk about the Tower and whether he’d like to do it. He looked like a good prospect. So we were having lunch, but as we talked on and on about it, I got the sense that both of us were becoming just a bit bored with the blasted Tower of London. After a good drink or two, I finally said: “Look, Simon – forget the Tower. If you could have any building in the world, what building would you really, really like to write about?” And he instantly said: St. Pancras Station. Then it all came out: he was an architectural historian of the Gothic Revival by training, and he’d been a train enthusiast when he was a kid, and, suddenly, you saw: God – there was a building just waiting for the bloke. And, actually, it’s turned out to be an absolutely wonderful book.

It’s that kind of slightly unlikely marriage that makes them work best – it’s about being a kind of dating agency.

But there was something back in question one which we didn’t do – which is who the books are for. And we’re wanting to have as many readers as possible. Those might be specialists, or teachers, or high school students, or the man on the bus; but I think there is always a central nugget of people in the middle that I’ve got in mind when I’m commissioning a book, and I call them the intelligent ignorant.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs] I suppose I’m in that category.

Mary Beard: And I’m quite good at being the clever ignorant, too!

This goes back to what I said: people write popular books wanting to make things simple. I’m imagining that somebody who comes to this series may be ignorant, in the sense that they know nothing about the building they’re about to read about, beyond its name, or a very few facts – so they are, technically, ignorant. But I’m also assuming that they’re intelligent. What they do not want is to be shortchanged by oversimplification – and they do not want to be talked down to. They’re not going to take crap.

So lots of specialists will pick up these books, in the way that they always do, but my target audience is the intelligent ignorant.

[Image: The interior iron arches of London’s St. Pancras Station, via Wikipedia].

BLDGBLOG: How much thought goes into choosing the actual sites?

Mary Beard: Quite a lot. This started off by me wanting to write about the Parthenon, and wanting to write about it for all the reasons that I’ve glossed as the editorial objectives of the series. But then it grew – and we saw that there was mileage in the idea.

BLDGBLOG: I can think of a dozen or so places that would make fantastic books – the catacombs of Paris, the Maginot Line, Hoover Dam, Cape Canaveral, and so on – maybe even the International Space Station – but perhaps those don’t really fit the editorial mission of the series. Do sites like those have any interest for you?

Mary Beard: Again, we want to range from the absolutely bog-standard, normative greatest hits that would be on anybody’s idea of a Wonder of the World, while, at the same time, we want to increase the range of those Wonders. There’s a trade off there, between not wanting to be boringly predictable, and, on the other hand, not wanting to be maverickly odd.

One of things I want to do is to take some of the greatest hits, like St. Peter’s and Stonehenge, and show people how interesting and complicated and different they are – different from what those people might have imagined. But I also want to take things that people might never have thought of putting in the category of a Wonder.

BLDGBLOG: Like St. Pancras?

Mary Beard: I think St. Pancras in England is an absolutely extraordinary building, and, behind it, the rail sheds are incredible – in the engineering and in the architecture. It’s absolutely marvelous. So I’m very pleased to do that.

Similarly, with something like Gavin Stamp’s The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme: what happens if you take something that people would say, “Oh, a war memorial” – and you say, no: think of it in a different way. Think about this as a Wonder of the World. And then you think about that monument differently.

But I don’t know how far you can go down that line of being subversive. In some ways, we’re always teetering on the margins of where we might go next. One of the things that I’ve often said is: I wonder what happens if you do Auschwitz? Can you do sites of horror? Can you turn wonder around in that way?

It would be hard to know how to do that in the series in a way that isn’t mawkish or that, in some way, makes the monument tawdry. It’s hard to know.

[Image: Tourists visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau; photo via Wikipedia].

BLDGBLOG: That’s interesting, actually, because there was a short article in New Scientist a few months ago about the rise of so-called dark tourism – where people visit sites like Auschwitz and the Cambodian Killing Fields. So there is a connection between wonder and horror.

Mary Beard: There was a book – which was not in the series, but which was published by Profile – by William St. Clair, about Cape Coast Castle, a British slave-trading castle on the west coast of Africa. That turned out to be extremely interesting. It expanded from being a Wonder partly because he found an enormously rich set of unexploited documentation.

But we did talk quite a lot about whether the slave trade could produce wonder – if the slave trade could produce a Wonder of the World – and what that would mean.

BLDGBLOG: Most of the books now focus on sites around the Mediterranean – with some exceptions, but those exceptions are all European. Do you see the series going on to include non-European sites like Macchu Picchu or the Taj Mahal?

Mary Beard: Well, it is a bit European. In fact, one of the things about our list at the moment, and this is something that I really want to do something about, is that the Americas are striking by their absence. That’s something that’s on my mind. We have got the Forbidden City coming up, and the Taj Mahal, too – but there’s a striking lacuna where America, North or South, is concerned, and that’s something I want to think hard about.

I’m also interested in natural wonders: the Grand Canyon is only made a natural wonder by cultural re-appropriation. Without that, it’s just a canyon. So why not the Grand Canyon? Similarly, too, the Alps were any old mountains – till they became Mountains. And the Lake District was just boggy hills till the blasted poets got at them.

I think the boundaries of the Wonders of the World series are interesting – but, in the end, if all you did was invest in the margins, without re-looking – and I think it is a radical re-looking – at some of the things which seem more familiar, it would be a bit of a waste.

BLDGBLOG: In other words, doing a book about Cape Canaveral would be a little too avant-garde.

Mary Beard: I would go with a monument of space technology, actually, because I think you’d read it differently within the series. It’s just that I wouldn’t have too many volumes on Cape Canaveral and other things like that. It’s a question of productive balance.

In the long term, I hope that the books will rub off on one another: you’ll read Westminster Abbey differently because you’ve read it after you’ve read about Cape Canaveral – and vice versa. If people like the series, and if they trust it, if they feel that there’s a guarantee of a decent read, then they’ll be encouraged to read things that they wouldn’t otherwise have read. I hope that’s what happens.

BLDGBLOG: I thought Cathy Gere’s book, The Tomb of Agamemnon, was incredible – in large part because it demonstrates how easily archaeology can become politicized. From your own experience, how easy is it for archaeological research, or just basic historical research, to become politicized – for the past to be deliberately reinterpreted in a way that benefits certain political narratives in the present?

Mary Beard: That was one case where, even though I know a bit about prehistoric Greece, and I’ve done stuff on Schliemann, I fell into the category of the intelligent ignorant. I had really very little clue quite how loaded the tomb of Agamemnon became. It was extraordinary.

It does seem to me that all these books do, in a sense, is say: look, these buildings matter. They’re not just bricks and mortar. They’ve been fought about. People want to own them, to make them theirs – because they know that they’re important. Quite how that happens I think is always an important story. It’s a way to find out more about political culture by a back door.

In some ways, one learns a lot about the Nazification of Western Europe by thinking about Mycenae. But there’s also a sense of ownership going on here, in a more general sense – and, certainly, the Getty is a good place to sense that. There is an interesting problematization at the moment about cultural ownership, which is: do we think culture is moveable and global and shared? Or do we think that culture is national, and it belongs to the soil on which it was created? Should culture be owned by the people whose ancestors created it?

I saw a statement quite recently – I don’t know if he was correctly quoted – by the Greek minister of culture, saying that, in his ideal world, everything produced in Greece would be in Greece. At that point you think: right, this is not about the restitution of things that have been illegally bought or smuggled or whatever; this is about a particular version of archaeological nationalism. At that point I start to feel very uneasy – and I would hope that these books help people to see that a narrowly vulgar archaeological nationalism is a very problematic idea.

I was in the Met relatively recently, and I was walking through those rooms that have been reconstructed from British country houses, and I thought: do I feel pleased that these rooms are here? Or do I feel like what have you got your hands on these for? Which do I feel? Obviously, to some extent, you feel both – but on balance I feel more pleased than cross, because the idea that bits of my culture can be found globally, that I can go into a museum in New York and see something from Gloucestershire, actually pleases me as much as it makes me anxious.

I did also go to the Mellon Center for British Art, in New Haven, a few weeks ago – a marvelous collection of British art. It made me say: here I am, a very well-educated, cultural middle-class Brit, and this collection of British art in New Haven, displayed in a way that I’d never seen British art displayed before, has made me think differently about my own culture, in a way that would have been impossible had these been in the UK.

So, leaving aside the fraught issues of criminality or theft, which is one thing, the idea is whether we can think of these things as bits of shared cultural property. I mean, what happens when a building becomes a Wonder of the World? One of the interesting consequences, I think, is a series of tough questions. In what sense do we own these things? In what sense can these things really be shared? Do we feel pleased that there’s a bit of the Parthenon in the Louvre – or do we think it should go back?

I increasingly come down on the side of feeling pleased – although ambivalent.

BLDGBLOG: I think a lot of this, though, comes down to the specific historical relationship between the countries involved. The U.S. having British artifacts in a museum means one thing, whereas, say –

Mary Beard: Having the Benin bronzes means quite another.

BLDGBLOG: Exactly. It has a different set of political implications. But that’s also why it can be hard sometimes to distinguish between archaeology as a science, and archaeology as a political pursuit – politics, or even empire, pursued by other means.

Mary Beard: Yes – I think there’s always a trade-off, and it’s always murky. Different sides will tell you different stories and give you different interpretations of exactly the same series of events.

I think you can see that very clearly with Mussolini. It is one of the clearest cases: you could say that Mussolini was re-excavating Ancient Rome in order to make a political statement about his own genealogy. He wasn’t saying: “Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what the Mausoleum of Augustus looks like?” He was trying to excavate the monumental center of ancient Rome as a legitimation of his own regime.

It’s clear that’s why the money went in. It’s not half so clear that the individual archaeologists, in receipt of that money, were on message in quite the way that they appear to have been.

Some time ago I got a group of my colleagues in Cambridge together. All of them were eighty and over, and all of them had been in Italy when the big Mussolini excavations were going on. One of them was an ex-member of the Communist party; others were highly unpoliticised. I got a group of students, interested in finding out about this, to ask the group questions about what being in Rome in the 1930s was all about. I expected at least the highly political ones would give me, possibly an anachronistic reading, but a very political reading about distaste for the appropriation of archaeology for political ends. I couldn’t have been more surprised – because every single one of them said, “It was amazing. It was marvelous. So much stuff was being discovered.” I thought gosh, you know, the reading of this is actually extremely complicated in terms of how the politics worked – and how our view of it changes over time. I mean, it’s easier to spot political motives a generation or two after the event.

Another thing: one of the most famous excavations in Pompeii was the excavation of the Villa of the Mysteries and its frieze, first published in the 1930s. These were fantastically lavish volumes – you know, more expensive that you would ever imagine, in a fantastic vellum binding – which my library in Cambridge managed to get a copy of. The book’s got Mussolini’s fasces on the back cover, in gold emboss, and, instead of being dated 1938, it’s dated Era Fascista VII or something.

So we got a group of students together and we passed the book round, and we said, “Do you notice anything about this book? Now, don’t think of the pictures – look at it as a book. Do you notice anything about it?” And most of the students said, “Well it’s lovely. It’s really expensive, isn’t it?” It took them about a quarter of an hour before a single one of them said, “Oh, what’s this here?” pointing to the fasces and the dating by Era Fascista. And I thought, actually, they’re both right and wrong. They’re wrong because they’re being very unobservant and they’ve failed to see why this bit of archaeology was published as lavishly as it was, and it was having money plowed into it by a regime that they would purport to disdain. And yet here this has entered their own academic life, in a way that is somehow separate from those considerations. I thought that that was quite a neat example, and a nice little vignette of how these monuments work.

I went to the Ara Pacis, in Rome, with the new Richard Meier cover to it – and what was interesting about that was that, if you go in and you’re not going to buy the expensive guidebook, if you’re just going to go in as a tourist and use the information panels, then you would have to look very hard to discover that this was excavated by Mussolini and then put into a fascist box that has now been removed – although it’s sitting in the middle of a square surrounded by fascist sculpture!

[Image: Benito Mussolini, via Wikipedia].

BLDGBLOG: That brings up the question of what tourists are really looking for when they go out to visit “history.” We’ve talked about the political side of this – but what do tourists want from the past?

Mary Beard: What’s funny about the “wonders of the world” idea is that it’s such a lasting metaphor for the must-see thing. The category starts in Hellenistic Greece. Greeks in the third and second century BC were making all kinds of lists and all kinds of categories, and they were terribly busy systematizing things. Most of that we’ve forgotten, but the idea of the “wonders of the world” proved to be terribly lasting. In some ways, it feeds into the whole Grand Tour – a very elite British Grand Tour, obviously.

What it does now, I think, is it enriches tourism hugely.

I think one of the most exciting things about visiting these monuments – like the Parthenon, or the Colosseum, etc. – is in going to see what our predecessors saw, but differently. I think the buzz you get from going to, say, the Colosseum is not just: “Oh my goodness, this is where gladiators fought and bled their guts out on the sand!” But also: “This is where Byron came.” And: “This is where Henry James came.” There’s a sense of revisiting the recent as well as the remote past – and wondering, “Does it look the same to me as it did to Byron?” Is it oppressive to be seeing through the eyes of these other people – or is that actually a wonderful enjoyment of historical “thickness”?

For my taste, most popular tourist books are dishonest to the extent that they pretend there’s a kind of unmediated access between you and the past. So when you go to the Colosseum, and when you go to the Parthenon, there’s you and the fifth century BC, or there’s you and the first century AD – when, in fact, you’re not seeing the first century AD or the fifth century BC, you’re seeing it as it has been reconstructed, rebuilt, written about, and talked about. You’re only there because somebody in 1780 decided to draw it.

I want to bring that bit back in — the “thickness” of tourism’s history being its own pleasure.

[Image: The Arch of Titus, via Wikipedia].

• • •

Don’t miss Part Two of this interview.

Drains of Canada: An Interview with Michael Cook

[Image: The Toronto Power Company Tailrace at Niagara; this and all other photos in this post by Michael Cook].

Michael Cook is a writer, photographer, and urban explorer based in Toronto, where he also runs a website called Vanishing Point.
Despite its subject matter, however, Vanishing Point is more than just another website about urban exploration. Cook’s accounts of his journeys into the subterranean civic infrastructure of Canada and northern New York State – and into those regions’ warehouses, factories, and crumbling hospitals – often include plans, elevations, and the odd historical photograph showing the sites under construction.
For instance, his fascinating, inside-out look at the Ontario Generating Station comes with far more than just cool pictures of an abandoned hydroelectric complex behind the water at Niagara Falls, and the detailed narratives he’s produced about the drains of Hamilton and Toronto are well worth reading in full.
As the present interview makes clear, Cook’s interests extend beyond the field of urban exploration to include the ecological consequences of city drainage systems, the literal nature of public space, and the implications of industrial decay for future archaeology – among many other things we barely had time to discuss.
Or, perhaps more accurately phrased, Cook shows that urban exploration has always been about more than just taking pictures of monumentally abstract architectural spaces embedded somewhere in the darkness.

[Image: The Memorial Park Storage Chambers in Toronto’s Belt Line Drain; this is architecture as dreamed of by Adolf Loos: shaved of all ornament, exquisitely smooth, functional – while architecture schools were busy teaching Mies van der Rohe, civil engineers were perfecting the Modern movement beneath their feet].

As he writes on Vanishing Point:

The built environment of the city has always been incomplete, by omission and necessity, and will remain so. Despite the visions of futurists, the work of our planners and cement-layers thankfully remains a fractured and discontinuous whole, an urban field riven with internal margins, pockmarked by decay, underlaid with secret waterways. Stepping outside our prearranged traffic patterns and established destinations, we find a city laced with liminality, with borderlands cutting across its heart and reaching into its sky. We find a thousand vanishing points, each unique, each alive, each pregnant with riches and wonders and time.

This is a website about exploring some of those spaces, about immersing oneself in stormwater sewers and utility tunnels and abandoned industry, about tapping into the worlds that are embedded in our urban environment yet are decidedly removed from the collective experience of civilized life. This is a website about spaces that exist at the boundaries of modern control, as concessions to the landscape, as the debris left by economic transition, as evidence of the transient nature of our place upon this earth.

In the following conversation with BLDGBLOG, Cook discusses how and where these drains are found; what they sound like; the injuries and infections associated with such explorations; myths of secret systems in other cities; and even a few brief tips for getting inside these hyper-functionalist examples of urban infrastructure. We talk about ecology, hydrology, and industrial archaeology; and we come back more than once to the actual architecture of these spaces.

[Image: “Stairs” by Michael Cook, from the Westview Greenbelt Drain].

• • •

BLDGBLOG: Is there any place in particular that you’re exploring right now?

Michael Cook: I am trying to piece together entrance to a drain here in Toronto. It’s part of a larger system. As part of their efforts to improve Toronto’s water quality on the lake front, the city built this big storage tunnel called the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel. It intercepts and stores overflow from a number of combined sewers, as well as from several storm sewers along the western lake front. I guess this was finished in 2001, but they had various technical issues, with the mechanics of it, so it was only operational this past summer.

But there are three storm sewers, I guess, that are part of this system. One of them is on my site already – Pilgrimage – and then there’s a second one that’s large and possibly worth getting into. It’s just not something I’ve investigated thoroughly, so… I’ll probably go down and look for that.

[Images: (top) “Transition to CMP,” from Toronto’s Old Ironsides drain; (middle) “Junction with small sidepipe (falling in on the right)” inside Toronto’s Graphic Equalizer drain; (bottom) “Backwards junction” in Toronto’s Sisters of Mercy drain].

BLDGBLOG: How do you know that the system fits together – that all these storm sewers actually connect up with one another? Are there maps?

Michael Cook: In this case, I have an outfall list that was prepared in the late 80s for portions of Toronto – so I know, from this list, what the size of this storm sewer was at its outfall, before it was intercepted by the new system.

There was also a fair bit of media coverage when the system was being built, because it was a huge expenditure on the part of the city. So we know which combined sewers are part of the system, and I do know where a particular storm sewer is when they intersect – I just don’t necessarily know which residential streets it runs under.

Basically, I have a starting point – and the way I’m going to do this is just go down there on foot and walk around the various residential streets, starting at the lake and moving north. I’ll see if I can find any viable manhole entrances – which involves being by the side of the road or in the sidewalk, where it will be possible to enter and exit safely.

[Image: “Emerging in Wilson Heights,” out of Toronto’s Depths of Salvation drain].

BLDGBLOG: What do you actually bring with you? Do you have some kind of underground exploration kit? Full of Band-Aids and Advil?

Michael Cook: I have a pair of boots or waders, depending on the circumstances. I’ll also bring one or more headlamps, and a spotlamp, and various other lighting gear – plus a camera and a tripod. That basically sums it up.

I also have a manhole key – that’s basically just a loop of aircraft cable tied onto a bolt at one end and run through a piece of aluminum pipe that serves as a crude handle. Most of the manhole lids around here have between two and twenty square holes in them about an inch wide, and they’re reasonably light. Assuming the lid hasn’t been welded or bolted into the collar of the manhole, it’s relatively quick and painless to use this tool to pull the lid out. It’s only useful for light-weight lids, though. In Montreal, for instance, most of the covers are awkward, heavy affairs that sometimes need two people, each with their own crowbar, to dislodge safely. Real utilities workers use pickaxes – but those aren’t so easily carried in the pocket of a backpack.

[Image: The outfall of Toronto’s Old Ironsides drain].

BLDGBLOG: Do you ever run into other people down there?

Michael Cook: That’s never happened to me, actually. It’s just not that popular a pursuit, outside of certain hotspots.

People can accept going into an abandoned building: you might run into someone you don’t want to run into there, or you might find that part of the building’s unstable – but it’s still just a building.

Even people I know who self-identify as urban explorers aren’t at all that interested in undergrounding – especially not in storm drains. A lot of them just don’t see the actual interest. It’s not a detail-rich environment. You can walk six kilometers underground through nearly featureless pipe – and there’s not something to see and photograph every five feet.

[Image: An “A-shaped conduit” in Toronto’s Belt Line Drain].

BLDGBLOG: Yet a lot – possibly most – of these drains are already named. Who names them, and how do the names get passed around and agreed on by everyone else?

Michael Cook: With people who drain, one of the first things you pick up is a respect for existing names – and the first person to explore a drain has naming rights over it. People generally respect that. Sometimes we’ll make exceptions – I know I’ve made exceptions a few times – but, ultimately, we depend on other people respecting our names.

It’s at once a completely pointless exercise; but, at the same time, it’s fairly meaningful in terms of having a way of discussing this with other people.

So that’s how it comes up. You then use that name, both offline and online. In Australia, they have a kind of master location list, that they keep within Cave Clan, but here we don’t have that level of organization, or that size of a community. It’s just a matter of publishing stuff on our websites.

That said, sometimes we’ll adopt the official name. This usually happens when we’ve been using that name for awhile before we find a way to actually get inside the system, and this usually comes about with something really big or historically significant. We’ll never rename the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, for instance, though we call it the “Webster,” colloquially. When I find a way into Toronto’s storied Garrison Creek Sewer, the buried remains of our fabled “lost” creek, it won’t be the subject of renaming either. Those are the exceptions though; most of the time naming is one of the things we do to capture and communicate something of the magic of wading for three hours through a watery, feature-poor concrete tunnel underground.

[Image: (top) “Outfall structure in the West Don Valley,” part of Toronto’s Depths of Salvation drain; (bottom) The outfall of Toronto’s Graphic Equalizer drain].

BLDGBLOG: A lot of these places look like surreal, concrete versions of all the streams and rivers that used to flow through the city. The drains are like a manmade replacement, or prosthetic landscape, that’s been installed inside the old one. Does the relationship between these tunnels and the natural waterways that they’ve replaced interest you at all?

Michael Cook: Oh, definitely – ever since I got into this through exploring creeks.

At their root, most drains are just an abstract version of the watershed that existed before the city. It’s sort of this alternate dimension that you pass into, when you step from the aboveground creek, through the inlet, into the drain – especially once you walk out of the reach of daylight.

Even sanitary sewers often follow the paths of existing or former watersheds, because the grade of the land is already ideal for water flow – fast enough, but not so fast that it erodes the pipe prematurely – and because the floodplains are often unsuitable for other uses.

[Image: “Outfall in winter” at Toronto’s Gargantua drain].

BLDGBLOG: How does that affect your attitude toward this, though? Do you find yourself wishing that all these drains could be dismantled, letting the natural landscape return – or, because these sites are so interesting to explore, do you actually wish that there were more of them?

Michael Cook: It’s an awful toll that we’ve taken on the landscape – I’m not one to celebrate all this concrete. If it were conceivable to set it all right, I’d be the first one in line to support that. And the marginal progress being made in terms of environmental engineering – building storm water management alternatives to burial and to large, expensive pipes – is a great step forward; unfortunately, its success so far has been limited.

Ultimately, you just can’t change the fact that we’ve urbanized, and we continue to do so. That comes with a cost that can be managed – but it can’t be eliminated completely.

[Image: Looking out of a spillway at the Ontario Generating Station].

BLDGBLOG: So do you actually have an environmental goal with these photographs? Your explorations are really a form of environmental advocacy?

Michael Cook: Well, I want to find something that goes a bit further than just presenting these photos for their aesthetic value – but, at the same time, turning this into some sort of environmental advocacy platform doesn’t really come to mind, either.

I’m very interested in urban ecology and in the environmental politics that take place in the city – and I’ve done some academic work in that regard – but I’m not really prepared to distill the photography and these adventures into an activist exercise.

[Image: The “spectacular, formerly natural waterfall that the [Chedoke Falls Drain] now feeds,” in Hamilton, Ontario].

BLDGBLOG: I’m curious if you’ve ever been injured, or even gotten sick, down there. All that old, stagnant air – and the dust, and the germs – can’t be very good for you!

Michael Cook: I can’t say that I’ve ever gotten sick from it. Sometimes, the day after, you can feel almost hung-over – but I don’t know what that is. It could be dust, or it could be from the amount of moisture you breathe in. But it passes. It may even be an allergy I have.

I haven’t really done any exploration of sanitary sewers – that would be a different story. In Minneapolis/St. Paul they actually have a name for the sickness they sometimes come down with after a particularly intense sewer exploration: Rinker’s Revenge. It’s named after the engineer who designed the systems there. And a colleague caught a bout of giardia recently, which he believes he acquired exploring a section of combined sewer in Montreal.

So, obviously, there are disease risks in doing this, though they’re not as extensive as one might want to imagine.

The only serious situation I’ve ever been in, with a high potential for injury – and I was pretty lucky – was while exploring in Niagara. The surge spillways for the Ontario Generating Station used to carry overflow water from the surge tanks, and those were fed by the intake pipes. So the water would overflow from the intake pipes into the surge tanks, and then drain out through these helical spillways that spiral downwards to the bottom of the gorge. They then outfall in front of the plant into the river.

So we made an attempt to ascend both of these spillways, and we were successful in the first one; but the second one, we found, was more difficult toward the latter stages of the climb. We had to turn back just before reaching the surge tanks. On the way back down I lost my footing – I lost all grip on the surface, it was so steep and so slippery, and it was covered in very fine grit – and I ended up sliding all the way down to the bottom, nearly 200 vertical feet. And I was going at a very high speed by the time I reached the bottom.

I was very lucky to come away from that with just a few friction burns and a sprained thumb.

[Images: A “short drop” in Toronto’s beautifully torqued and ovoid Viceroy Drain].

BLDGBLOG: As far as the actual tunnels go, how connected is all this stuff? Is it like a big, underground labyrinth sometimes – or just a bunch of little tunnels that look connected only because of the way that they’ve been photographed?

Michael Cook: Well, most of the drainage systems I’ve been in are pretty linear. You have a main trunk conduit, and then sometimes you’ll get significant side pipes that are worth exploring. But as far as actual maze-quality features go, it’s pretty rare to find systems like that – at least in Ontario and most places in Canada. It requires a very specific geography and a sort of time line of development for the drains.

You might end up with a lot of side overflows and other things, which makes the system more complicated, if the drain has several different places where it overflows into a surface body of water – or if there’s a structure that allows one pipe to flow into another at excess capacity. That sort of thing allows for more complicated systems – but most of the time it doesn’t happen.

You can still spend hours in some of these drains, though, because of how long they are. And sometimes that makes for a fairly uninteresting experience: drains can be pretty featureless for most of their length.

[Images: Four glimpses of the vaulted topologies installed inside the Earth at Niagara’s William Birch Rankine Hydroelectric Tailrace].

BLDGBLOG: Are the drains up there mostly poured concrete, or are they made of brick?

Michael Cook: We have recently opened up our first significant brick sewer in Toronto – The Skin of a Lion – which is built from yellow brick and would probably date to around the turn of the last century. So there are a few locations where you can find brick, but most are concrete.

[Images: (top) Leaving the William Birch Rankine Hydroelectric Tailrace, Niagara Falls; (bottom) Tailrace outlet, William B. Rankine Generating Station].

BLDGBLOG: Does that affect what the drains sound like, as far as echoes and reverb go? What sort of noises do you hear?

Michael Cook: I’d say that every drain is acoustically unique. Each has its own resonance points – and even different sections of the drain will resonate differently, based on where the next curve is, or the next room. It all shifts. I often explore that aspect a bit – probably to the annoyance of some of my colleagues. I’ll make noises, or hum. Even sing.

As far as environmental noises, the biggest thing is that, if there’s a rail line nearby, or a public transit line, you often get that noise coming back through the drain to wherever you are. It’s very frightening when you first hear it, till you figure out what it is – this rushing noise. It’s not a wall of water. [laughs]

But the most common recurring noise is the sound of cars driving over manhole covers – which gives you an idea of which covers you don’t want to exit through. It also helps you keep track of the distance, and where you are – that sort of thing.

[Image: “Transitions” inside the Duncan’s Got Wood sewer, Toronto].

BLDGBLOG: What kind of legal issues are involved here – like trespassing, or even loitering? Do you have to go out at 2am, dressed like an official city worker, or wear a hood or anything like that?

Michael Cook: For draining, the legal issues are pretty grey. After all, you’re on public property the entire time – so the risk of a serious trespassing fine is a lot lower. There’s no private security company looking out for you, and there’s no private property owner who’s going to be irate if you’re found inside his building. It’s a municipal waterway – it just happens to run underground. A lot of times the outfalls aren’t even posted with notices telling you to stay out.

Now, some people have been given fines for trespassing – for having been inside drains in Ontario – but these have been for pretty minor sums of money. It’s not something that I’ve ever had a problem with – and definitely not something that requires me to go in the middle of the night.

The only thing that really dictates what time you can go is traffic conditions. If you have to use a street-side manhole, you generally don’t want to be doing that doing the day.

[Image: “Deep inside the century-old wheelpit that is the beginning of the Rankine Generating Station Tailrace” (view bigger)].

BLDGBLOG: Within Toronto itself, are you still finding new drains, or is the city pretty much exhausted by now?

Michael Cook: We are still finding new tunnels beneath Toronto, and we’re on the trail of others that we know about but just haven’t discovered access to yet. There are also still a few underground gems in Hamilton that haven’t been seen by anyone except municipal workers and a handful of journalists. These days though, Montreal and Vancouver are emerging hotbeds for new sewer and drainage finds in Canada, thanks to explorers in those cities.

When Siologen came over here he found a whole bunch of new drain systems in Toronto – systems nobody else knew about. He had the time and the inclination to go and scout out a whole lot of stuff that I’d never gotten around to doing.

BLDGBLOG: How’d he do that?

Michael Cook: Basically by riding all the buses. That, and looking at a lot of little creek systems, and searching around for manholes – all of that.

But there are people who happen to read in the paper about some new tunnel project, or whatever, and so they pass that on to people who do this sort of thing. Outside of that, I don’t really know what to say. I guess some people have even found stuff after it’s been featured in skateboarding magazines.

BLDGBLOG: [laughs]

Michael Cook: Some of the largest pipe in the world is used as spillways for hydroelectric projects – big dams and that sort of thing – and usually the first people who find out about this stuff are skateboarders. Usually they try to keep the locations pretty quiet – just as we do. But I’m sure that, at least once or twice, some tunnel explorer has found out about a system through the skateboarding community.

[Image: Ottawa’s Governor General’s Drain].

BLDGBLOG: I’m also curious if there’s some huge, mythic system out there that you’ve heard about but haven’t visited yet, or even just an urban legend about some tunnels that may not actually be real – secret government bunkers in London, for instance.

Michael Cook: I guess the most fabled tunnel system in North America is the one that supposedly runs beneath old Victoria, British Columbia. It’s supposedly connected with Satanic activity or Masonic activity in the city, and there’s been a lot of strange stuff written about that. But no one’s found the great big Satanic system where they make all the sacrifices.

You know, these legends are really… there’s always some sort of fact behind them. How they come about and what sort of meaning they have for the community is what’s really interesting. So while I can poke fun at them, I actually appreciate their value – and, certainly, these sort of things are rumored in a lot of cities, not just Victoria. They’re in the back consciousness of a lot of cities in North America.

[Image: “Looking into the bottom of the William B. Rankine G.S. wheelpit from the Rankine tailrace“].

BLDGBLOG: Is there some system – a real system – that you’re really dying to explore?

Michael Cook: If I had unlimited funds, I’d really like to make a trip to South America and see some of the underground workings beneath Rio and São Paulo and Montevideo; and I want to go to Africa for a lot reasons but, obviously, it would also be really neat to see what’s built under some of the larger cities in Africa. It’s a place of real cleavages between modern development and the complete impossibility of expanding that development to the entire population. So great sums of money have been wasted on huge highway projects and huge downtown core projects that were completely unnecessary for anything other than creating the semblance of a modern city – but, undoubtedly, there’s subterranean infrastructure connected to all of it.

BLDGBLOG: As well as abandoned pieces of infrastructure just sitting up there on the surface – unused highway overpasses and derelict stadiums and things like that.

Michael Cook: Definitely. And huge mine workings, as well, in certain parts of Africa, that have been shut down.

[Image: Inside a distributor tunnel at the Ontario Generating Station drain; meanwhile, I can’t help but imagine what it’d be like if architects began building hotel lobbies like this: you check into your boutique hotel in London – and nearly pass out in awe…].

BLDGBLOG: Meanwhile, urban exploration seems to be getting a lot of media attention these days – this interview included. How do you feel when you see articles in The New York Times about people exploring tunnels and drains?

Michael Cook: The problem I have with general interest reporting is that it almost invariably becomes, you know: look at this, isn’t this weird. Because that’s the easiest way of presenting what we do. It’s not about anything else – it’s entertainment.

So I’ve never really been interested in taking part in articles like that. They happen all the time in various places around the continent. Somewhere, there’s always a reporter who needs to file a story this week, or this month, and so they find an urban exploration site on the internet and they think, hey, that’s a great thing to write about, and then I can fill my quota. It’s not even that what they’re going to write is false or misleading, but it ultimately presents an incomplete and slightly cheapening image of what we do – and, in the end, it doesn’t really accomplish that much.

I think what I’m getting at is that the format of the newspaper article or the television news feature ultimately waters all this down and forces it into a specific block – that, while true of a certain segment of urban exploration, isn’t really representative of the whole. It has the effect of pigeon-holing the whole endeavor in a way.

[Images: Disused hydroelectric machinery: top/bottom].

BLDGBLOG: That implies that there’s a way of looking at all this that you think needs more exposure. What parts of urban exploration should the media actually be covering?

Michael Cook: I think, even among explorers, that we don’t pay enough attention to process. I think every piece of infrastructure – every building – is on a trajectory, and you’re experiencing it at just one moment in its very extended life.

We see things, but we don’t often ask how they came about or where they’re going to go from here – whether there will be structural deterioration, or if living things will colonize the structure. We tend to ignore these things, or to see them in temporal isolation. We also don’t give enough time or consideration to how this infrastructure fits into the broader urban fabric, within the history of a city, and where that city’s going, and whose lives have been affected by it and whatever may happen to it in the future. I think these are all stories that really need to start being told.

Which is something I’m starting on. It’s just not something that necessarily comes naturally. It requires a lot of work, and a lot of thought while you’re on-site – which maybe you’re not really inclined to do, because you’re too busy paying attention to the immediate, sublime nature of the experience.

But the basic linear photo gallery really bores me at this point – especially when you’re seeing basically the same photos, just taken inside different buildings. It has no real, lasting value. A lot of people have fallen into that trap, and a lot of people defend that – saying that they’re making art or whatever, or that it’s just for their own personal interest.

BLDGBLOG: So it’s a matter of paying attention both to the site’s history and to how your own documentation of that site will someday be used as history.

Michael Cook: If you decide to take a purely historical approach to it, though, I think the real question is: are these photos of asylum hallways and drainage tunnels ultimately going to be useful to anyone else at some point in the future? And the answer is probably not. Probably we’re photographing the wrong things for that.

Some architect or materials historian is going to be cursing us for photographing some things and not others, or for not taking a close-up of something – or for not writing down any supplementary information at all to help them identify this stuff.

So that historical angle, to justify some of the stuff we’re doing, falls down on further analysis.

[Image: Abandoned cash registers].

BLDGBLOG: It’s like bad archaeology.

Michael Cook: What’s that?

BLDGBLOG: It’s like bad archaeology.

Michael Cook: Yeah, basically. It’s like we’re just digging things up and not paying attention to where they were placed, or what they were next to, or who might have put it there.

Ultimately, we need some sort of framework, and to put more effort into additional information beside just taking a photo. That doesn’t necessarily mean publishing all that information so that everyone can see it – but just telling stories in other ways, and creating narratives about the places and the things that we’re seeing.

Otherwise, these are just postcard shots. We’re taking postcard shots of the sublime.

[Image: Inside The Skin of a Lion, Toronto].

• • •

While we were editing the transcript for publication, Michael wrote:

I got into the storm sewer I mentioned [at the beginning of the interview], shortly after talking to you. It’s now on the site as Sisters of Mercy. Similar to Pilgrimage, it ends in a siphon, rather than a traversable passage into the Western Beaches Storage Tunnel, which I’m still working on finding. We’ve started exploring combined sewers as well here – so that opens up some other options. In the end, the access I found was directly above where the siphon begins, quite close to the lake.

So the explorations continue.
With a big thanks to Michael Cook for having this conversation – and for maintaining such a great website.

[Image: The “Three Musketeers” standing inside Toronto’s Westview Greenbelt Drain; Michael Cook is the one on the right; one of the other two is Siologen].

For a few more images, meanwhile, check out Vanishing Point – in particular, stop by the Daily Underground).

(More underground worlds and urban exploration on BLDGBLOG: Urban Knot Theory, London Topological, Derinkuyu, or: the allure of the underground city, Beneath the Neon, Valvescape, Subterranean bunker-cities, and Tunnels, mines, and the “upwardly migrating void”).