Commemorating the Battle of the Ebro in the Terra Alta, Catalunya

There’s something of a feel of the backwoods in the northern hills of the Terra Alta, that part of Catalunya tucked into the mountains west of the Ebro. Here, the high ground to the north of the main valley is scored with crooked lines of olive and almond trees, stone-terraced into the hillsides between patches of parched scrubland and isolated wooded summits. An occasional ruin breaks the skyline or nudges into the side of a barranca but by Irish standards, the landscape is depopulated and abandoned. The area is, perhaps as a consequence of this, extraordinarily beautiful and unspoilt. Most people from around here live in the small towns of la Fatarella, Vilalba dels Arcs or further west in Batea. Isolated farmhouses do hang on in decreasing numbers, some offering rough wine-tasting during the day, others a rustic bed and breakfast to souls needful of a particular quality of isolation. For here ruins remain ruins. There are no dilapidated fincas receiving the attentions of well-intentioned ex-pats, there are few enough Es Ven signs fixed to broken walls. Here the crumpled sun-dried placards advertising properties notionally marketable in an earlier economy, lie forgotten alongside the road, littered among rusting sherds of shrapnel and fragments of human bone.

Historic landscapes
The valley below carries the main road from coastal Tarragonna west into Aragón. The ruined hilltop village of Corbera d’Ebre, its hardly-conserved church spire proud and intact, dominates the eastern end of the valley and overshadows the new town straddling the main road below.

Windmills today mark the line of the Great Retreats

Corbera was heavily bombed by the Nationalists over the course of the great Ebro offensive launched by the Republic in July 1938. Like Belchite to the west, it has been left to the elements and to the tourists, discomforting reminders of an unresolved conflict, the memory of which so-far has been successfully managed by the Catalan state.

The main road continues west to the town of Gandesa, the military focus of the offensive, which though lasting just 115 days took over 130,000 lives. South of here are the Serra Cavalls which rise up into the serrated peaks of the Serra de Pàndols, their heights delineated by the pine tree line which occasionally obscures the ridge. Go further west through Calaceite and here the high ground recedes at either side. Beyond Alcañiz and further into Aragón the landscape opens onto a wide upland plateau ringed by distant mountains, with massive fields of winter wheat carpeting a rolling steppe extending onwards to a point just beyond eyeshot. On the road to Belchite, an compound of several square kilometres accommodates a sun farm, manifesting on the landscape as an army of flat-headed alien warriors arranged in tilted ranks, dwarfing a surprisingly flimsy fence.

Sun farm close to a rearguard position outside Belchite

Belchite is a ruined town straddling the side of a hill, with two Baroque churches and several buildings just inside the medieval gate, roofless structures accessible through piles of masonry, bricks and roof tiles supporting charred roof timbers aligned at crazy angles. The town saw two major battles during the war: its initial assault by American troops in 1937 was followed by its abandonment the following March when it suffered heavy and sustained bombardment by Nationalist planes and artillery. Most of the upstanding ruins, which in 1989 perhaps represented as much as 40 percent of the surviving fabric of the streetscape, have now disappeared under an anonymous rolling terrain of demolition material.

The ruined town of Belchite

The ruined town of Belchite

The levelled town thus demarcated appears itself to diminish around the edges and is being recycled elsewhere as hardcore or landfill. Although over 300 people lived in the town in 1955, a family of seven or eight were the only inhabitants there in 1989 and the place is now abandoned each evening after the last visitor departs the gates an hour after sunset.

All of these landscapes are central to the history of the XV International Brigade, from the initial storming of Belchite and Quinto but more crucially to what become known as the Great Retreats of March and April 1938, where Republican forces were progressively routed back eastwards, back towards and across the Ebro. Many Internationals caught behind the lines were summarily executed with others surviving the remainder of the war in concentration camps such as San Pedro de Cardeña outside Burgos. When the Brigade advanced back across the Ebro the following July, local people showed them the mass graves into which their comrades had been thrown, often after the quick executions they themselves had been forced to witness. In any event, the Brigade never succeeded in taking Gandesa and was withdrawn in September after 60 days in the line. A huge and disproportionate causality list records the crucial positions held by the Brigade during the advance, along with the several key fortified hilltops they never succeeded in capturing.

Human bones at the edge of a forest outside la Fatarella

The Ebro offensive was the last throw of the dice for the Republican government and its initial success was something of an embarrassment for Franco, who was again forced to call upon his German and Italian allies just at the point where he was about to send them home. The nature of Franco’s defeat of the Republican government and the subsequent repression which lasted well into the 1970s was particularly felt in Catalunya, which apart from its separatist aspirations was the principal industrial base of the CNT, the main anarchist trade union. In the countryside, the repression was initially marked by the execution of anyone said to have actively opposed the coup, followed quickly by the banning of the Catalan language and a rationing system which was markedly more severe than in ostensibly ’loyal’ areas. Nationalist battlefield fatalities were recovered and buried in the combatants’ home localities. International causalities, with a few significant exceptions, were buried hurriedly in mass graves or, in more remote areas, piled into the barrancas and pine copses which bestow the hills their remarkable landscape. Only occasionally were they covered with cairns of stones.

Archaeology and the politics of wind power
The roads in the Terra Alta are dark and untravelled at nighttime. The older ones, tarred-over dusty tracks, snake over the hills in tight curves around stepped orchards and dry stream beds. The main roads into Gandesa and Ascó are now being straightened to facilitate the construction of a large wind farm enveloping the hilltops in seemingly arbitrary patterns covering perhaps some 80km. The 6km between la Fatarella and Vilalba accommodates some 22 windmills, with bulldozers clearing stretches of land for associated access roads and ancillary structures. Driving along at night, their gigantic spines rear up on all sides, frozen shadows projected in random sequence against the verges, caught in the pulsing strobes from the derrick lights high above. Local environmentalists opposed to this section of the wind farm were not slow to recognise its route across a massive graveyard in their campaign to halt their development. One such opponent, blogger Elies 115, graphically illustrated the human remains encountered on a walk through the hills near la Fatarella in July 2008 and the story was picked up all over Catalunya. Many subsequently voiced an opinion in the local media that had Roman remains been encountered, all works would have stopped to allow a thorough investigation.

Excavating the dead
What differentiates the remains recorded by Elies 115 from those emerging from other mass graves in the Spanish countryside is the fact that they most probably belong to members of the International Brigades. Although it is not suggested here that this has precluded a proper investigation of their remains, it is nonetheless of interest given the considerable body of literature associated with the Brigades when compared to their number relative to the republican army as a whole. For archaeological work engaging with Franco-era Spain has concentrated on civilian mass grave sites. These hold the remains of the many thousands of socialists, communists, anarchists, schoolteachers and even liberals, executed for their beliefs, their resistance to the victors or simply by hearsay. The excavations throughout Spain have now uncovered hundreds of burials, emphasising the oppression supposedly forgotten under the post-Franco pact of amnesia, where old wounds were let lie for the good of the fledgling democracy. Politically, this is to the advantage of the Socialist PSOE and the enacting of the Ley de Memoria Histórica (Law of Historical Memory) in 2007 has undeniably given the excavations a legislative basis, irrespective of feelings on the Nationalist side. Often undertaken in the media spotlight with relatives of the deceased present standing along the baulks, the excavations provide harrowing testimony of the extent of the Nationalist repression.

Other more contentious issues have emerged: the muted enthusiasm of some families for the closure provided by the recovery of physical remains of their loved ones contrasted with the discomfiture evident on the faces of the family of Federico García Lorca, as they awaited the excavation of his remains after refusing for many years to have disturbed what they thought had been his grave. In Galicia and León former huídos, partisans who remained behind to continue the war from the mountains, have argued that the remains of their comrades should stay in the ground as incontrovertible and enduring evidence against Franco and his regime.

An archaeological investigation undertaken prior to the construction of another wind farm elsewhere in the Terra Alta made little of the human bones and battlefield détruis scattered high along the terraces and in the scrub. The report made more of the trenches, the rude caves and refugios carved out of the sandy subsoil, lending thirsty shelter from the constant Nationalist bombardment; the physical manifestations of the Ebro offensive which today survive on the landscape. Yet, despite the plethora of recent work on the period, both academic and commemorative, there has been little attempt made to contextualise the human remains, which as likely date to the Great Retreats as they do to the offensive. Moreover, there has been little discussion as to what should now be done with the bones, whether they should lie there in perpetual memory of the war or whether they should be systematically collected and placed in the monument at los Camposines which acts as a ossuary for human remains recovered from the surrounding fields and hillsides.

Commemoration, conservation and construction
State-sponsored commemoration of the battle of the Ebro was prompted by the recent 70th anniversary and has taken the form of a series of panels located at significant points on the landscape, all anchored to an interpretative centre in Corbera and notionally to the monument in los Camposines.

Monument to the battle incorporating an ossuary at los Camposines

Under the auspices of Memorial Democràtic the Catalan government has certainly made an effort to commemorate both sides of the conflict, the rusty orange signage and an accompanying series of information leaflets brands its commemoration for modern, all-embracing consumption. The souvenirs and tee shirts available at the 115 Days centre in Corbera are based on the graphic of a military helmet, one curiously more Republican than Nationalist in its typology. The interpretation within is dispassionate and uncontroversial; the centre, an anodyne exercise in contemporary architecture, was deserted the afternoon we visited.

The ruins of the old town of Corbera

Just up the street from the interpretative centre is a private museum, Exposició La Trinxera, which trades in bullets, guns and (mostly) republican uniforms draped over ‘70s shop window mannequins. Here a very different experience is to be had: the exhibition is confined to one large cluttered room, old-fashioned display cases line the space containing a mesmerising quantity of personal equipment and assorted militaria;

Private museum at Corbera

the walls are covered with campaign maps, propaganda sheets and government proclamations. The floorspace is taken up with a full sized Republican command post along with various large weapons and a mule professionally fashioned from wire, carrying the obligatory ammunition boxes and medical stretchers. The owner/curator has a large shed to the rear crammed with similar booty and takes particular pride that his Maxim machine gun is an original artefact, unlike that one displayed in another semi-private museum down the road in Gandesa. One returns blinking into the October sunlight with thirsty lungs, persuaded that the patched, ragged costumes within have been taken from the dry bones lying out on the hillsides.

A different engagement with the memory of the battle in Corbera can be experienced in the ruined village on the hilltop, itself a protected historical site.

Jesús Pedrola, curator of the Alphabet of Peace

Here local artist Jesús Pedrola has for several years curated the Alphabet of Freedom, a collaborative project comprising large letters arranged throughout the ruined streetscape by visiting artists in a variety of media and styles. More recently a more formal entity, the Patronage del Poble Vell, has been set up by members of the community backed by the local council with the clear objective of ‘preserving and restoring’ the site. According to their website

“A lot of people visit the site and it concerns our own history. A history testified in the stones which we wish to restore and preserve, to leave in better condition for the younger generation. We don’t wish the site to be lost or to deteriorate more.”

The inherent technical challenge of trying to preserve a site already in ruins has not however been addressed and it will be interesting to see how in the future Corbera will weigh up against Belchite, a less visited spot yet one which seems to disintegrate and diminish with each passing year.

One of the objectives of the Patronage is to create a photographic archive that will serve to preserve the memory of the village as it was, while at the same time providing an exhibition space for donated works from artists associated with the alphabet project. A semi-derelict house on the edge of the old village has been acquired and is about to undergo conservation works, funded by ANAV, the power company which operates the 40-year old nuclear plant on the Ebro at nearby Ascó. The house stands directly beside the building Pedrola has been reconstructing over several years at his own cost, which functions as an information point for those visiting the ruined village. He is now under pressure from the town hall to close up the building, which provides him with a meagre income to protect the alphabet through the sale of books and posters. He worries how Corbera’s story will be presented in the new building and is suspicious of the input from ANAV, where the power plant is still seen as a legacy of the dictatorship.

Those supporting the construction of the wind farms point to the nuclear plant and its abysmal safety record. The most recent incident relates to a serious leak which occurred in November 2007: although radioactive particles were still being detected outdoors on 14 March 2008, the Spanish Nuclear Energy Authority was not informed of the incident until 4 April. Local groups were incensed that staff at the plant had allowed a school trip to go ahead just a day before the leak was made public. In August the Energy Authority announced penalties against the plant of up to €22.5 million for a series of breaches, including their failure to immediately report the leak. The Zapatero government has pledged to make Spain nuclear-free, but has not proposed a meaningful time frame. Meanwhile it’s hoped that the sun and the wind can provide an ever-increasing proportion of the country’s needs into the future.

Graffito in la Fatarella opposing the windfarms

Back up in the hills, the construction of the wind farm continues apace. With most of the windmills already erected, those opposed to their construction are admitting defeat. But what of the human remains that have been disturbed in their construction? On 17 June 2009 the Catalan parliament passed legislation on the recovery and identification of those who disappeared during the Civil War and subsequent dictatorship. The new law places the onus on the Catalan state to locate the graves of missing persons, supporting the rights of their descendants to obtain information about their fate and, if appropriate, to exhume their remains. The law further supports the marking of such mass graves and their preservation as places of memory, to satisfy people’s right to know the truth of events during the period and the political circumstances in which the disappearances occurred.

In the light of recent revelations regarding the execution of Robert Hale Merriman (the American chief of staff of the XV Brigade), it is only a matter of time before the families of the International fallen will request the assistance of the Catalan government in identifying the burial sites of their own disappeared.

Conclusion
As García Lorca’s descendants were sadly not to discover, the science of DNA matching has advanced sufficiently to allow the identification (or otherwise) of remains from known burial sites. Attempting, however systematically, to recover individual lives and histories from disarticulated bones gathered from the hillsides is another story. Given that the remains are as likely to belong to volunteers from outside Spain renders the task all the more impossible. It thus perhaps serves a greater purpose that the bones should remain where they lie with their anonymity intact, a reminder for all of the sacrifices made in the attempt to defeat fascism in Spain. In an economy where ruined villages compete with private museums and interpretative centres, where international solidarity has been replaced by the globalised capital of the power companies, the sacrifice has become all the more undermined. Perhaps the only real experience left is to walk through the landscape on your own, your back to the windmills and your eyes to the ground against the sun.

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The tar on the wall and the bishop’s table

The investigation of graveyards and old churches sometimes leads to the recovery of hidden narratives, stories embedded not only in the architecture itself but also in the very legible nature of the surrounding historical evidence. Occasionally an exploration of the stories protected by the social memory of the local community leads one right back to the point of departure. Such a narrative was extracted from the roofless church of St Mochulla, built in 1702 on a hilltop overlooking the village of Tulla in east Clare. The church had served a mostly landed population until a new place of worship was constructed elsewhere in the village in 1816. The earlier structure was located on the site of a medieval parish church, surrounded by a graveyard within an early ecclesiastical enclosure, which most probably had an earlier foundation again. Since the disappearance in the 1960s of domestic goats from the Fair Green below the graveyard, ivy had flourished on the ruined church, endangering the integrity of the brick barrel vault high over the chancel and the several funerary memorials integral to the fabric.

The tar on the wall after ivy removal

Five substantial monuments within the walls commemorate the local gentry, among them the family of the antiquarian T. J. Westropp. The remains of the Molonys of Kiltannon rest in a large stone mausoleum outside the church, which, if Westropp is to be believed, lies directly on the site of its medieval antecedent. Unlike those families remembered within the church, the Molonys were of old Catholic stock; despite having turned to the established church for their spiritual needs, they realised an ambition—especially perhaps in death—to remain close to the old order. Kiltannon House, 3km to the north, would have been clearly visible from the vault, its demesne occupying the medieval tuath of Coiltenain, the ancestral lands of the O’Moloneys. Remarkably, the estate had been retained by the family owing to a clause in the Treaty of Limerick exempting from forfeiture the lands of officers serving within the city walls.

The burning of Kiltannon House on 15 September 1920 is generally accepted to have been carried out by republicans active in the hills to the north of the parish. A group of men, some armed with revolvers, rang the doorbell at 2a.m., claiming to be police. Their information was good: Colonel William Molony and his wife were in Dublin, leaving the house in the care of the butler, Philip McGrath. According to McGrath, the men locked the door and turned on all the taps before seizing the keys in the pantry. One key was helpfully labelled ‘Paraffin Store’; there was only petrol available, however, and this was poured over the oak staircase after the chair of the house had been stacked underneath. The raiders remained until the fire had taken hold. A photograph in the O’Callaghan Westropp Collection in Clare County Library shows the shell of the building, with most of the damage in the area of the staircase.

Kiltannon House

The compensation case brought by Molony was reported in the Clare Champion, and much was made of a card-table apparently given by Louis XIV to the colonel’s great-grand-uncle, Bishop John Molony. The table had been offered in restitution for a fit of pique displayed by the king over a game of cards at which the bishop was a guest. It had apparently perished in the fire, along with an extensive collection of shoes belonging to the colonel’s wife. The table was described as being of grey marble, inlaid with two hands of old French cards and a knave of diamonds torn in half as if they had just been thrown down. Beyond the knave was the ace of diamonds with several counters in red and white. On the top left-hand corner was a representation of a sheet of paper with an illegible or faded inscription beginning with a capital A followed by the word Man’s.

An interesting aside concerns a ring in the possession of Molony which entitled the owner to nominate a person for an education to the priesthood in the Jesuit College in Paris, founded by the bishop. Judge Bodkin KQ took a particular interest in the ring as he had a son in the order. One senses a moment of awkwardness in the proceedings that such largesse should be in the gift of a non-Catholic. The court awarded Molony £46,484 and his wife £1,910.16, with costs amounting to over £700, where £100,000 had been originally claimed.

Many reading the report in the Champion would have known that the house was being cleared of its contents for three days before its destruction and that the bishop’s table was now hidden a few miles away in the hills, where indeed it possibly remains. Some believe that the burning of the house and the misappropriation of its contents were organised by Molony’s steward, Charles Douglas, who had arrived on the scene later the following morning, as Kiltannon was still ablaze. Douglas related to the court how he had been able to save the family portraits from the fire and was to state further that he had found a note addressed to Capt. [sic] Molony on the lawn outside the house, claiming that the burning was a reprisal for his sheltering of soldiers and ’Tans. Significantly, the local RIC were not represented in court.

Nobody was prosecuted on account of the fire, although John Melody of nearby Clondorney was held in custody from July to December 1924 under the provisions of the Public Safety Act, ‘on strong suspicion of being concerned in outrages on the Moloney Estate’. Kiltannon was never rebuilt, although the servants’ quarters survived, and a modern house now occupies its footprint.

Recent removal of the ivy from the church exposed a memorial of a different sort that connects back to the period immediately after the Troubles. Patrick Houlihan hailed from the neighbouring parish of Feakle and was a prominent member of the local IRA during the War of Independence, operating in the hills along the Clare/Galway border, from where he had led an ambush at Ballyturin House in May 1921. Houlihan took the anti-Treaty side and in 1927 was returned for Fianna Fáil in both general elections. While not from the immediate locality, his defeat in the 1932 election, at the very time his party finally held the reigns of power, had an effect on his supporters in Tulla, a minority in a village considered a Cumann na nGael stronghold. Houlihan’s re-election in January ’33 certainly left a distinctive trace on the archaeological record of the church, for on the night of his victory his supporters placed two barrels of tar on the wall plates at the western end of the nave directly overlooking the village and set them alight. Here they burned for several days, sending the molten tar down the walls, where it remains to this day. This act of
reclaiming the church in a politically inspired action can also be seen as being highly symbolic when one considers the historical baggage associated with the structure, with its physical links to the Ascendancy and to the old authority.

There is no direct evidence connecting Houlihan with the burning of Kiltannon; it would appear likely that Douglas himself concocted the note pointing the finger at republicans, some of whom certainly assisted in the removal of the contents of the house prior to its destruction. The fire, however, is unlikely to have happened without Houlihan’s knowledge, as he was billeted in the area prior to an attack on Scariff barracks three days later. A recently published history of the IRA in Clare makes no reference to Kiltannon and there is little biographical information available on Houlihan, apart from local lore which attests to his running mate Eamonn de Valera’s displeasure at his use of strong language and his enduring association with physical-force republicanism. Perhaps of more significance, however, was Houlihan’s involvement in legal proceedings over the summer and autumn of 1933, when it was alleged that he had promised to marry a neighbour’s daughter, then a minor, after having first seduced her. He was deselected in 1937 and failed to take the seat as an
independent. He died in 1963, three years after William Molony.

The recovery of the tar on the wall and the hidden history of the burning of Kiltannon has prompted an examination of the received homogeneity of political and social factions in east Clare during both the War of Independence and the period immediately after. In Houlihan’s case, an election rally for his candidacy in 1937 united old IRA comrades who had taken an opposing stance during the Civil War. His county council seat went to John Melody, who held it until 1950. Molony, for his part, was never to see his table again, and his estate was eventually subdivided by the Land Commission. He was awarded £27,500 in August 1922 by the Property Compensation Commission (with 350 guineas costs), and his wife was awarded £500. If, as has been suggested, Molony had conspired with persons unknown to have Kiltannon destroyed, then his was a poor return.

Molony’s situation can be compared to that of his contemporary and neighbour George O’Callaghan Westropp, whose family memorial was also exposed with the removal of the ivy from the church walls. Despite his Unionist politics, he played a major role in the organisation and political representation of the farming community of Clare, and Maryfort, his house, had survived the conflict. When considered alongside the destruction of Kiltannon, the irony of the circumstances of Maryfort’s demolition at the hands of his eccentric son still rings true.

The tar on the cornice

The monument linking Molony and Houlihan has been conserved by the parish as a ruin. The replacement of missing quoins and cornice fragments with newly cut local limestone has had its critics, but the stone will weather in a number of years, becoming less incongruous, retaining nonetheless a sharpness to differentiate it as repair. The removal of the ivy has also altered the church visually; nevertheless, the works undertaken on the chancel vault and window opes have at least made the structure safe and accessible again to the community and its visitors. The preservation of the tar as a cultural artefact has, however, become entwined with this ongoing dialogue regarding the church’s eventual presentation. For the time being, lack of funding has delayed a decision over whether or not the walls should be rendered and the tar obscured, and it remains today on the church as physical testament to a half-remembered past. While the church and its monuments have been reclaimed and conserved, the bishop’s table remains the great lost relic of the parish. If its location is preserved in the social memory of the rural community in the hills above Tulla, there seems little indication that it will ever be divulged to a wider public below.

A mason's mark of an angel, recovered from under the ivy

Drawing Smithfield | Making visible the invisible at the Complex Gallery, Smithfield, September 2010

“I recall lots of good drawers on [Smithfield] and it was a good place to learn tricks from some of the more experienced crew. I remember setting grid pegs in concrete ‘cause we couldn’t get them past the flag and brick basement floors.

It’s all a far cry from the type of planning we are doing on my present site. We are surveying in all our features with total station and doing lots of rectified photography. More pencils please!!”
Brendan Fagan, Smithfield archaeologist, September 2010

Introduction
Archaeological site drawings, the raw illustrations executed in the field with pencil on permatrace (a transparent plastic drafting film), enjoy a controlled and restricted public; they are rarely enough seen by other archaeologists, let alone displayed in a gallery as artefacts worthy of further consideration in their own right. Their purpose is to provide a scaled visualisation of an area of excavation at any given time; one which can be used to notionally reconstruct whatever has been destroyed by ‘doing’ the archaeology in the first place. The drawings are thus central to a confused archive of scarcely legible notebooks and context sheets, dotted with random splotches of ink formed by raindrops obscuring whole words; boxes of mothballed photographs and colour slides; casual (or considered) observations and memories along with finds and ecofact assemblages all securely rendered, processed and interrogated. After the site has been ‘written up’ and individual features or phases of interest ‘inked-up’ to illustrate the report or publication, the site drawings are usually archived away and rarely, if ever, revisited.

Large urban sites can generate hundreds of such drawings. Smithfield for example has an archive of over 200 plans and sections, with sizes ranging from A1 to A5 or smaller, of which 23 were displayed in the Complex Gallery, Smithfield. The complete site documentation had been deposited with the Dublin City Archaeological Archive and the preparation of this exhibition has been gratefully assisted by Dr Mary Clarke, Dublin City Archivist and Ellen Murphy, Senior Archivist.

The show was curated by Annemarie Kilshaw and Franc Myles and assembled and designed by Sonia Haccius and Roger O’Neill of the Complex. The writer thanks Vanessa Fielding for the idea.

The process
Large archaeological excavations are complex operations, as complex in many respects as the new structures which emerge from the empty spaces left behind by the archaeologists. These newly sterile zones have been ‘archaeologically resolved’: the archaeology within ‘preserved by record’, sucked out of the ground as if by a massive, filthy machine, leaving in its wake a large negative space with neatly stepped sides. Large excavations depend on a precarious short term digging staff, with a core of two or three people contracted over a longer period. An excavation could live or die, depending on who worked there and the attendant personality-disorded clashes. I ‘held the licence’ or directed the Smithfield excavation, with the help of Abi Cryerhall and several other of her supervisory successors; it took four years to excavate and produce the final report.

Cobbled surface in Plot 3

Crucial to the whole operation was the planning supervisor, whose primary job it was to maintain an accurate grid across the site, one which might drop through the earth in real terms by as much as 5m. The grid was marked out with 30m tapes and ranging rods, those red and white poles seen in most archaeological photographs. It emerged slowly in straight lines of metal bars, rusty lengths of Chinese steel poking up from the ground at regular intervals by about 400mm, arranged in such a fashion that few locations would be more than 5m from any known point.

Simon Dick and Jeanette Gustavsson

The much remembered, much loved Simon Dick was also responsible for the drawn record: the plans and sections depicted on permatrace over a laminated grid sheet, both of which were taped to plywood bread crates, heavy MDF boards or stolen marine ply. Moreover, he was responsible for teaching his enigmatic ways to any such diggers who contemplated life with a 5H pencil clutched to frozen fingers, a rusty hand tape and a dirty rubber dangling from the neck attached to a frayed garrotte of orange surveyors’ string.

The upper levels of disturbance were planned at 1/100, initially with Abi hunching over a large drawing board, planning slowly across the machine-churned landscape which had just been shovel-scraped. Her progress across the site was falling well behind that of Simon, who along with an exhausted assistant had ‘put in the grid’ within a week. Simon reminded me of this improbable feat on an almost daily basis over a period of perhaps six years. As the excavation progressed and as the scale dropped to 1/20, several of the diggers became planners and some of their work is displayed on the drawings shown in the Complex.

Abi Cryerhall planning

Most aspirant planners started out one day by helping take levels. These are the numbers represented over crows’ feet, pencilled around a drawing, to all appearances at random. They are calculated by the individual who takes readings through a level on a tripod, while hurling words of encouragement or abuse to the person battling the wind with a staff extended to 3m. The readings are entered into a notebook, and if space permits, transferred onto the plan itself and then reduced (a tedious, wet day job), to individual pencil points in space above sea level.

Artists were not encouraged to apply, unless we were really desparate. One such artist however was a notable exception to the rule and I can only say I thought Jane all she knows about archaeological planning (but not all  know!).

Drawing Smithfield was cruelly complicated insofar as there were actually three, or perhaps four separate areas of excavation opened at different periods of the dig. In each case the original grid had to be extended across to the new area and a temporary bench mark installed. In the one instance when a new such area was professionally surveyed, we found the extended grid inaccurate and reverted to our old ways, employing 30m tapes, surveyors’ arrows and Pythagoras.

The drawings
The drawings were rarely the work of one person, although it is common practice to mark the initials of whoever registered the plan and made the first impression on the blank sheet of permatrace, clean and newly cut from a large roll in the site hut. As we entered the second phase of excavation, the initials SD were seen less frequently, and those of Jane Battley, Jeanette Gustavsson, Brendan Fagan, Liam Chambers, Kara Ward and indeed yet another KW, Kevin Weldon came to prominence. A careful examination of the drawings will identify individual hands with their own arcane symbols, or indeed manuscript annotations informing the next collaborator that peg 1075/1025 is out by 150mmNW. One drawing retained a faded pink smear of blood and dirt, the consequence perhaps of a pencil sharpened to a lethal point with a Stanley blade or penknife.

1 April 2002

These images are intended to reflect the confused lines etched with trowels on the earth, a complicated lattice of hues and structural remains representing the past interactions of humans and animals across the site. Drawing conventions are hardly ever explained; where brick structures and cobbled surfaces leave their own distinctive grain, pits and other negative features are represented by hachures, those tiny solid triangles with thin trails indicating the steepness of the slope. Skeletons were rendered with millimetre precision and afforded a reverence somewhere beyond the act of burial itself.

B3 (detail)

The drawings had to be executed quickly and accurately, for others were waiting to dig once more through the area just planned and recorded. This process repeated itself again and again through the physical past until the natural, the undisturbed subsoil, was achieved. There was little opportunity here for personal styles or flourishes to evolve but evolve they did, the images thus benefiting from an absence of that fundamental homogeneity considered mandatory for technical drawings, but superfluous for our purposes.

Once finished, the drawings were attached to cardboard hangers until the post-excavation phase, when they would be poured over (sometimes literally), minutely examined and interpreted. The drawings rarely depict a single phase of occupation, a luxury on a site this large; out of phase drawings became the bane of our lives, requiring corrected overlays and subtractions to isolate that one crucial moment of human occupation, frozen forever for the archaeological record. For theoretically, and if space permitted, the drawings could be superimposed over one another, their transparency affording a three dimensional image of the excavation at 1/20 from the disturbed layers on top down to the subsoil below. The drawings were eventually presented as clean images for publication, uncomplicated by untidy vestiges of the past or the future.

As Brendan Fagan has observed, new technologies have now taken over and scaled drawing to this extent is rarely undertaken on large archaeological sites today. The planners’ tactile engagement with the bricks and stones, the bones and the earth, so fundamental to our understanding of the mundane minutiae of our past, has been lost. The drawings here are thus unique insofar as they depict something that has vanished, a physical, multi-layered and intricate past which has been systematically obliterated and can now only be reimagined from the pencil marks etched across the permatrace.

Smithfield, Plot 3, level II (b). The White Swan, Smithfield c.1690 (Simon Dick)


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