ARCHAEOLOGY: SCIENCE OR FANTASY?
Author: GIORGIO TURI
Archaeology is the science that deals with ancient things. It brings to light objects long hidden, buried, unused and studies them, often revealing some unknown piece of history.
Archaeology fascinates us all with its sensational and unforeseen discoveries. Mysteries are uncovered and unintelligible fragments reassembled to make readable mosaic.
Sometime, though, enthusiasm can be excessive, becoming even more destructive than the collapse caused by centuries of abandon. Even the supposedly best trained expert, an archaeologist, who should be a scientific and careful excavator and a scrupulous interpreter of his find, can become carried away. Seduced by the need for the glamour of success through a press story or conference paper, or by the need to attact funding for his next campaign, he can transform his activity into one of falsification and the denial of objective reality.
Yet another danger arises from the weaknesses of the inexpert and unimaginative viewer when faced not well a statue, a vase or a virtually complete wall, but fragments and ruins level with the soil. It is then that a clever guide can cheat his public with fictions and reconstruct reality that never existed.
In such circumstances it is more responsible to turn to a reconstruction that is scholarly and didactic as a means of communicating the meaning and function of an uncomplete vase, fresco or building.
The public, tour operators and government authorities all ask for complete objects, whether original or total reconstructions. That confronts the archaeologist with a choice between science and fantasy; often, if finance permits, this dilemma is chearfully decided in favour of the latter.
One can begin with graphic reconstruction. Drawings can be made, using traditional procedures or with the aid of computer. The end result can be perspective or absonometric views, that recreate object reality.
Reconstruction of movable objects.
A scientific approach requires that the various fragments are only brought together when the fit between them is certain.
However even in museums we find examples of archaeological objects made up of few tiny fragments separated from each other. The whole has been completely reconstructed, including the missing parts without any guiding principle (such as attention to visual difference or simmetry or other factor). Often the whole has a new decoration of relief and colour.
But what was the original reality? Uncertainty remains, or rather it is nearly certain that what we see is long away from the truth. We are faced with an objetc that is wrong. There may be original elements, but they came from several different pieces.
It would have been both more simple and more safe to show the fragments by themselves. In cases they make up more the half of simmetric pieces, to only suggest the outline of the whole, using a metal wire, transparent plastic or a drawing.
Reconstruction of a building and a whole city.
In many countries of the world we can find monuments and even whole sections of cities extensively rebuilt for educational or touristic purposes. Many are irresponsible, if sometimes attractive. Nor are they just two or three dimensional drawings, but real building made up of bricks, stones, mortar, concrete and external covering of coloured plaster.
Whole temples are rebuilt on the bases of the few pieces of column. The building height is invented and so is the roof structure completed with imaginary slopes.
At the beginning of the twentieth century people wanted to identify Dante's house in the centre of Firenze (Italy). To do so they simply demolished some houses in order to create a little square, renovate a building with "medieval stones" and the dream became true.
The fake still attracts thousand of tourists who are apparently happy to have their curiosity satisfied.
During the second world war hundreds of monuments and whole cities were destroyed.
The Bridge of Holy Trinity of Firenze (Italy) was mined and destroyed in 1944, but it has been completely rebuilt with the aid of few surviving fragments, photogrammetry and reopened "pietra forte" quarries. Today this bridge is fifty instead of five hundreds years old, but the serious wound has been healed and its symbolic image has been recovered. An important loss made good.
Another famous example is the entire centre of Warsaw (Poland). This was completely destroyed and reduced in incomprehensible ruins; and then rebuilt, using tax plans, prewar photographs and drawings by Bellotto. In this way Poland rediscovered its national identity as expressed in the reboned material appearance of its ancient capital.
Other examples come from periods and cultures which are more remote from us and still are global resonance.
At Cnossos (Greece) in first half of twentieth century the archaeologist Evans rebuilt an entire enormous palace, starting from ruins that were substantial, but almost unlegible; using fantastic vocabolary of forms and colours, he reconstructed rooms, porticos, staircases which still attract enthusiasm. The result offers no certain vision of the Cretan past.
At Saalburg, near Frankfurt am Main (Germany), at the beginning of the twentieth century whole roman camp has been invented, complete with walls, gates and entire building. The effect is still astonishing.
Babilon (Irak) excavated in the nineteenth century and stripped of much of archaelogical levels, was reduced to a mass of broken sundried bricks, exposed to the elements. Now it is been reconstructed on a vaste scale, making it much more "interesting". The memories of the great past have been revived and the imposing ruins give a "clear" image for the modern viewer.
What is the best approach? For the archaeologist it is always best to leave the remains as they were excavated. This means often leaving them incomplete and hard to understand to anyone but an expert.
Or is it helpful to explain the material to the not experts, bringing things back to life and making finds speack with the help of stimolating hypothetical graphic reconstructions?
Or is it desirable to go further and reconstruct in three dimensions, even if it means inventing forms, dimensions, and colours, with certainly make visits to monuments and museums more entertaining?
When certainties are hard to find, it is best to avoid radical decisions, which in field of archaeology have often produced irreversible and destructive results.
Throughout the long history of archaeology carefull diagnosis and delicate treatments have been didactically the most productive.